Matthew Lynch: Supporting English Language Learners

A number of effective strategies can help English language learners (ELL), from technology to body language, writes Matthew Lynch.


Matthew Lynch

While a student is learning a functional level of English at school, many other factors play a role outside the classroom. Like most skills, language is not learned in a vacuum. If the student’s parents speak no English, and are not in the process of learning English themselves, there will be little reinforcement at home to support the language learning process. The lack of regular “practice” of the language outside the classroom results in limited opportunities to apply what the student has learned.

If students watch American television, play video games in English or use websites constructed in English, they receive some reinforcement outside the classroom. These activities may even provide motivation for learning English faster in some cases. While it is difficult to ensure that any English is used outside school, it is impossible to ensure that there is proper reinforcement for correct English. This is another reason why many educators insist upon an English-only classroom. If students frequently hear the language used incorrectly, it will be difficult for them to master the correct usage of the language.

It is very important for teachers helping ELL students succeed in regular education classrooms to educate themselves about the language acquisition process. Teachers must assist in the meaning making process by contextualizing learning so that content being taught is relevant to students’ experiences with their families. They must also not allow the language barrier to interfere with a belief that ELL students can learn. High expectations are a key element for success in language development as well as learning in other disciplines. Teaches must be willing to learn about ELL students, their families, and their communities, in order to structure meaningful learning experiences.

The use of technology, recordings, videos and overheads can be used to emphasize language concepts. Students should be allowed to demonstrate their language acquisition through dramatization or video, with subtitles in their native language. Some programs endorse the use of translation devices in the classroom or electronic dictionaries. There is some debate however as to whether or not these forms of assistive technology actually defeat the purpose of English language learning.

Teachers should consider ways to include families and communities in the learning process. One possibility is to host presentations or entertainment nights so that students are able to show parents what they have learned. The community can be included as a means for support by inviting bilingual guests from the community to share their language-learning experiences with students.

ELL students will learn that language is a challenge for everyone, and that learning a second language becomes a valuable, admirable skill. Use cooperative and collaborative learning. Many ELL students learn best in small-group discussions where there is less pressure to speak perfectly. One teacher suggests introducing the entire class to a third language, to help instill empathy for the new language learners.

Visual aids also support learning among ELL students. The use of visuals includes nonverbal behavior such as pointing, body language, signals and gestures, as well as photos, videos and dramatizations. ELL students should be encouraged to use graphic organizers and to keep picture journals of the words they have learned. Writing journals and learning logs also support learning among ELL students. Look for alternative versions of text or novels and provide notes for lectures or presentations.

Dr. Lynch is an Assistant Professor of Education at Widener University. Dr. Lynch’s scholarship is intended to make a redoubtable, theoretically and empirically based argument that genuine school reform and the closing of the well-chronicled achievement gap are possible. Dr. Lynch is the author of three forthcoming books; Its Time for Change: School Reform for the Next Decade (Rowman & Littlefield 2012), A Guide to Effective School Leadership Theories (Routledge 2012), and The Call to Teach: An Introduction to Teaching (Pearson 2013). He is also the editor of the forthcoming 2-volume set, Before Obama: A Reappraisal of Black Reconstruction Era Politicians(Praeger 2012).


  1. Matthew Lynch: Supporting English Language Learners |

    [...] A number of effective strategies can help English language learners (ELL), from technology to body language, writes Matthew Lynch. Read More [...]

  2. judie Haynes

    I agree with your statements about using visuals and and cooperative groups to teach ELLs, but your article does not reflect the most current research in second language acquisition. You don’t mention that benefits that ELLs receive if they become literate in their native language first. Literacy in native language is the #1 predictor of success in second language acquisition.

  3. Ruslana Westerlund

    Nicely done, Judie. You could have written this article!

  4. Ruslana Westerlund

    I meant to say you (Judie) should have written this article.

    People assume that the gap between the minority and culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) students is caused by the same issues, and therefore, call upon them to represent the CLD students. While some reasons for their underachievement truly overlap (such as lowered expectations and the deficit view of students and their parents), many other reasons are specific to CLD students only.
    The author mentioned that all teachers need to know the second language acquisition process, but neglected to mention the socio-cultural and cognitive aspects (dumbed down curriculum) of learning (Collier, 1998) that are neglected by teachers. Kinsella (2007) states that only 4% of the entire school day is devoted to academic language. While collaborative learning is a great practice, students must be engaged in intentional academic talk to learn Enlgish for empowerment, and get away from pobrecitos mentality (these poor little immigrants).

  5. judie Haynes

    Rusiana – I wrote a longer comment on my blog about this article. Go to

  6. Matthew Lynch

    Thanks for commenting!

  7. David Donovan

    Senior Polica Yo Lobo Camesh Os greencard. Os Camesh Yo Lobo Mucheo Wano Savor Yo Gratia. Policeman Your Dog ate my greencard I ate your Dog it was tastey you are welcome. My first Paragraph in Spanish a joke to a Polica bike cop visiting Hotel Del Norte, with his Police Wife in Juarez Mexico. Its fun learning a second Lingo.

  8. Karen Beckon

    Good article. If anyone is interested the company I work for, Action Learning Systems, is offering free seminars this Friday (Aug 12) on English Learner Success. The seminars take place in Sacramento, CA and Pasadena, CA. If you’re interested here’s the link to more info:

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July 13th, 2011

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