Support English Language Learners in Our Classes

This module was developed by Katherine Kulick, College of William & Mary, expanding from a presentation at the 2013 Supporting Student Success in Geoscience at Two-year Colleges meeting.

English Language Learners (ELLs) are currently the fast growing segment of the public school student population in the United States. The K-12 ELL student populations in more than ten states increased over 200% in the ten-year period from 1995-2005. Seven more states saw their ELL student populations grow by 100-200% during the same time period (Data from National Clearing House for English Language Acquisition, 2010 Migration Policy Institute). More than ever, students graduating from high schools in the U.S. are entering college while still in the process of acquiring and/or refining their skills in English. Two-year colleges have already begun to provide instruction to this new wave of undergraduate students. "Today, about one in four students in community colleges is an immigrant and the numbers are increasing" (Crandall and Sheppard, 2004).

Who are the English Language Learners (ELLs) in our classes?

The broad heading of "English Language Learners" includes several identifiable subsets of individuals who may have very different, and distinct, instructional needs:

  • International Students
  • Immigrant Students
  • Migrant Students
  • Generation 1.5 Students

Supporting academic success for the ELLs in our classes:

Cultural Challenges and Recommendations

Non-native speakers of English, and those who teach them, face challenges in the classroom due to the cultural perspectives that students and instructors alike bring to the tasks of learning and teaching. Each person views the world through their own cultural lens - which means that we bring to the classroom certain expectations concerning what takes place in the classroom and the appropriate roles for students and instructors. Unintended miscommunication may occur by not recognizing, or understanding, how societies assign different meanings to common everyday interactions:

  • Non-verbal Behaviors
  • Role of Silence
  • Class Participation Expectations
  • Concepts of Time
  • Narrative Styles
  • Approaches to the Teaching of Science

Language Challenges and Recommendations

Second language acquisition passes through a series of stages and takes more time than many people realize. At the point where students appear fluent and comfortable using English in social settings, their success in academic settings may still be at risk. The language skills needed for academic success are quite different from those necessary for basic interpersonal relationships and everyday life. Academic language requires more technical vocabulary, more sophisticated sentence structure, and a nuanced understanding of how language is used within academic disciplines. Particular areas of challenge include:

  • Scientific Notation
  • Vocabulary and Syntax

Enhancing ELL Comprehension and Retention

For learning to take place, input must include sufficient amounts of both language/information at the student's current level of understanding and new language/information just slightly above that. If the input lacks one of these elements, then learning does not occur (Krashen, 1982).

  • Activate Student Background Knowledge
  • Scaffold Support
  • Strategies for Comprehension and Problem-solving


Crandal and Sheppard, (2004). ESL and Community College Support. A Project of the Council for the Advancement of Adult Literacy, Grantmakers for Education.

Krashen, S. (1982). Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. Pergamon Press.

Maxwell, L. (2009). Immigration Transforms Communities. Education Week, Vol. 28, Issue 17, Page 10.

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