How Teachers Support English Language Learners in the Classroom

Beginning with a description of a teaching sequence involving three English language learners, this article offers teaching teams specific examples of how to help children learn new words and gain confidence in speaking English. Specific practices demonstrate how even monolingual English-speaking teachers can support language development for children who speak other languages.

The following is an excerpt from...
Head Start Bulletin logo

by Julie A. Hirschler

ELLs in the Classroom
Establishing a Language Relationship
Teacher Talk that Supports ELL Children
Creating a Classroom Community for ELLs

Cindy, a Head Start teacher, sits on the floor with a group of three- and four-year-olds. It is choice time in her class, and they are all playing with wooden replica figures of community helpers. Three of the children, Anthony, Ikechukwu, and Roney, are only just beginning to learn English. Their home languages are Spanish, Ibo (a Nigerian language), and Arabic respectively. Ursile is a more advanced English Language Learner (ELL). Her home language is Haitian Kreole.

Cindy holds up a wooden figure, the mail carrier, and says to Anthony, "Oh, Anthony has some people too. Anthony, look, you have some people." She continues to hold up the figure. "Anthony, here's the mail carrier."

Then Ikechukwu holds up the doctor figure while looking at Cindy as though he wants her to name it. Instead of giving him the name, Cindy turns back to Anthony and asks, "And who's this, Anthony? Is that the doctor?"

Anthony doesn't respond so she turns to Roney and points to the figure, "Is that the doctor, Roney?"

Then Anthony holds the figure up to Cindy's face as though he were comparing the doctor to Cindy. Cindy interprets his gesture and responds by saying, "It's the doctor. [Does the doctor] look like me? It looks like me? [Who is it?]"

When none of the children gives the name of the figure, Cindy turns to Ursile. "Ursile, who's this? Tell…Anthony wants to know, and Roney and Ikechukwu want to know.

Who's this?"

This is not an unusual Head Start classroom. At least 27 percent of the Head Start children nationwide speak a language other than English in the home (Program Information Report 2002-2003). In Cindy's class of 19 students, 15 are English Language Learners (ELLs) representing 8 different language groups. Cindy only speaks English but knows some words in a few of the home languages.

ELLs in the Classroom

Like many Head Start teachers, Cindy's greatest challenge is to offer her best efforts to support the learning of all the children in her classroom. How can she do this in a multicultural, multilingual setting?

We might be tempted to believe that monolingual English speaking teachers like Cindy can have little positive effect on children's learning of English. Teachers might hope that children's personality and motivation, along with family support, will enable them to learn English quickly. They also hope the children will pick up English as they play with their classmates. They find translators for meetings with ELLs' parents; they assign the bilingual assistant teacher to work with the ELLs; they introduce books in the home language for the classroom library; they take photos of the child's family to include in the classroom Families display. They smile at the children and gently encourage them in the routines and activities of the day.

All of these are appropriate ways to support ELLs, but they do not address a very important element of early language learning—teachers must use language with ELLs to offer them the maximum support in language acquisition. The goal of teachers' interactions with ELLs is to form a language relationship.

Establishing a Language Relationship

Cindy was establishing a language relationship through play. This was an ideal learning situation because using shared toys allowed all of the children to refer to the same concrete objects with Cindy. She took advantage of their common toys by conducting a "conversation" even though the children did not know enough English to respond with words. She used the children's names when speaking to them or when speaking about them. ("Is that the doctor, Roney?") It is easier for ELLs to know what the teacher is talking about if she uses actual names of people and objects rather than pronouns like he, she, or it.

Cindy was not at all deterred when the children did not respond verbally. She continued her interaction with them and used their gestures and facial expressions as a clue to their intended meaning. For example, when Ikechukwu looked at Cindy while holding up a figure, she could tell that he wanted to know its name. Cindy drew several ELLs into the conversation by asking Roney and Ikechukwu about the figure before turning to Ursile, a more advanced ELL.

Cindy supported their play through her deliberate use of language and her interpretation of their non-verbal communication. The interactions between the teacher and the children not only reinforced their understanding of English but also brought the group together in the play situation.

Teacher Talk that Supports ELL Children

Cindy's play with ELLs illustrates other effective language supports as well (See... [Figure 1]). She chose a topic for talk that had meaning for the children. The children had chosen to play with the figures and were interested in learning about them. She followed their lead and set up an optimal language learning situation.

Figure 1: Instructional Strategies that Support Beginning ELLs

  • Show a genuine interest in ELL children.
  • Be observant! Notice what ELLs are interested in, what they might want to talk about, and what they know.
  • Select a conversation topic that is meaningful to children. Their choice of a toy or a play area signals their interest.
  • Learn how to read the meaning of gestures and facial expressions. Is a child asking for a word? Does she want to play with a particular child?
  • Use actual names of people and objects rather than pronouns.
  • Talk about topics in the present.
  • Accept minimal responses such as the nod of the head or a smile.
  • Continue to interact even though the children do not offer a verbal response.

Another positive aspect of Cindy's conversation was that it focused on the present and the concrete. The replica figures were widely scattered among the group on the floor and could be easily picked up, manipulated, and discussed. It would have been much more difficult for these ELLs with little or no English vocabulary to understand talk about the past or the future. With more advanced ELLs, it would be appropriate to discuss the recent past, such as a picnic they had with their family over the weekend.

Cindy was observant and accepted minimal responses. The children had little or no vocabulary to contribute to the conversation. Only the teacher used oral language to communicate. But Cindy paid attention to their non-verbal behavior. When Ikechukwu held up the doctor figure, she could tell that he wanted to know what the figure was. Instead of supplying the word, she turned to Anthony and engaged him, "And who's this, Anthony? Is that the doctor?" She acted as a go-between for Ikechukwu and Anthony in the "naming the figure" game.

She created a "conversational triangle." When Anthony did not respond, she also included Roney in the conversation by saying, "Is that the doctor, Roney?" In the end, she had involved all three children in the conversation.

Creating a Classroom Community for ELLs

These ELLs cannot yet offer oral language to the conversation, but they are active partners in the play of learning. Cindy has created much more than an opportunity to learn vocabulary; she has begun the important work of creating a classroom community of learners. She has done this by establishing a language relationship in the context of play with each child and among the children. When Head Start teachers converse in a way that supports English language learning, children will not only make progress in language development, but will feel connected to each other and to all the learning experiences in the classroom.

Jones and Yandian (2000) point out that children who are acquiring a second language sequentially have already learned a great deal in their first language. They will transfer knowledge and concepts to their second language. For example, once Spanish speakers learn the concept of numbers in Spanish, they just need to understand that "uno" means "one" as they learn English.

Excerpt from Phillip C. Gonzales, Becoming Bilingual: First and Second Language Acquisition ( Development/Cultivating a Learning Organization/ELL.pdf)


U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Administration for Children, Youth, and Families. Head Start Bureau. 2002. Head Start Program Information Report. Washington, D.C.: Author.

Julie Hirschler is a Senior Researcher and Development Associate at the Center for Children & Families, Education Development Center, Inc., in Newton, MA. T: 617-618-2462; E:

"How Teachers Support English Language Learners in the Classroom."  English Language Learners. Head Start Bulletin #78. HHS/ACF/ACYF/HSB. 2005. English.

Last Reviewed: August 2009

Last Updated: April 9, 2015