Sunday / July 21

Engaging Your English Learners

I just read a report written by an English language learner and sighed. I had difficulty following her ideas with misspelled words and grammatical errors. I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt; but though her ideas seemed interesting, the prose was very awkward. What is the best way to proceed?

How can we engage English learners? We begin by looking at English learners’ perspectives. Second, we use helping skills to deepen relationships with our learners. Third, we frame English proficiency development for ourselves and our students. With this preparation, we will be ready to implement methods of instruction and assessment to support student learning in a culturally sensitive way.

Step One: Realize What Students Want and Need

1. To be Understood by the Teacher. Explore the cultural context of each student to discover the primary values, rituals, and social customs—especially those that are age appropriate and normative for the classroom. When they become familiar, you can build on strengths and help students adjust to the expectations of their native and peer culture, as well as adapting them to the context of your classroom. Often our job is to help students acculturate to a new country.
2. Connection and Acknowledgment. Express genuine care and concern for them by offering encouragement and acknowledging the difficult experiences they face. Yes, it is difficult to communicate in a new language and also frustrating to not be understood. Explain your role is to support them through the learning process.
3. Relevant Learning. Indicate how what you teach meets their interests, links them to today’s world, and helps them to achieve their personal goals, including making friends, pursuing their own interests, and being understood by the adults in their lives. In this way you motivate students!
4. Relationships with Peers. Provide opportunities for students to get to know one another by working together on academic, athletic, and artistic projects/teams with specific directions that enable all students to contribute (even better with tasks that require different skills and knowledge). Guide students to ask questions, expand on each other’s comments, and develop critical thinking skills.

Step Two: Use Helping Skills to Build Relationships

So much of what we do is related to making relational connections that build trust. It is important for us to demonstrate compassion and respect, and especially to demonstrate patience. Here are some examples of relational skills that counselors often use in their work that teachers can use as well.

Helping skill slide











Step Three: Understand and Explain English Proficiency Development

An easy way to look at how students acquire language and be able to explain it to them is to use the three overarching proficiency levels used in the California English Language Development Standards: emerging, expanding, and bridging.

emerging slide










You can review the English Language Development Standards for California Public Schools: Kindergarten Through Grade Twelve at:

It is imperative for English learners to understand the process they are experiencing. This includes realistic expectations for successive goals and objectives, as well as helping students deal with inevitable challenges and frustrations. English learners can take pride in their achievement takes as they move through the levels of English proficiency.

Step Four: Scaffold Instruction and Assessment

You can then support your English learners incrementally and strategically based on their individual abilities and the requirements of your lessons. This is a collaborative process, but ultimately, sets the stage for everything else that follows. And, there is nothing that feels better than knowing you helped students make the most of their education, especially when they feel so overwhelmed with academic challenges.

Written by

Ellen Kottler, Ed.S., has been a teacher for over 30 years in public and private schools, alternative schools, adult education programs, and universities. She has worked in inner-city schools as well as in suburban and rural settings. She was a curriculum specialist in charge of secondary social studies and law-related education for one of the country’s largest school districts. Ellen is the author or coauthor of several books for educators, including Secrets for Secondary School Teachers: How to Succeed in Your First Year, On Being a Teacher, Secrets to Success for Beginning Elementary School Teachers, Counseling Skills for Teachers, English Language Learners in Your Classroom: Strategies That Work, Secrets to Success for Science Teachers, Students Who Drive You Crazy: Succeeding with Resistant, Unmotivated, and Otherwise Difficult Young People, and The Teacher’s Journey.

She teaches secondary education and supervises intern teachers at California State University, Fullerton.

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