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Teaching English Language Learners


Students who struggle with English have a doubly difficult task in history classrooms. Not only are they challenged with learning core historical knowledge and skills but they are also learning English. History lessons offer rich opportunities to teach both language and content. In this feature, we highlight instructional strategies and key information to help history teachers better serve the English Language Learner (ELL) student population.

Stanford professor Claude Goldenberg reviewed existing research on teaching ELLs and compiled three guidelines to focus thinking about instruction for these students (see “Teaching English Language Learners: What the Research Does — and Does Not — Say,” American Educator, 2008). While these guidelines are not confined to history teaching, we use them to introduce and frame this feature.

So what does the research say?

Using materials in the first language

Teaching students in their first language promotes the acquisition of knowledge and skills that can be applied in English. Examples of strategies that incorporate the primary language of the student include: teaching skills in the primary language with student application of the skills in English; previewing English language lessons by introducing important new concepts in the first language, reviewing these key concepts in the primary language after the lesson, and providing learning materials in multiple languages. Even if you, the teacher, speak only one language, you can still use multilingual resources.

Scaffolding Instruction

Teachers must modify instruction to help ELL students access important knowledge and skills. Scaffolding is one strategy that works. Examples of scaffolds include: graphic organizers; presenting information both verbally and visually; and clarification of difficult vocabulary to aid comprehension. Scaffolds like these enable you to keep your curriculum and instruction complex and challenging, but remember students may need explicit instruction about how to use particular scaffolds.

Good teaching for all

What you know about good history teaching also applies to teaching ELLs. Research shows that ELLs benefit from: content-rich environments; interactive curriculum; clear learning objectives; opportunities to apply knowledge; and constructive feedback. Because student achievement is enhanced when learning is reinforced at home, good history teaching includes clear communication with parents/guardians about the objectives of the course and student progress in the course.

In the First Language

Historical Thinking Matters

Primary sources in both English and Spanish [...] »

Screen shot, Languages supported by google translate, 1 april 2011

Looking to translate documents or text? [...] »

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From the Classroom

A regimental fife-and-drum corps. Library of Congress 111-B-328.

Primary source analysis activities can help [...] »

Photographic print, Washington, D.C. public school classroom scenes - 1st Divisi

Students shy or hesitant to speak up? Check [...] »

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Further reading

For deeper exploration of the research on teaching English language learners and its instructional implications, please visit the websites of the National Literacy Panel (NLP), the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition (NCELA), the Center for Research on Education, Diversity, and Excellence (CREDE), Colorin!Colorado!, the What Works Clearinghouse, and its companion site Doing What Works.