How to Empower English Language Learners: ESL Teaching Strategies

First things first (said in my best Biggie voice), let’s talk about the elephant in the room:

Teaching social studies to English language learners can be challenging.

Not only are you trying to convey complex historical and cultural concepts. But you’re also trying to do it in a language that may not be their first.

But don’t fret.

You can engage your ELLs in social studies with the right strategies and techniques.

So, let’s dive into some ESL teaching strategies you can use to teach social studies to your English Language Learners.

How to Empower Language Learners: ESL Teaching Strategies. Woman smiling at camera, sitting on a blue blanket with a black laptop in her lap.

1. Use Visual Aids

Visual aids are an ESL teaching strategy that can help ELLs understand complex concepts more easily. Visual aids also help students to retain information for longer periods.

You can use a variety of visual aids to help your students understand the English language. These include flashcards, diagrams, charts, pictures, videos, and maps.

For example, for the  Civil Rights Movement, use images of the marches and protests. Play videos of speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. or other civil rights leaders.

If you teach about world religions, show maps of where they originated. You can also show maps of where people practice them today.

2. Engage Students in Conversation

Engaging ESL students in conversation is an effective way to help them improve their speaking skills.

You should encourage students to speak in English as much as possible, even if they make mistakes.

You can also pair students up to practice speaking and listening to each other. Helping build their confidence and fluency.

Encourage your ELLs to participate in discussions, debates, and role-playing activities. This helps them practice their language skills while also learning about social studies.

For example, if you’re teaching about Globalization, have a debate about its pros and cons.

Let’s say you’re teaching the Cold War. Do a role-playing activity where students take on the roles of different world leaders and negotiate treaties.

Grab my 5 Foolproof Strategies to Support ELs in Your Social Studies Classes lesson bundle. It’s chock full of some of the strategies discussed in this post.

3. Encourage Collaboration

Group work is a great way to engage ELLs in the material and to help them practice their language skills. Divide your class into small groups, and assign each group a topic to research and present. Encourage your students to work together and use their language skills to communicate.

This ESL teaching strategy helps your students build their vocabulary and fluency while learning the material in a more engaging way.

4. Provide Feedback

Although providing feedback is time-consuming, it’s an essential part of the learning process. You should give feedback on your students’ progress and offer suggestions on how they can improve.

Feedback should be specific, constructive, and focused on the student’s strengths and weaknesses.

You can use a rubric, checklist, or conference with your students.

5. Use Technology

Technology can be an excellent tool for teaching social studies to ELLs. Use online resources, like websites and videos, to supplement your lessons. You can also use apps and interactive tools, like Kahoot or Quizlet, to help your students review.

Technology is a great way to engage ELLs in social studies. Use online resources like videos, podcasts, and interactive websites to supplement your lessons.

For example, if you’re teaching about the Holocaust:

  • Use an interactive website, like the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
  • This allows ELLs to explore different aspects of it.

6. Simplify Language

When teaching social studies to ELLs, it’s important to simplify the language as much as possible. Use short sentences, and avoid complex vocabulary and grammar structures. Use visuals and real-life examples to help your students understand the material. And feel free to repeat yourself or ask your students if they understand.

This is one strategy that I’m a huge stickler about. In my PLC, I remind my colleagues to look at the language of the questions we’re asking the students. If we have to repeatedly reword the question for our students, it needs to be better written. If the goal is to have the student answer the question, the question itself shouldn’t be an obstacle.

For example, a question on our World War II DBQ asked, “How could a genocide like the Holocaust influence a country’s decision to go to war?”

Several (I mean SEVERAL) students asked me what I meant. So I straight up went into the document and changed it to: Why would the Holocaust make another country go to war? I simplified the language and made the question more straightforward.

This ESL teaching strategy not only helps ELL students, but it also helps all students.

7. Provide Background Knowledge

ELLs may not have the same background knowledge as native English speakers. As a social studies teacher, you can scaffold for ELLs by providing background knowledge on topics before you teach them.

You can introduce key terms and concepts, show relevant pictures and videos, and connect to previous lessons.

According to ¡Colorín Colorado!, one of the best ways to provide background knowledge is to look for concepts and references.

Then, explain them.

8. Use Graphic Organizers

Graphic organizers are a great way to help ELLs organize their thoughts.

For example, if you’re teaching about the three branches of government:

  • Use a graphic organizer to show the different branches and their responsibilities.

If you’re teaching about the causes of World War II:

  • Use a graphic organizer to show the factors that led to the war.

You can also use them to guide discussion and comprehension activities.

This ESL teaching strategy helps ELLs understand the material better and helps them practice their language skills.

9. Use Repetition

ELLs may need more repetition than native English speakers to understand a concept. You can scaffold for ELLs by repeating key terms and concepts throughout a lesson.

This can include:

  • Using them in the discussion
  • Providing opportunities for ELLs to use them in speaking and writing activities
  • Reviewing them at the end of the lesson.

10. Provide Sentence Frames

Sentence frames are a great scaffolding tool for ELLs learning to speak and write in English. You can provide sentence frames that include key vocabulary and sentence structures. ELLs can use these frames to construct their own sentences and practice using new vocabulary.

Here are a few examples:

  • All of this goes to show that (rephrase your claim) because…
  • The fact that (summarize your evidence) that (restate your claim) because…
  • This is important because…
  • Some people might say that…
  • Some will argue…
  • Who caused the ________?
  • What caused the ________?
  • Where did the _______ happen?
  • When did the _______ happen?
  • Why did _____ cause the ______?
  • How did the ________ happen?
  • Did _________ cause the ______?

Other examples include prompts to stimulate thinking, detailed instructions, sentence starters, sentence frames, and resource links.

11. Incorporate Culture

ESL students often come from different cultural backgrounds. It’s important to incorporate this into your lessons.

This ESL teaching strategy can help students feel more connected to the language. And give them a deeper understanding of the language and its cultural significance.

You can use cultural materials such as:

  • literature
  • music
  • movies

12. Use Real-life Situations

One of the best ways to teach social studies to ELLs is to use real-life examples. Talk about current events, and relate them to the material you’re covering.

For example, say you’re teaching about the American Revolution:

  • Show your students how the principles of the Revolution are still relevant today.
  • Use news articles, videos, and other resources to help your students connect the past to the present.

For the Great Depression, ask them if their families have experienced financial hardships. (I’d do this in a journal activity where I’m the only one who reads it). This helps them understand the material better and makes them feel more connected to the subject.

13. Use Translation Tools

Translation tools can be a great help when teaching social studies to ELLs. Use online translation tools, like Google Translate. You can also provide translated versions of your materials.

Be careful, though. Some rarer languages still need to be translated better on Google Translate. You might have to work with your student to ensure the translation is accurate.

So there you have it.

A few ideas for how to support ELLs in your social studies classes.

Although teaching social studies to English language learners can seem daunting, it doesn’t have to be.

Which ESL teaching strategy are you excited to try? 

Don’t forget to Grab my 5 Foolproof Strategies to Support ELs in Your Social Studies Classes lesson bundle. It’s chock full of some of the strategies discussed in this post.

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