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Mainstream Teachers

What Mainstream Teachers Need to Know About ESL Students


Many ELL students are trying to find their way in the borderlands between cultures and the collaborative teacher-student relationship established in the context of the authentic assessment generates a sense of confidence, trust, and power that fuels students’ classroom participation (Cummins 1995).

ESL students may have the same needs, talents and interests as native English-speaking students, but unlike native speakers, they may not be able to fully comprehend and communicate effectively and successfully.  ESL students enter school with two strikes against them:  they must learn not only academic content but a new set of communicative conventions at the same time (Joesting 1983).

Although an ESL student may be socially competent, that does not mean that he/she is academically competent.  According to Cummins (1981), most students develop social interactive English language skills (about two years) faster than academic English language skills (average five to seven years).

Recommended Resources:

  • Supporting ELLs in the Mainstream Classroom by Colorín Colorado



Why are the ESL students in my class doing poorly on my tests?

Perhaps they…

  • Never did (or understood) the vocabulary word in the first place
  • Complete and understood the work, but did not study for the test
  • Understood the work and studied for the test, but did not understand the question(s)
  • Understood the questions, but didn’t know how to answer them
  • Understood the questions and knew how to answer in their native language, but could not answer in English
  • Thought they knew how to answer in English but did not give the right answer or did not give the full answer
  • Did not check their work carefully before turning in the test


Assessments must be appropriate for the ELLs.  Traditional assessments (i.e. essays, multiple choice, fill-in-the blank, etc.) are heavily language dependent.  ELLs frequently have difficulty expressing their mastery of content because of their lack of English proficiency.  Authentic assessments reflect student learning, achievement, motivation, and attitudes on instructionally relevant classroom activities.  Authentic assessments emphasize what the students know, rather than what they do not know and considers differences in learning styles, language proficiencies, cultural and educational backgrounds, and grade levels.


Information on Assessments (above) from:

Recommended Resources:

Most literature is culture bound.  Just because the ELL knows how to read all of the words does not mean they will necessarily understand the text.  Teachers must build ELLs background information.  Teachers cannot assume that these students know what “everyone knows.”

 Other Assessment Options

Challenges for ELLs in Reading:

Things to remember when teaching reading…

  • an abundance of idioms and figurative language in English texts
  • density of unfamiliar vocabulary
  • use of homonyms and synonyms
  • grammar usage especially the “exceptions to the rules”
  • word order, sentence structure and syntax
  • difficult text structure with a topic sentence, supporting details and conclusion
  • unfamiliarity with the connotative and denotative meanings of words
  • ELLs may not have practice in expressing an opinion about text
  • use of regional U.S. dialects
  • fear of participation and interaction with mainstream students
  • story themes and endings can be inexplicable
  • literary terms for story development are not understood
  • unfamiliarity with drawing conclusions, analyzing characters and predicting outcomes
  • imagery and symbolism in text are difficult


Challenges for ELLs in Mathematics:

Things to remember when teaching Math…

  • Formation of numbers varies from culture to culture
  • Use of decimal point and comma vary from culture to culture
  • May not have any experience with our measurement system
  • Many students have never seen or worked with manipulatives before. They may not take a lesson using manipulatives seriously.
  • Math curricula in their countries may be primarily calculation.
  • Word problems are dependent on reading ability
  • Estimating, rounding, and geometry are not often taught as early in other cultures.
  • Mathematical terms do not always translate well.
  • Mental math may be the norm. Students may not show work in addition, subtraction, multiplication and division or they may show work in a different way.


Challenges for ELLs in Science:

Some things to remember when teaching Science…

  • The vocabulary of science presents a huge difficulty. There are a special set of terms for the student to learn. Even simple words that the student may know, could have another meaning in science.
  • Material is covered very fast
  • Directions are often multistep and difficult.
  • There are too many concepts explained on each page of a science text.
  • Visuals may be confusing and difficult to understand.
  • Sentence structure is complex and the passive voice is used in textbooks.
  • ELLs may not be used to science labs or equipment.
  • Students may lack background in scientific method


Challenges for ELLs in Social Studies:

Some things to remember when teaching Social Studies…

  • May lack prior knowledge of US history, geography and current events
  • Use of higher level thinking skills for reading and writing.
  • Lack of familiarity with historical terms, government processes, and vocabulary.
  • Social Studies text contains complex sentences, passive voice, and extensive use of pronouns.
  • ELLs may not be used to expressing their personal opinions.
  • Nationalistic and cultural focus of maps.
  • Concepts which do not exist in all cultures are difficult, including privacy, democratic processes, rights of citizens, free will, etc.
  • ELLs are seldom asked to contribute an alternate view that reflects conditions in other countries.
  • ELLs may be used to learning history by “dynasty” or “period,” rather than in the form of a “timeline.”
  • Difficulty with understanding what is said by the teacher and being able to take notes.
  • Amount of text covered and the ELLs’ inability to tell what is important in the text and what is not important.


Information on Challenges Faced by ELLs (above) from:


Suggestions for the Mainstream Classroom

  • Encourage parents to become active partners in their children’s education and to share aspects of their native language and culture
  • Important concepts should be displayed on the chalkboard (or in the classroom)
  • Audiovisual aid is always recommended (videos, CD, audio-recordings)
  • Use of tape recorders should be permitted at times
  • Teacher’s speech needs to be clear and slow
  • Information and requirements for major assignments and projects should be provided in writing and with ample time
  • Use of examples and demonstrations are helpful
  • Paraphrase difficult text
  • Use graphic organizers
  • Create linguistically rich lessons
  • Create a hands-on, student-centered learning environment
  • Limit the use of idiomatic expressions
  • Establish a classroom environment of respect for racial, ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversity
  • Validate the students’ first language and culture
  • Use manipulatives to discuss and solve math word-problems
  • Make models, maps, graphs, and charts in social studies
  • Participate in hands-on science activities