Tips for Teaching Middle and High School ELLs

By: Michelle Lawrence

Working with middle and high school English Language Learners (ELLs) presents a unique set of benefits and challenges. In order to achieve the highest level of success in the classroom, it's important to acknowledge these benefits and challenges and understand how they affect student learning.

This article outlines those benefits and challenges, as well as a number of important strategies and tools that can enhance instruction for older ELLs.

More Information

Take a look at the author's tips for addressing the social and emotional needs of middle and high School ELLs.

Educational experience

Prior academic experience

Middle and high school students who come to the United States as teenagers may have attended school in their native country. If so, they are bringing a plethora of academic skills with them. It is up to the teacher to tap into those skills and help students to transfer them into English. Teachers have to show students that the skills they possess in their native language are useful in English. Doing so gives students valuable confidence.

If, however, the students do not come with academic skills, it is then up to the teacher and school community to identify the skills that students need and explicitly teach these skills.

Native-language literacy

If given the proper tools, literacy in a student's first language can be a major advantage for ELLs. Foster conversation and exploration that seeks to unfold similarities and differences in the students' first language and English.

You will find that, contrary to an elementary student, students at this age level are capable of such conversations. For example, they will recognize similarities and differences in alphabet, cognates, or root words.

For the more advanced learner, explore sentence structure: "In English, we build sentences using Subject-Verb-Object." Does your student's language follow the same sentence structure? Ask them and guide them to help reveal and compare.

Background knowledge

Help students to make connections between their first language and English by tapping into background knowledge. If students attended school prior to coming to the U.S., they may have already studied topics that are being covered in their content area classes.

In addition, make associations between things that students have experienced in their own lives and what they are about to be presented with.

Educational resources and tools

Bilingual dictionaries

If an ELL is literate in his/her first language, help them to employ that resource. Provide bilingual dictionaries and glossaries, and teach students how to use them effectively. Such resources may be used not only in their ESL class, but also in their content area classes.

Age-appropriate materials and strategies

Teaching basic language skills is essential, but it's important not to make students feel like they are doing elementary work. Beginning level materials geared for teenagers and adults is difficult to come by; however, learning basic reading and writing skills such as phonemic awareness and phonics is essential to the development of comprehension. Give rationales for the teaching of such basic skills.

They may be teenagers, but that doesn't mean that they know how to:

  • Read and write sight words
  • Form a complete sentence
  • Develop a paragraph

Handle the teaching of these basic skills with care. These building blocks will aid their development of English. For some ideas on teaching phonics skills to older ELLs, take a look at this article from Colorín Colorado.

Explicit instruction

Literacy and language skills

One of the biggest differences between elementary ELLs and middle and high school ELLs is that in the primary grades, everyone is learning literacy. By the time students reach middle and high school, they are expected to be literate. For ELLs who are not, they need explicit instruction in how language works in areas such as:

  • Phonics
  • Phonemic awareness
  • Word families
  • Vocabulary
  • Reading
  • Grammatical structures and their uses

It's imperative to explicitly teach writing styles as well. It's okay to make writing formulaic because this gives students a handle on where to start. ELLs need to know the rules of the game.

Writing rubrics

Use rubrics for writing assessment so that students know ahead of time how they will be graded. Rubrics allow you to grade specific parts of an assignment: content, grammar and usage, presentation, spelling, mechanics, etc.


Vocabulary is key in teaching ELLs. Use pictures, context, and gestures to help students understand meaning. Also, create opportunities to have students show teachers they understand. Use moments at the end of class to do quick games ("I'm thinking of a word that means…")

School community


Draw on your colleagues' knowledge and expertise. You may be able to build on the helpful experience of:

  • ELL teachers
  • Library staff
  • Reading teachers
  • Content-area teachers
  • Speech pathologist
  • Bilingual staff

It takes a school village to teach a child, and each member of the community as an important part to play in ELLs' success!

Michelle Lawrence is a high school ELL teacher at The International Preparatory School at Grover in Buffalo, NY.

Michelle Lawrence (2009)