Strategies for Teaching English Language Learners

One of the benefits of teaching abroad is the opportunity to gain experience teaching English Language Learners (ELLs). We discuss many strategies for working with ELLs in our Education program, and have the opportunity to practice these strategies in practicum. However, there are differences in teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) and English as a Foreign Language (EFL). Teaching ESL means teaching English in a country where English is the primary language. Teaching EFL means teaching English in a country where English is not the primary spoken language.


Teaching English as a Second Language

  • Classrooms typically have students from a variety of backgrounds and cultures
  • Students will therefore struggle with different grammar mistakes, depending on their first language  
  • Students will have more practice speaking English between classmates and outside of the classroom
  • Many ELLs in Canada have good conversational English, but struggle with academic language that was not picked up as a child.
  • Students may have more motivation to learn English as it’s needed in society

Teaching English as a Foreign Language

  • Classrooms typical have students form the same cultural background who speak the same language
  • Students will likely make similar grammar mistakes that can be corrected as a whole
  • Students may primarily communicate in their first language
  • Students may be more focused on the academics of English and focused more on reading and writing than speaking
  • Students may not be as engaged as it’s not a language they need to use outside of the classroom

Due to these differences, it’s key that teachers adjust their practice depending on if they are teaching ESL or EFL. However, a lot of the strategies teachers learn while teaching abroad can be used in Canadian classrooms too. In my interviews with teachers, they’ve talked about strategies they use with ELLs. Here are some common strategies that are used when working with ELLs.

  1. Multimodal Education

    Most people I’ve talked to explain that a key strategy when working with any ELL is to use different means to communicate messages. This means the use of visuals, audio, body language and text to communicate.

  2. Teaching language through culture

    Motivation is a key component in every student. Teachers who’ve taught abroad did often teach about Canada and our different customs as a way of engaging the class.

  3. Breaking Down steps

    As a native English speaker, it’s really easy to talk fast and assume students understand. Although you should speak naturally, you should break down instructions into steps so that students have time to process what you said. 
  4. Scaffolding

    Building on students prior knowledge is also key and giving room for first languages to be used. Showing interest in the students first language also helps build relationships. 
  5. Playing games

    Many teachers I talked to ran simple English games to make the class more fun! In TAB, during one of our workshops we learn a lot of drama based games that students can play. There are tons of resources online such as this post here.

These are some strategies that work well for ELLs. There are many other things, such as highlighting key vocabulary and encouraging group work. A great resource can be found here. Many of these strategies work for non-ELLs too!

Are there any other teaching strategies that have worked for you?


Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat (2009). ELL voices in the classroom. Secretariat Special Edition #8. Retrieved from

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