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Supporting ESL Learners in the College Classroom

Supporting students in your classroom who have diverse cultural and educational backgrounds is not difficult or time consuming, but faculty need to recognize that ESL learners are not alike e.g. an international student may be able to read a textbook very easily, but cannot explain clearly what they have read. This is due to the international student having very little experience in conversational English. A student who has immigrated to Canada and lived here for a few years can have very different challenges in the classroom. This student’s conversational style may resemble a 1st language speaker, so the instructor will assume that content is being understood, but this may not be the case.

At RDC, there is support for ESL learners in the Writing Centre (located in the library). Please contact Amy Becker, Academic Support Coordinator, if you would like more information: (403 342-3264) or amy.becker@rdc.ab.ca [1]. It is important that you contact the tutor to explain the learning activities that are currently happening in your classes, so the ESL tutor has the context to support your student(s) the best way possible.


The following articles identify quick and easy steps you can take to support the variety of diverse learners that may be in your classroom. The articles also address the various issues students can have depending upon their route into your classroom from a cultural and educational context.


10 Tips for Teaching English-Language Learners

To adequately assist ELs in learning both content concepts and English simultaneously, all educators need to view themselves as language teachers. Here are 10 tips for supporting ELs in general education classrooms.

  1. Know your students
    Increase your understanding of who your students are and their backgrounds and educational experiences. If your students have been in US schools for several years; were educated in their country of origin; or are (il)literate in their native language, it may provide you with a better understanding of their educational needs and ways to support them.

  2. Be aware of their social and emotional needs
    Understanding more about the students’ families and their needs is key. When ELs have siblings to care for afterschool, possibly live with extended family members or have jobs to help support their families, completing homework assignments will not take priority.

  3. Increase your understanding of first and second language acquisition
    Although courses about second language acquisition are not required as part of teacher education programs, understanding the theories about language acquisition and the variables that contribute to language learning may help you reach your ELs more effectively.

  4. Student need to SWRL every day in every class
    The domains of language acquisition, Speaking, Writing, Reading and Listening need to be equally exercised across content areas daily. Assuring that students are using all domains of language acquisition to support their English language development is essential.

  5. Increase your understanding of English language proficiency
    Social English language proficiency and academic English language proficiency are very different. A student may be more proficient in one vs. the other. A student’s level of academic English may be masked by a higher level of Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) compared to their Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP). For example, a student may be able to orally recall the main events from their favorite movie but struggle to recall the main events that led up to the Civil War.

  6. Know the language of your content
    English has a number of polysemous words. Once a student learns and understands one meaning of a word, other meanings may not be apparent. Review the vocabulary of your content area often and check in with ELs to assure they know the words and possibly the multiple meanings associated with the words. For example, a “plot” of land in geography class versus the “plot” in a literature class. A “table” we sit at versus a multiplication “table.”

  7. Understand language assessments
    Language proficiency assessments in your district may vary. Find out when and how a student’s English language proficiency is assessed and the results of those assessments. Using the results of formal and informal assessments can provide a wealth of information to aid in planning lessons that support language acquisition and content knowledge simultaneously.

  8. Use authentic visuals and manipulatives
    These can be over- or under-utilized. Implement the use of authentic resources. For example: menus, bus schedules, post-cards, photographs and video clips can enhance student comprehension of complex content concepts.

  9. Strategies that match language proficiency
    Knowing the level of English language proficiency at which your students are functioning academically is vital in order to be able to scaffold appropriately. Not all strategies are appropriate for all levels of language learners. Knowing which scaffolds are most appropriate takes time but will support language learning more effectively.

  10. Collaborate to celebrate
    Seek support from other teachers who may teach ELs. Other educators, novice and veteran, may have suggestions and resources that support English language development and content concepts. Creating and sustaining professional learning communities that support ELs are vital for student success.

Source: http://www.edutopia.org/blog/teaching-english-language-learners-ayanna-cooper [5]

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Updated July 29, 2019