Working with ELL or ESOL learners

As students in intensive English programs transition to regular courses, introductory social science courses such as Introduction to International and Global Studies lend themselves to success. Students can frequently draw upon background knowledge from their home countries to bring dynamic contemporary information into the class. This also serves as a way for these students to better integrate themselves into the classroom community. The three most frequent models used in English for Academic Purposes settings are what are termed 1) “shadow” or a sheltered courses, 2) linked courses, or 3) a standard study skills course. In all three cases, someone with expertise in teaching English as a Second Language plays a role in the design of supplemental courses or materials for students whose first language is not English.

Hansen-Thomas (2008) looks at the learning advantages to such a system arguing that ESOL learners can better comprehend course materials. Cargill and Kalikoff (2007) look at linked courses suggesting that student performance, student retention, and student motivation increase with such support. As for all students, emotional support to reduce anxiety and uncertainty will pay off in the long run, but may require a greater investment in the course on your part.

Many of these activities simply seem like good overall comprehension activities, but the difference is that students whose first language is not English work in a small group of other ESOL learners on the extended comprehension activities. Students just transitioning from full-time academic language work at the university will typically be challenged by cultural parameters of examples used in class, by the high vocabulary load in some chapters, and by the writing expectations in short-answer exams, reflective papers, and essays.


Reading Comprehension

Ask students to write down the bolded subheadings from each chapter in a list. Then ask them to read over the list and predict three things that the chapter will cover. Get them to create a kind of word web for each thing to identify what they already know about the topic.

Focused Vocabulary Development

Provide a one- or two-hour support course each week using the discussion questions at the end of each chapter and the vocabulary list at the end of each chapter to first determine what students have and have not understood.

Practice Tests

When students will be taking multiple choice tests, use a section of one chapter (less than three pages). Prepare three or four multiple choice questions from these pages. Asking students to work in pairs, have them search the text to find where each topic is covered. Then ask them to look at all possible choices for a given question. Ask them to compare the text with the proposed answers in order to find the correct answer. Then, ask them to identify what strategies they used to match the text with answer prompts.

Practice Scoring

Go over the rubric for each writing assignment to ensure there are no vocabulary questions. Give students a sample response to a short-answer question that fits the “top points” category and one that fits the “average points” category. Again in pairs, ask them to try and identify why one answer is excellent and one is fair.

Essay Enhancement

Many students will be using repetitive, short sentences. Take a passage from the text and “unpack” it, i.e., separate a paragraph from the text into such simple sentences. Then ask students to combine two or three sentences. For example, in the text (Chapter Three: Economic Globalization) we see

What is economic globalization? For economist Paul Krugman and entrepreneur George Soros, globalization is a phenomenon intimately linked to trade among nations and various financial markets.

This would become

What is economic globalization? Paul Krugman is an economist. George Soros is an entrepreneur. Both say globalization is a phenomenon. This phenomenon is linked to trade among nations. This phenomenon is linked to various financial markets.

Now ask students to combine as many sentences as they can.


Cargill, K. and Kalikoff, B. 2007. Linked psychology and writing courses across the curriculum. The Journal of General Education, 56 (2), 83-92.

Hansen-Thomas, H. 2008. Sheltered instruction: Best practices for ELLs [English Language Learners] in the mainstream. Kappa Delta Pi Record [summer], 165-169.

1 thought on “Working with ELL or ESOL learners”

  1. Many thanks to Ms.Cheaton and the GHCC staff- your imarotpnt work and caring, thoughtful attitude makes all the different for the adult learners! Best wishes to Shaneeka in achieving her educational goals!

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