Strategies to Help Build Relationships with English Language Learners

community-ell-teaching-strategies_580pxThis post was originally published on Edutopia

  • rap·port

a close and harmonious relationship in which the people or groups concerned understand each other’s feelings or ideas and communicate well.

My first day teaching an ELL class, I walked in and was very confident that it was going to be the best class ever. After all, teaching college English was going great: we have enriching discussions, students are improving their writing, and often laugh at my jokes. How is this gig any different?! Well, I figured I might need to speak slower, write words on the board and practice a few other tips I learned while studying my TESL certificate. However, I quickly found out that teaching an ELL class for the first time was a world of difference from teaching college English.

I discovered that I needed to focus on building a strong rapport with my students in order for them to feel comfortable to ask questions and practice their writing and conversational skills. These teaching strategies are important to focus on in all levels of ELL classrooms.


“Good morning, how was your weekend?”
“Oh, you went to see a movie? What was it about? Did you like it? Why not?”
“Did you bike here? Oh that’s awesome, is it easy to bike in Toronto? Where do you leave your bike?”

Have a conversation with your students during the few minutes before class starts. Interacting with your students has many benefits:

  • sets the tone for your class.
  • allows your students to practice their English with you!
  • gives students an opportunity to experience and, most importantly, be a part of interactions and communications of our culture.
  • build students’ confidence, because they will realize that they can carry on a conversation in English.

Concept checking:

In an ELL class, concept checking is when the teacher asks questions about the concept to check for student understanding. This process helps the teacher avoid asking “do you understand?” to which students can easily answer “yes”.

Example: To check if students understand the meaning of “recommend” a teacher can ask “If I recommend a book to my friend, am I encouraging her to read it?” or “when you recommend something, do you approve of it?”

Benefits of concept checking 3 C’s:

  • checks for students’ understanding.
  • clarifies difficult vocabulary for students who are too shy to ask questions.
  • creates a supportive learning classroom, where students feel that it’s okay to ask for help.

Planning and Staging

In an ELL classroom there needs to be a clear division from one stage to another. It helps if the teacher communicates the lesson goals/objectives during the beginning of class to help students follow along with the plan. For my ELL classrooms, I like to use Jeremy Harmer’s strategy that he discusses in “How to Teach English”, which contains the following stages: Engage, Study, Activate.

  • Engage 10 mins: provide a set of vocabulary that relates to the theme for students to use them in a conversation with a partner.
  • Study 20 mins: students get a chance to understand the meaning of the vocabulary words by using them in a writing activity that the teacher provides. The last 5-7 minutes should be used to check the students’ answers and provide error correction.
  • Activate 10-15 mins: It’s important for ELL students to practice their listening skills when it comes to the new vocabulary list. For the activate stage, a teacher can have students practice listening either with each other or by implementing the concepts that they learned. She can also provide students with a audio/video clip that gives them an opportunity to practice listening to the new concepts while engaging with an activity during the listening person or after.

Board work and error correction:

In a non-ELL classroom using the board and error correction is important, but in an ELL classroom it’s a must. Students need to hear out and see instructions, new concepts, words, definitions on the board. Visuals in an ELL classroom helps students with: memory, clarification, recognition, understanding, reminding and error correction.

It is important to error correct in an ELL classroom in order for students to learn the proper use of the language.

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