In the Classroom
Practical Tips for Working with ELL Students in the Social Studies Classroom
December 1, 2018
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Mary-Owen Holmes

In my sixth year teaching, I got the itch to move – a nagging sense that there was more to learn and more to do. This persistent feeling quickly led me to a new teaching position in a new district at one of the most diverse high schools in the city. Students are my new high school represent over 30 countries and speak upwards of 25 languages – the top 5 being English, Spanish, Arabic, Swahili, and Kurdish.

The first few weeks were a blur of names, new procedures, and feeling like a first-year teacher all over again. I remember coming home after early in the semester bewildered as to how I was supposed to teach United States History while also juggling multiple languages and ability levels. I began the move full of confidence and quickly had my enthusiasm squashed. Maybe this wasn’t the right decision?

Defeated, I sought help from a friend and colleague who spent time helping me shape and focus my lessons with English Language Learning students in mind. We reformatted my classroom, revamped a few easy strategies I was already using, and created an action plan to guide my students and me throughout the year. Having an outline has helped calm my worries while also creating a safe and constructive environment for students to grow.

Here are my top 4 tips:  


  • Be mindful of your language.


As a United States History teacher, I know our content is full of symbolism that makes no sense to anyone else. I spend a lot of time poring over the Library of Congress’ Symbols of the United States in order to better explain who Uncle Sam is or why Lady Liberty looks like that.  Over time, I have learned how important it is for me to be mindful of how I am speaking when explaining these topics. Be thoughtful and intentional in your language, so students have a chance to grow.


  • Model thinking.


Instead of simply explaining directions, take a few extra minutes and model your thinking out loud for students. Modeling helps students gain a better understanding of what is expected, while also scaffolding the material. This strategy has especially helped when practicing closely reading and annotating primary source documents. Eventually, modeling thinking aloud for students can lead to them developing their own metacognitive practices.


  • Incorporate visuals.


Social studies classes are a great opportunity to analyze photographs and artwork as a way to better understand a cultural time period. For example, during our study of the Labor Movement in the United States, I show students photographs and ask them to make predictions about what is happening. Their predictions then become the focus of our class and encourage inquiry and discussion.


  • Be asset-focused, not deficit-focused.


According to The WIDA Can Do Philosophy  “Linguistically and culturally diverse learners…bring a unique set of assets that have the potential to enrich the experiences of all learners and educators.” When we focus on students’ assets, rather than any deficits, we show students the importance of their contributions and presence within our classrooms. Additionally, students, families, and teachers become empowered to advocate for themselves and their communities. What an amazing result!

The best part of teaching at a culturally-rich school is that I get the opportunity to learn and grow with my students. Like my students, I am learning new languages and skills, and we are building a community in which all learners are valued for what they bring to the table.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How can you create an inclusive space for all learners in your classroom?
  2. What tips do you have for working with ELL students?

An earlier version of this article appeared on Larry Ferlazzo’s Website of the Day on October 31, 2018.

Mary-Owen Holmes teaches history at Glencliff High School in Nashville. Prior to teaching in Metro Nashville Public Schools, Mary-Owen taught seventh grade World History for six years in Maury County. Mary-Owen was a 2016-2017 SCORE Tennessee Educator Fellow and is passionate about the impacts of technology, diversity, and cultural education within schools. Mary-Owen serves on the board for the Tennessee Educators of Color Alliance, as well as Social Studies Chat Network (#sschat on Twitter). She is a member of the Tennessee Council for Social Studies and the National Council for Social Studies and has participated in TNReady Item Review and served on the Social Studies Textbook Review Committee during the Summer of 2018. Mary-Owen holds a B.A. in Political Science and Communications, an M.Ed. in Teaching, Learning, and Leading, and an Ed.S. in Technology Integration from Lipscomb University. She also serves as a Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellow, engaging her colleagues in providing classroom feedback to the Tennessee Department of Education on public education policy issues.

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