English language development

Accommodations for English Language Learners (ELLs) in the Classroom

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Accommodations ELL hero

All teachers use accommodations to help their students master grade-level content. Whenever you’ve given a student more time to complete an assignment, explained a concept in a different way, or asked a student to assist a struggling classmate, you’ve used an accommodation. But supports that work for native English speakers aren’t always necessary for multilingual learners, who may only need language support

Dr. Ivannia Soto is an education professor at Whittier College, in California. She specializes in second-language acquisition and systemic reform for English language learners (ELLs). I spoke with her about the challenges English learners face, and how we can ensure they get the help they need for academic success. (Note that in this article, we use both the terms English language learner (ELL) and multilingual learner to account for the different ways this group of students has been described.)

“Multilingual learners are doing double the work,” Dr. Soto says. “They're doing the work of learning the basics of English and academic language as well.”

While Soto stresses how invaluable scaffolds can be for multilingual learners, she also reminds educators to switch them out as needed.

“Scaffolds allow multilingual students to do rigorous academic work,” she says. “But it’s important to remember that all of these scaffolds are temporary supports that eventually should be taken away to allow students to progress.”

How to Accommodate ELL Students

Here are some of the accommodations for English language learners that Dr. Soto finds most effective.

1. Make Use of the Frayer Square

Graphic organizers are a great way to support multilingual learners. In particular, the Frayer Square, developed by educational psychologist Dorothy Frayer and her colleagues at the University of Wisconsin, provides an effective method for building vocabulary. Whenever you need to introduce new words, whether starting a new unit, preparing for a read-aloud, or building academic language, have students fill out the organizer.

Students place a word in the center of the graphic organizer. Then, in the boxes surrounding the word, students write their own definition, description, examples, and non-examples. Completing the Frayer Square helps students retain new words.

“Multilingual learners don't have time to be taught one word at a time,” Dr. Soto says. “This is a helpful way to come up with a bunch of examples that are connected with a target word.”

See the example below of a completed Frayer Square using the target word “quadrilateral.”

2. Practice Think-Pair-Share

Before holding a whole-class discussion on a topic, try a think-pair-share activity. A quick talk with a partner where the stakes are low allows multilingual learners to build confidence in their ideas before sharing them with the class. This method, Soto says, allows students time to process new vocabulary and content.

Here’s how think-pair-share works. The teacher poses an open-ended question related to a unit the class is studying. Based on the question, students complete the prompt in the organizer:

What I Think

What My Partner Thinks

What We Will Share

Think-pair-share allows students to practice their speaking, listening, summarizing, and writing skills. Plus, it has an added benefit for teachers, according to Dr. Soto.

"For teachers, the think-pair-share is an informal assessment that provides a preview of what students know and don’t know," she says.

3. Provide Sentence Starters

Sentence starters allow English learners to speak and write about complex topics by providing them with the vocabulary and structure for articulating their ideas. Just be sure to switch out the sentence frames depending on the unit of study.

“The frames should change according to the conversation,” Dr. Soto says. “Teachers should vary them throughout the year, to ensure discussions don’t get stale.”

Here are some examples of sentence starters that may work across different subjects.

ELA Sentence Starters

The main idea is _____.

I like/don’t like _____ because _____.

This makes me wonder about _____.

I’m surprised that _____.

This reminds me of _____.

Science Sentence Starters

I observed _____.

The cause of _____ was _____.

The effect of _____ was _____.

The data show _____.

Based on _____, I can conclude _____.

Math Sentence Starters

The first step to solving the problem is to _____.

Another strategy for solving this problem is _____.

I can prove my answer by _____.

I discovered that _____.

I am confused by _____.

Social Studies Sentence Starters

After reading about _____, I discovered _____.

I think _____ is important because _____.

This event reminds me of _____ because _____.

The most likely reason for _____ is _____.

Based on _____, I think _____.

4. Display Word Walls for Units of Study

A word wall is an organized display of key words, and sometimes, accompanying pictures, that students can refer to during a unit of study. Whatever your class is studying—the 19th Amendment, fractions, or green energy—a list of relevant vocabulary will support multilingual learners in discussions, research, writing, and other activities related to the unit.

Dr. Soto suggests using word walls in conjunction with sentence starters for students with lower levels of proficiency.

ELL Accommodations and Modifications Checklist

Here is a comprehensive checklist of strategies for supporting multilingual learners in the classroom, including ways to:

  • Create a comfortable and welcoming environment
  • Build students’ confidence and engagement
  • Support students’ academic success

Download ELL Accommodations Checklist.

More Accommodations for ELL Students

How do you support multilingual students in your classroom? We’d love to hear about the ELL accommodations that have worked for you and your students. You can reach us on Twitter (@HMHCo) or Facebook, or email us at shaped@hmhco.com.


Watch our webinar Reading and Writing Strategies for Multilingual Learners to learn how to accelerate academic language for multilingual learners in Grades 4–12 through high-interest content, consistent instructional routines, and daily practice opportunities.

Address the range of English learners' needs with our English language development programs.

Download our free Reading and Math Intervention eBooks.

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