Find out which countries your students come from if possible and learn a little bit about those countries. Many families will readily provide that information if they feel comfortable, but it’s also important not to put families on the spot with direct questions, especially when you first meet them.


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10 Things You Need to Learn About Your English Language Learners

10 Things You Need to Learn About Your English Language Learners

High school student talking wtih classmate

If you have English language learners (ELLs) in your class, you may have questions about how best to teach and support them. Learning about ELLs — their strengths, challenges, and background experiences — is a critical step that can help you respond with the right support and instruction. Find out how to get started with these ideas!

If you have English language learners (ELLs) in your class, you may have questions about how best to teach and support them, especially if they’re struggling. You already understand the importance of getting to know your students. But learning about ELLs — their strengths, challenges, and background experiences — is especially important. Knowing these things will help you respond with the right support.

Read on to learn about the most important information to gather. Then, use this printable form from SupportEd to write down the information you learn all in one place.

Personal and Family Information

1. Student’s Name

The first piece of information to gather is the correct spelling and pronunciation of a student’s name. You can do this at the beginning of the school year by asking all students and their families for their formal name and the name they prefer to be called in school.

Keep in mind:

  • In Spanish-speaking countries, children may have two given names and the surname of the father and mother. Or the family may choose to use just the mother’s names or father’s names. Keep this in mind when you use students’ names in the classroom or see the names on forms. For instance, a child whose name is Juan Carlos would not be called “Juan.”
  • Parents may use different spellings of English names, like Jhonny or Yessica. Use those names exactly as they’re spelled and refrain from assigning a new, “American” name to a student on a form or in conversation.

With this information, you can make sure that forms and records from your school’s front office include the right spelling, punctuation, and order of the students’ names. Why is this so important? According to research, incorrect entries can lead to multiple entries for a student in a database. This makes it more likely for students to have incomplete records. That can impact a student’s eligibility for services such as English language or special education.

Just as important, pronouncing a student’s name correctly is a point of pride. It affirms the student’s identity. This set of naming conventions guides for multiple languages can help you. Plus, learn more about strategies for getting students’ names right.

2. Country of Birth

Knowing where your students were born can give you important information about them as learners, including:

  • Providing clues about what kinds of situations the student has experienced
  • Sparking ideas for making the student feel welcome
  • Making culturally responsive connections between students and classroom content

At the same time, it’s equally as important not to make assumptions about a student based on country of origin. In particular, avoid assumptions about a student’s religion, immigration status, socioeconomic status, or cultural affiliation. Each family’s situation is unique.

Many students and families will happily provide that information. They may welcome the chance to share information about their home countries. Others may be more reluctant to discuss this if they have endured trauma or if they are concerned about immigration issues.

If you have a relationship with the family, you may feel comfortable asking this question. You can explain that you’d like to get to know them better to support their child. Make clear that they don’t have to answer questions they don’t feel comfortable with.

If you don’t know the family well, keep in mind that asking where someone comes from can be off-putting. It might send the message that they don’t belong here. In this case, you can ask your school’s family liaison or English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher whether they know the student’s country of origin.

Remember: Never ask students about their immigration status. All students have the right to a free, public K–12 education, regardless of their immigration status, that of their parents, or where they were born.

3. Family Background

Who your students live with, what languages their caregivers speak, and any possible instance of family separation can be sensitive and difficult information to gather. However, knowing these facts can also provide insights on a student’s social-emotional health and progress toward meeting developmental milestones.

Start by speaking with a family liaison or counselor (ideally one who has established relationships with families of ELLs) if you have questions about this information. Keep an eye out for clues that indicate changes in a student’s living situation, such as a change in routine or indications of food insecurity, a lack of daily care, absenteeism, excessive tiredness, or the need for medical care.

4. Home Language

When students’ families fill out forms to register for school, they’re typically asked to complete a home language survey. Your school or district may have its own policy for how that information is stored and who can access it. (You can learn more about these home language surveys and view a sample survey from the English Learner Tool Kit from the U.S. Department of Education.)

The home language survey may only ask about the student’s primary language. In that case, you may want to ask students and families for additional information, including:

  • Whether the student speaks multiple languages and which languages are spoken
  • What language(s) the student and family use at home and with whom
  • At what age the student started speaking the home language
  • Whether they want their child to maintain and grow their home language

You can use this information to learn more about a student’s linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Keep in mind that some families’ number-one priority may be that their children learn English. But you can gently share some information about the benefits of being bilingual as time goes on.


Academic and Language Skills

5. Educational Experiences

It’s important to know how much time your English language learners have spent in U.S. schools, what their educational experiences were in their home country (if not the United States), and if there were any interruptions in their schooling. You may be able to find out this information from your school’s family interview or home language survey.

Refugees or students with interrupted schooling may have big gaps in educational skills or content knowledge. Migrant students may have moved frequently from school to school with limited record-keeping. (Students from military families encounter similar challenges.) These gaps should be taken into consideration when reviewing their data.

Yet ELLs, including those with gaps in their education, bring important experiences and background knowledge to the classroom. Identifying those “funds of knowledge” is an excellent way to build rapport, increase student engagement, and identify their strengths.

6. Reading and Writing Skills in Home Language

Your school district may conduct a family interview when an ELL first enrolls in your school. A person who speaks the family’s first language will typically be part of that interview. Interviewers usually ask the family about the student’s ability to read and write in the home language. Your school’s ESL teacher may be present for the interview and able to share this information.

One informal way to get a better sense of your student’s home language literacy is by providing a picture prompt. Ask the student to write a story based on the prompt. Invite your school’s ESL teacher or a bilingual staff member to help you read the student’s writing. In the process, the student will create an artifact that you can refer to if a special education referral is later needed. This will help you determine if the student can write in the home language, and if those writing skills seem to correspond with the number of years of schooling.

You may also wish to ask the student’s family questions about literacy activities at home, such as:

  • Does the child have a favorite book?
  • Does the child read the book or is the book read to her or him? In what languages?
  • Does the child talk about what happens in the book?

These questions provide insight into the print-rich environment at home and typical vocabulary-rich experiences that can be used in the classroom.

7. English Language Proficiency (ELP) Level

English language learners must develop proficiency in the four domains of language: speaking, reading, listening, and writing. Every state has its own set of English language proficiency (ELP) standards and assessments. The standards describe what a student should be able to do in English in each of the four domains and at each level of English proficiency.

Remember that most of the time, schools only measure how much English the students know—not how literate they are in their native language. Some students will come fully literate in their native language, while others may come with limited literacy skills or interrupted formal education.

You can learn more about the standards used in your state from Colorín Colorado’s ELL Resources by State guide. The names of these levels will vary depending on your state but will look something like this, moving from most basic to most advanced:

  • Starting/Beginning/Entering
  • Emerging
  • Developing
  • Expanding
  • Bridging
  • Reaching

Talk with your school’s ESL teacher to find out your English language learner’s level of proficiency. Then, collaborate with that teacher to find out ways to support your students at their level of language proficiency.

8. English Language Proficiency Scores

English language learners typically take two types of assessments. These are aligned to a state’s ELP standards:

  • Screener assessments: A “screener” is an assessment tool that helps to determine whether a student is eligible for English language development services. It usually includes both an oral component and a literacy component. But it may also include assessments of all four domains of language. Students can take the assessment online or on paper at any time of the school year.
  • Annual English language proficiency (ELP) assessments: Federal law requires all ELLs in grades 1–12 to take an annual assessment of English proficiency in the four domains of language. This assessment is used to determine what language services they’ll receive and at what level. These assessments are often given during a specific window of time determined at the district level.

Work with your school’s ESL teacher to access and interpret the results.

  • Look at the composite (total) score of the annual ELP assessment. This will tell you how the student performed across all four domains.
  • Analyze how the scores compare across the four domains. There may be some differences. Perhaps the student is stronger in comprehension (reading and listening) than expression (speaking and writing). This data can be powerful information for planning lessons. It can also help you understand why a student might be struggling in a content area. ESL teachers have many strategies you can use to target instruction in each of these areas.

Strengths and Interests

9. Student Interests

Getting to know students’ interests is one of the most important ways to fuel your connection with students and inform your instruction. You can learn about student interests by asking students and families to complete these questionnaires (either in writing or in conversation), available in both English and Spanish.

For students with limited English and/or students who have learning and thinking differences, make time to meet with them individually. Allow them to share information about themselves by showing photos, drawing pictures, sharing in their first language, or sitting together and sharing a snack.

10. Plans or Goals

Ask your students and their families their plans or goals for the future. Without knowing those goals, you won’t be able to help students achieve them. Provide encouragement and maintain a positive attitude. ELLs and immigrant students—including those who learn and think differently—can thrive when they receive support from their teachers.

Use these sentence starters as prompts, making sure to allow students and families multiple means to express themselves. For instance, some students and families may prefer to speak than to write. Other students may prefer to draw.

  • By the end of the year, I want to _____.
  • After I finish high school, I want to _____.

The Benefits of Information Collection

It may seem like a lot of work to gather this information about a student, but you just have to do it once. You can also share information you learn with colleagues and even pass it on to the student’s teachers the following school year.

The benefits can pay off throughout the school year for you and, most importantly, for the student. This information can also give you a more complete picture of the students to help inform conversations if they struggle with academics or behavior. Together with your colleagues, you can develop a shared understanding of how best to support the ELLs in your classroom.


This article originally appeared on Understood as part of a partnership between Colorín Colorado and Understood. ©2019 Understood For All, Inc.


For any reprint requests, please contact the author or publisher listed.