Modifications for ELL Students in Social Studies

Instructor: Sarah Mills

Sarah is an educational freelance writer and has taught English and ESL in grades k-12 and college. She has a master's degree in both Literacy and TESOL.

In this lesson, teachers will learn some strategies for accommodating English Language Learner (ELL) students in the content area of social studies. The lesson will discuss ways to modify instruction to target the learning needs of ELL students.

Building Background Knowledge

Social studies teachers often teach a large portion of their classes with lectures and heavy reading assignments in an effort to cover a lot of historical content in a short period of time. This makes social studies a particularly difficult content area for ELL students with limited English proficiency. Not only do they struggle to keep up with the content, but they also have difficulty just being able to complete simple tasks that native English speakers often don't have to worry about, such as following basic instructions.

One way that social studies teachers can make content more accessible to ELL students is to help these students build background information. Many ELL students lack information about American culture and history. Background information is necessary before students will be able to add new information to their existing knowledge.

One way to gauge students' background knowledge is to conduct a brainstorming session prior to each new unit. Write a word, phrase, or sentence in the center of the board that relates to the topic, and ask students what words, images, and ideas come to mind. Record their responses around the main topic. Students who are unfamiliar with the topic will learn a lot just by hearing other students' contributions. As the teacher, you can take this opportunity to fill in any gaps according to what your students don't know.


It's important to teach unfamiliar vocabulary ahead of any unit or reading. You can have students complete a vocabulary rating chart to rate how familiar they are with each vocabulary word.

Look for authentic opportunities to use the vocabulary during instruction. Keep a visual word wall with vocabulary words and pictures that students can refer to throughout the unit.

Mix, Match, Freeze

Allow students to interact with each other throughout the learning process. One strategy that allows for collaboration is called 'Mix, Match, Freeze.' On a set of index cards, write vocabulary words associated with the unit. On the other half of the set, write the definitions to those words. Provide each student in the class with an index card. Allow them to walk around the room, searching for their match.

Once students find their match, they freeze in place. Each group justifies their decision. If any pair is mismatched, direct students to try again.

This strategy also works well with other content. For example, you can have students match dates with historical events.

Reading the Text

Textbooks can be overwhelming for ELL students. Before assigning a textbook reading assignment, walk students through the chapter. Preview the pictures, discuss key vocabulary words, and ask students to make predictions about what the chapter will be about. Guide students in an interactive pre-reading strategy, such as a KWL chart or anticipation guide.

Teach students to use strategies to self-monitor their reading, such as creating note cards, highlighting the text, using sticky notes to make notes in the margins, filling out graphic organizers as they read, and writing summaries of their reading.

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