Modifying ELL Environments to Help Students Communicate

Instructor: Yolanda Reinoso Barzallo

Yolanda holds a CELTA Cambridge, a Juris Doctorate, and a Master of Public Administration. She is a published author of fiction in Spanish.

ELL teachers can modify and adapt learning environments to enable linguistically diverse students to use effective communication. This lesson gives you an overview of how to do this by using visual, verbal, non-verbal, and written resources.

Why Modify the ELL Classroom?

Let's meet Alicia. She is an ELL student from Argentina and this is her first day in an ELL classroom. As Alicia walks in the classroom, she sees the walls covered with posters that have a lot of information in English. While the posters have nice-looking images, the text is too much for her level. Alicia thinks she is going to have to know all the information she sees on the walls and feels immediately intimidated. This certainly does not help her lack of proficiency in English.

As ELL teachers, we need to be sensitive towards how the classroom environment affects our ELL students. For this reason, we should consider the possibility to modify the classroom in order to help ELL students feel like they are in a welcoming environment that promotes their potential to communicate. Let's see how we can do this.

Use Several Resources

Modifying the ELL classroom does not only mean making physical changes to it. It begins with verbal communication that can make ELLs feel comfortable and, thus, can encourage them to communicate. Here are some resources we have to modify an ELL classroom and turn it into a welcoming environment.

Verbal Modifications

Verbal modifications have to do with how spoken communication occurs in the ELL class.

Name Pronunciation

To begin, very often ELL teachers forget that their students' names are probably not pronounced the way we think. For instance, Alicia's ELL teacher calls her ah-lee-sha. However, since Alicia comes from Argentina, her name is pronounced ah-lee-see-ah.

The first important modification is, thus, to pronounce our ELL students' names correctly. We can ask them to introduce themselves and pay close attention to the way they pronounce their names so we can always pronounce them correctly.

Speaking Partners

Second, ELL students can find it intimidating if they are always expected to speak as the whole class listens. An effective modification to encourage ELL students to talk is to assign them a peer so they work in pairs. This way, ELL students do not feel the pressure of the entire class as they try to say something in a language that is still foreign for them. However, it is best to try to pair students who do not speak the same mother tongue so that they don't begin to speak it instead of English.


Third, when it comes to verbal communication, modeling for our students is very important. For instance, let's say you want your ELL students to talk about what their parents do for a living. Instead of just asking this question, you could say ''We are going to talk about what our parents do for a living. For example, my mother is a nurse and my father is a teacher.''

Relaxed Speaking Pace

Fourth, a teacher's verbal communication in the ELL class should have a relaxed pace as opposed to speaking quickly like we tend to do when we know our audience understands us. This gives ELL students the chance to listen carefully and get what the ELL teacher is saying.

Written and Visual Communication

Aside from the fact that we are obviously going to use written material that is level-appropriate for our ELL students, we can modify the physical classroom.

Wall Decoration

To start, all decoration on the walls would ideally include written material along with a visual to illustrate it. The text should never be too busy. In addition, the text should be big enough for ELL students to read it from their desks and should include grade-level content.

For example, Alicia's teacher modifies the classroom by putting up a few new posters. One of the posters has a list of basic school materials students use on a daily basis. The poster shows a picture of a pencil along with the word 'pencil,' a picture of an eraser with the word 'eraser,' etc. Also, there is a poster that describes what the Constitution is through one simple sentence. The ELL teacher chose this poster because Alicia and her ELL peers are learning about it in their grade.

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