Teaching American History to ELL Students

Instructor: Jennifer Garcia O'Neill

Jennifer has taught ELL classes more than 10 years and has her Master's of Education in ESL.

Are your ELL students struggling to understand American history? In this lesson, you will learn strategies, tactics and tools for teaching American history to your ELL students.

Overcoming Challenges

Teaching American history to ELL students presents unique challenges. Students will experience difficulty both with understanding the language and relating to the content. However, this lesson presents several strategies you can use to help students have an easier time understanding topics in American history.

Create Background Knowledge

ELL students have a variety of perspectives when it comes to American history. Students who have attended school outside the US will have a completely different viewpoint and may have limited exposure to the subject. Students who have attended school in the US still will have different cultural perspectives. Let's look at some ways you can create background knowledge similar to what native speakers bring to a subject to help ELLs make connections to the subject.

Decorate your classroom walls with relevant images. For example, a map of the United States provides a quick reference for students. ELL students might not know the names of states and major cities. When discussing locations, have students find the place on the map.

When introducing new material, display visuals whenever possible. When students actually see what you are discussing, they have a better chance of understanding because they don't have overcome any language barriers. Additionally, word walls are great strategy to help students remember important vocabulary or concepts.

Teach Concepts Using Themes and T-Charts

Whenever possible, try to group common events together. This helps ELL students make connections between events. Examples of common themes are globalization, religion and wars.

American historical themes are full of facts to remember and for a student struggling with the language, memorizing lists of facts will seem meaningless. T-Chart notes are great for helping ELL students learn the content. When taking notes, students draw a T on their paper. In one column students will write the main ideas and in the other the important details. Students are more likely to remember content when they summarize it in a concise manner. For beginning level ELL students it would be appropriate to provide these notes for the student.

Use Engaging Activities

Don't rely exclusively on textbooks and lectures to teach the content. Textbooks offer an immense amount of information that can be hard for ELL students to process. They can struggle with recognizing what is important versus what is not and with understanding academic vocabulary. You can help by highlighting the most important information for the students. Tell students what to focus on while reading.

The use of varied learning tools when teaching new concepts will help the material come alive for students with different learning styles and levels of language proficiency. Students may be able to develop a better understanding of the material and make new connections. Multimedia also helps to keep students engaged. Examples of engaging learning tools are:

  • Video clips
  • Audio files
  • Animated flashcards

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