Teaching Special Populations of ELL Students

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.

As a teacher of English language learners, you may have students in your classroom who have some special characteristics, such as newcomers. This lesson provides you with a guide for working with these students.

English Language Learners: Special Populations

Audrey is a teacher of English language learners (ELLs) with a lot of experience working with special populations. Special populations of English language learners include students whose situations are different from ''typical'' learners and who have different instructional needs.

Audrey makes a point of identifying students who are part of a special population of ELLs. This is very important because these populations have specific instructional needs.

Let's look at the different special populations you might encounter in your ELL classroom.


Audrey welcomes Mei, a Chinese student, in her intermediate English class. Since Mei just enrolled in school, she's a newcomer. The general characteristics of newcomers include:

  • Shyness and difficulty opening up to peers at first
  • Lack of awareness of the school/classroom culture
  • Feelings of confusion about how to act in the new environment

While newcomers often have a hard time because they have to adjust to a new environment, they also have strengths: they're adaptable and they can bring a fresh perspective to the entire class. Based on the characteristics of a newcomer, like Audrey, consider using some of the following activities to meet their instructional needs:

  • Prepare a ''break-the-ice'' activity, where students interview each other about their likes and dislikes. This way, you can integrate the newcomers with all of your students.
  • Find time to talk to the newcomers individually, which not only gives you the chance get to know them a little bit, but also to make them familiar with school expectations.
  • Check on the student while in class. For example, Audrey assigns a writing task and monitors Mei as she works. Audrey gives additional instructions and guidance if needed.

Long-Term ELLs

Ideally, ELLs should not be in an English language learning program for more than a few years. However, Audrey has students who have been in the program as long as they've been in school - seven years or more in some cases. The strength of long-term ELLs is that they're totally familiar with school and program expectations. However, long-term ELLs are somewhat stuck, so consider meeting their needs as follows:

  • Pose new challenges. For example, Audrey designs lessons that include innovative activities, like interviewing the principal or designing a community social action project. When you create new types of activities, you provide long-term ELLs with a new challenge.
  • Build vocabulary and expressions. Audrey knows that long-term ELLs need to progress past the language patterns they're comfortable with and use new ways of expression. To help them do so, Audrey familiarizes students with new topics that go beyond the traditional ELL daily life topics. Examples include careers, college life, and fashion.

ELLs with Trauma

Trauma can arise from physical (e.g. accident) or psychological (e.g. verbal abuse) experiences that affect a person's life. Usually, the characteristics of students with trauma are:

  • Lack of engagement - the student is not interested in interacting with peers or learning.
  • Negative moods and attitudes - the student is often in a bad mood, or has mood swings. For example, the student is aggressive and defensive.

For instance, Audrey has Keyla, a student who lives with a foster family, due to sexual abuse on the part of her parents. As a result, Keyla is aggressive and cares very little about school.

Students like Keyla have very specific instructional needs:

  • Need of team support - Audrey consults with the school counselor and Keyla's classroom teacher for updates on ways to approach Keyla's needs.
  • Inclusion in all activities - Audrey does not overlook Keyla's lack of desire to comply with tasks. This way, Keyla learns that her situation does not exempt her from school obligations.
  • Develop strengths and interests - Audrey is aware that ELLs with trauma often have low self-esteem. Thus, Audrey learns about Keyla's strengths and interests, which include playing the piano, encouraging Keyla to talk about her talents to peers during an oral presentation.

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