Teaching Subject Matter Concepts to ELL Students

Instructor: Matthew Hamel

Matt has degrees in Journalism and Business and has taught a variety of courses at high schools and universities around the world.

Teaching ELL students involves its own set of challenges, particularly when it comes to subject matter concepts. This lesson outlines how teachers can utilize a variety of tools to effectively teach English as a new language (ENL) students.

Subject Matter Concepts

Teaching English language learners (ELLs) about different types of subject matter can sometimes be problematic for teachers. For instance, there's a good chance that your students have varying levels of language ability. This can sometimes lead to confusion among students and a lack of lesson consistency. However, by identifying and utilizing a few key components of teaching subject matter concepts, or topics, to ELL students, you'll be better able to adjust your lesson content and delivery techniques appropriately.

Multiple Activities & Viewpoints

Many ELLs can benefit from viewing material and other educational content from a variety of perspectives. One of the best ways to accomplish this is through the use of varied classroom activities and homework assignments. Regardless of the specific subject or subjects you teach, it's important to be prepared to approach material in a number of different ways. For example, if you are teaching a unit on U.S. history, consider the following approaches:

  • Research-based projects
  • Classroom games and activities
  • Individual and group presentations
  • Art/creative historical representations and explanations

Use of Paraphrase

As you take advantage of a number of different approaches, be sure to offer students consistent opportunities to review and consolidate their knowledge through class and small group discussions. Another valuable tool is to have students paraphrase and summarize information in their own words. This technique allows them to both use English as a communication tool and enables you to assess their language abilities and measure their linguistic progress.

Methods of Inquiry

One of the most relevant academic tools ELL students can learn to use is inquiry. By asking questions, students are able to expand their knowledge and explore unfamiliar subject matter concepts. When you encourage questions in the classroom, your learners are more likely to appreciate how a well-thought-out line of inquiry can lead to new academic and language discoveries.

There are a few different inquiry-specific techniques that can be beneficial to your ELLs. For example, in addition to asking students questions directly, try setting aside time for students to ask questions of each other. This can be done in pairs or small groups. If you employ this process, be sure to provide the groups with discussion questions or conversation topics to get the discourse flowing.

One-on-One Meetings

While not always achievable, setting aside time for one-on-one meetings with students can yield huge benefits. Students can use this time to ask clarifying questions or check their comprehension of information covered in class. It's not unusual for ELLs to feel hesitant about asking questions in class, particularly if it includes native English-speaking students. The fear of making English grammar or pronunciation errors in front of their peers can prevent some students from speaking up when they have a question; individual meetings can help to assuage some of these fears.

Subject & Vocabulary Concepts

In order for ELL students to be successful in an English language academic environment, they must feel confident about the building blocks of the language acquisition process. A big part of this involves ensuring that vocabulary, especially subject matter vocabulary, is clearly defined and understood. You'll want to provide students with plenty of examples and opportunities to observe vocabulary in action and to use that same vocabulary themselves.

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