How To Teach ELL Students In History Class

Photo by  Bambi Corro

Photo by Bambi Corro


Once upon a time I spent a few years teaching Spanish-speaking immigrant students U.S. history. Most of them had immigrated to Miami at the age of 15 or 16, and while they were learning their first words of English, they were also enrolled in my bilingual U.S. history class. My Spanish-speaking skills and reliance on teaching with images and class discussions allowed us all to get through the year successfully. But there are many more strategies to teach ELLs in a history class, and that’s what the following paragraphs will explore.

Preview And Review Key Vocabulary

If you have ever taken a beginning language class, you know that communication is almost completely vocabulary-based. This is why it is so important for ELL students to have a chance to preview important vocabulary, work through the vocabulary in use, and review the vocabulary. When students are still learning a language, every new word they learn increases their ability to communicate outside of the classroom. In my own experience, when students realized how much my class was helping them in their real life, they were extremely appreciative.

Connect Content To What Is In The News

Immigrant students are not only learning a new language, they are also learning about a new culture and society. That is why tying the content of your history class to what is currently happening helps to reinforce the learning that takes place in your class. You can also relate what is going on in your class to the history of your students’ own countries. I realized that my students had immigrated at an age when they would have been enrolled in an in-depth class to learn about their own country. Connecting current events allowed them a chance to visit the histories of their own countries while studying the content of my class. If you are not sure what to teach about each students’ country, you can have your students supply the current events.

Allow Students To Write A Narrative

History is full of so many narratives and stories that students read about a summarize. But if ELL students are given a space to write a micro-story in their own words, this can be a valuable opportunity for them to apply what they are learning in their language class. As the history teacher you should focus on how well they can communicate a point, and not on the grammar. Going back to what a language teacher would say, a student can be extremely communicative without being completely grammatically correct.

Teach With Images

When I’ve said previously that I would use images in my history class to get students to tell me what was happening, that was an understatement. I would use this ALL THE TIME. In one case, a student with no English abilities complained that my class was overwhelming. When I taught her how to use the image-based notes on the content covered, she became one of my best students.

Use Primary Sources

Using primary sources when teaching history builds the interpretive and critical thinking skills of any student. With ELL students, primary sources are a way to teach them about the culture of their new country, and they allow students to make connections to their home country. Amber Hall describes one of my favorite primary source activities in this post in the National History Educational Clearinghouse. I have linked additional resources for teaching with primary sources in my post on teaching visual literacy.

Guide Students Through Note-Taking

Similar to your native English speaking students, your ELL students likely do not know how to take effective notes. But for this population, taking good notes is critical for understanding the new material. Jordan Alexander Santana, with the National History Education Clearing House gives this description of SQ3R note-taking, that is particularly effective for ELLs. This strategy allows students to asses their comprehension of a topic before, during, and after a reading. Andrea Marshbank with Edutopia, gives this description of 3 note-taking ideas that will get students interacting with each other and moving around the classroom.

Summary Of Strategies

Teaching history to ELL students can be extremely rewarding. Below is a list of strategies that were covered in this post:

  1. Preview and review key vocabulary.

  2. Connect content to what is in the news.

  3. Allow students to write a narrative.

  4. Teach with images.

  5. Use primary sources.

  6. Guide students though the note-taking process.

There are so many great resources on this topic. Here are a few more that I referenced:

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