Think back to when you were in school. From which teachers did you learn the most? Chances are good that the teachers you learned the most from were quite adept at engaging you during class. For English language learners (ELLs) this point certainly holds true as well. However, educators often have difficulty working with ELLs on meaningfully engaging in classroom activities. Many ELLs must overcome anxiety and the emotional turmoil of moving, living in a new cultural environment, and making new friends. All of this must be done while trying to learn English. The language barrier often pushes students into a state of isolation, further inhibiting their classroom engagement and learning.

Strategies to Improve ELL Engagement

Below is a list of strategies to help teachers start thinking about ways to improve engagement for ELL students:

  • Focus on productive language skills such as speaking and writing: Speaking activities, when done in small-group or peer-to-peer settings, allow students to take risks, thereby building confidence in using the language.1

  • Increase active listening skills: This can be done through small-group interactions for students and peer-to-peer interactions. The main point is to provide students with a variety of these types of experiences. This allows “message redundancy,” a form of language practice for students.

  • Employ recasting in moderation: Teachers can use recasting as a tool to help students understand proper grammar and sentence form, as well as provide confirmation of meaning by the teacher. A simple example of a recast is as follows:

    Student: Yesterday, I buy a new shirt.

    Teacher: Yesterday, I bought a new shirt.

    Overuse of recasts can lead to diminished confidence for some students. It becomes a form of repetitive negative feedback.2

  • Provide positive feedback and encouragement: Positive feedback, again, can help build students’ confidence levels in using their English language skills. Authentic encouragement creates a culture of language safety for students.3

  • Ask open-ended questions: Asking students questions that require them to produce extended stretches of language provides a type of language scaffolding.4 Take these two questions as an example:

    Closed-ended question: What is your favorite book?

    Open-ended question: Why is The Lord of the Flies your favorite book?

    Closed-ended questions are not to be forgotten, but should be used in conjunction with open-ended questions to increase the language complexity expectations of students. These question types also create more practice opportunities for students.

  • Use positive nonverbal cues: Frustrated sighs from a teacher or body language such as eye rolling can destroy a student’s confidence and willingness to participate in class. Teachers should work toward creating positive interactions with students because they have a significant influence on students’ performance in the classroom.5


ELL Shadowing

As you consider ways to improve ELL engagement in your school, you might consider a strategy called "ELL shadowing."6 ELL shadowing is a beneficial technique for studying a student's experience in school and gaining valuable insight into the student's perspective. The purpose of ELL shadowing is to gather information about a student's experience in school in order to better understand the perspective of the student, as well as participate in a larger conversation on improving the educational experiences for not only the observed student, but also the entire group of ELL students. This method can help administrators to gather data around how ELL students are being engaged in classrooms and encourage teachers to become more sensitive and aware of the cultural and linguistic needs of ELLs. The end goal is to help schools become more responsive to the educational needs of this group of students.

Shadowing involves following an ELL student for several hours to note how s/he engages with content during class, paying specific attention to the types of listening and academic speaking in which the student is involved. To begin, use the ELL Shadowing Planning Checklist provided to gather the necessary tools and documents. Purposefully select a couple of students to shadow. For example, you might select an ELL student who is making solid progress and another who is struggling in school. Use each student's class schedule to plan the logistics of where and when to shadow the student through several classes and review the student's ELL Growth Plan in order to better analyze the student's level of engagement during observation.

Use the ELL Shadowing Observation Tool to measure the engagement of the student at 5-minute intervals. Every 5 minutes, analyze the activities the student is involved in and record findings on this form. This will allow you to get a sense of how the student is spending his/her time during class.

The ELL shadowing method should be used to benefit both teachers and students by promoting awareness of the needs of ELL students as well as providing teachers with insights to better accommodate the learning experiences of these students. This technique, in addition to the strategies for increasing student engagement during instruction, will better equip teachers to improve the education of ELL students and contribute to their academic achievement.

You can also find more information on ELL Shadowing in Ivannia Soto's book ELL Shadowing: A Catalyst for Change. You can also read about how one school implemented ELL shadowing in this Education Week article .7


author coauthor maddyNancy Duchesneau is a doctoral student in the Education Policy Program at Michigan State University. She is interested in how education policy can improve educational access and equity for traditionally disadvantaged student groups, such as ELLs. She currently serves as a graduate assistant for the CREATE for STEM Institute at MSU.


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1-4 Soto, I. (2012). ELL Shadowing as a Catalyst for Change. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin.

Woolfolk, A. & Brooks, D. (1985). “The Influence of Teachers’ Nonverbal Behaviors on Students’ Perceptions and Performance,” The Elementary School Journal, 85(4), 513-528.

6  Soto, I. (2012). ELL Shadowing as a Catalyst for Change. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin.

Heitin, L. (2011). ELL “Shadowing’ Shows Promise,” Education Week, 5(1), 38.

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