Students who struggle with English have a doubly difficult task in history classrooms. Not only are they challenged with learning core historical knowledge and skills but they are also learning English. History lessons offer rich opportunities to teach both language and content. In this feature, we highlight instructional strategies and key information to help history teachers better serve the English Language Learner (ELL) student population.

Stanford professor Claude Goldenberg reviewed existing research on teaching ELLs and compiled three guidelines to focus thinking about instruction for these students (see “Teaching English Language Learners: What the Research Does — and Does Not — Say,” American Educator, 2008). While these guidelines are not confined to history teaching, we use them to introduce and frame this feature.

So what does the research say?

Using materials in the first language

Teaching students in their first language promotes the acquisition of knowledge and skills that can be applied in English. Examples of strategies that incorporate the primary language of the student include: teaching skills in the primary language with student application of the skills in English; previewing English language lessons by introducing important new concepts in the first language, reviewing these key concepts in the primary language after the lesson, and providing learning materials in multiple languages. Even if you, the teacher, speak only one language, you can still use multilingual resources.

Scaffolding Instruction

Teachers must modify instruction to help ELL students access important knowledge and skills. Scaffolding is one strategy that works. Examples of scaffolds include: graphic organizers; presenting information both verbally and visually; and clarification of difficult vocabulary to aid comprehension. Scaffolds like these enable you to keep your curriculum and instruction complex and challenging, but remember students may need explicit instruction about how to use particular scaffolds.

Good teaching for all

What you know about good history teaching also applies to teaching ELLs. Research shows that ELLs benefit from: content-rich environments; interactive curriculum; clear learning objectives; opportunities to apply knowledge; and constructive feedback. Because student achievement is enhanced when learning is reinforced at home, good history teaching includes clear communication with parents/guardians about the objectives of the course and student progress in the course.

In the First Language

Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History
Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History

Explore mysteries in Canadian history in both French and English.

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Google Translate
Screen shot, Languages supported by google translate, 1 april 2011

Looking to translate documents or text? Google Translate can help.

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From the University

Targeting Content and English Language Objectives
Photo, English club First meeting Dover Library, Sept. 13, 2010, RTLibrary

Build your students' language skills and historical understanding by using [...] »

Supporting Text Comprehension and Vocabulary Development Using WordSift
screen shot-wordshift home page

Help English learners understand basic concepts with this interactive tool [...] »

From the Classroom

The Struggle for Time: Using Persuasive Essays to Teach Elementary History

From chanting to formal essay framing—discover creative ways to frame ELL [...] »

Using Primary Sources with English Language Learners

Primary source analysis activities can help include English Language [...] »

Further reading

For deeper exploration of the research on teaching English language learners and its instructional implications, please visit the websites of the National Literacy Panel (NLP), the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition (NCELA), the Center for Research on Education, Diversity, and Excellence (CREDE), Colorin!Colorado!, the What Works Clearinghouse, and its companion site Doing What Works.