produced by Andrea Secord

“English language learners are students in English-language schools whose first language is a variety of English that is significantly different from the variety used in Ontario’s schools, and who may initially require educational interventions to assist them in attaining English language proficiency. They may be Canadian-born or newly arrived from other countries. They come from diverse backgrounds and school experiences, and have a variety of needs” (OME, 2005, p. 48).

Who is the English Second Language Learner?

ESL students come from very different cultural, social, and educational backgrounds and each will face a number of challenges in trying to integrate into the ELA classroom.

Canadian-born. Many ESL learners are born in Canada and raised in families or communities where languages other than English or varieties of standard classroom English are spoken (OME, 2005, p. 48). For example:
  • Many children in Aboriginal communities speak a first language other than English, such as Cree or Ojibwe, or varieties of English that differ from standard classroom English.
  • Children born in immigrant communities often speak languages other than English at home, or varieties of English that differ from standard classroom English.
  • Children born in communities where distinct cultural and linguistic traditions are maintained, such as francophone communities, often have a first language that is not English

Newcomers. Other ESL learners come from various countries around the world and arrive in Canada at different stages in their educational careers. Depending on their age and country of origin, some students will have had prior schooling, in English or in their first language, and others will have received limited or no schooling at all. These students will require varied levels of support, depending on their past experiences (OME, 2005, p.49). ELL.jpg
  • Some newcomers arrive in Canada as part of a planned immigration process. Often they have received formal education in their home countries, and some may have studied English as a foreign language.
  • Others arrive in Canada as a result of a war or other crisis in their home countries, and under conditions of extreme urgency. Often these children have suffered traumatic experiences and may require added support during the adjustment period. These students may also have received limited prior schooling in their home countries.

What are some common challenges for ESL learners?

1) Cultural adjustment or Culture Shock

ESL learners adjust differently to their new classroom environment depending on their own background or life experiences. Those who were born in Canada often have had some exposure to the culture, but for other ESL students it can be very new and often overwhelming. Not only do these students face challenges in trying to adjust to the rules and expectations of the classroom, but they are conscious of the differences between their skills and abilities and those of their peers. ESL learners often struggle to “fit-in” develop a sense of belonging (OME, 2008, p.11-12).

Tips for teachers:faces.jpg
  • Present your students with ways that they can help ESL learners, and be sure to model this behavior yourself.
  • Promote positive attitudes towards culture and diversity in your classroom.
  • Create a respectful and welcoming classroom environment where ESL students’ language errors are accepted as a normal part of the learning process.
  • Assign the ESL student a classroom partner (same gender and, if possible, the same language background) to explain or model routine classroom tasks.
  • Help ESL learners feel connected to their peers by pairing them in activities.
  • Engage ESL learners in activities that relate to their interests, existing knowledge, backgrounds, and skills (OME, 2005, p.19,21)

2) Learning the English Language

ESL students enter the classroom with varying levels of proficiency in the English language. For those who have little or no proficiency, even following simple classroom routines and instructions can be a challenge. Oral communication is essential to helping ELS learners integrate into the ELA classroom, for example through group discussion or pair-sharing. Giving ESL students the opportunity to listen to their peers using appropriate ELA classroom vocabulary during group work allows them to make connections through observation and active listening.

Literature Circles. These group discussions provide an opportunity for students to get together to talk about a book in depth. The circle allows students to engage in informal talk while sharing ideas in a small-group setting.Literature circles allow ESL learners to familiarize themselves with ways of talking about literature and also relate the characters and themes in books to their own lives (OME, 2007, p.45).

Cooperative Learning. In cooperative group activities, each group member takes on a specific task which he or she is responsible for: gathering materials, taking notes, time-keeping, etc. This allows ESL learners the chance to interact with their peers, to witness the cognitive strategies used in the classroom, and to actively contribute to the functioning of the group (for example time-keeping) regardless of their level of proficiency in English. It also gives them the opportunity to observe and to use language and behavior that is appropriate for working in groups: making suggestions, expressing opinions, encouraging others, disagreeing politely, etc. (OME, 2007, p. 40).

Word Walls or Charts. Word walls are lists of words displayed in the classroom to help students develop vocabulary or provide key terms needed for a particular unit.
They can be arranged alphabetically or thematically, and may be accompanied by
visuals or by word equivalents in other languages (OME, 2007, p. 48).

Strategic Use of First Language. Allowing ESL learners to use their first language gives them the opportunity to build bridges between concepts they already know in their home language and the English words for those concepts (OME, 2007, p.46). Here are a few ways that ESL learners’ first language can be incorporated in the classroom:
  • Dual-language assignments. For example, creating bilingual or multilingual advertisements, displays, signs, etc.
  • Writing drafts in the first language before moving on to a draft version in English.
  • Writing bilingual stories and then recording them on tape in English and in the first language.
  • Using multilingual media sources to research a topic before reading about it in English.
  • Inviting students to choose poems in their first language

3) Reading in the English language

Many ESL learners struggle to read efficiently in the English language. Because they tend to focus so much time on trying to understand each word as they read, they often struggle to see the bigger picture (main ideas, themes, etc.).

Shared reading. Shared reading allows ESL students to hear the teacher or other students read a text which may be above their level of understanding. By simply listening and following along the student is able to focus on comprehending the text. The teacher may also pause throughout the reading to explain difficult concepts or words, or ask another student to explain it in order to engage the rest of the classroom (Faltis and Coulter, 2008, p.82).

Guided reading. The guided reading strategy is used to help ESL learners get through challenging texts. Generally, it unfolds in three stages: before, during, and after reading.
1.Prior to reading, students are encouraged to brainstorm about the text and what it could be about and to anticipate questions they think the text could answer.
2.Students read the text using a combination of silent, pair, and group reading. During pair reading, for example, the teacher can focus his or her attention on ESL learners and help them in more challenging areas such as structure, vocabulary, and content.
3.After reading, the students are given response tasks which match their reading proficiency level. For example, describe characters or create a chart of adjectives that describe characters (OME, 2007, p.42).


ESL Infusion (University of Toronto)
This website offers checklists for educators in supporting ESL students, assistance in lesson planning and assessment, teaching ideas for ESL learners, resources for educators (list of videos, books, articles, internet sites, etc.), ESL stories and scenarios, external links, and much more.

Many Roots, Many Voices (Ontario Ministry of Education)
This document offers support for teachers and other professionals at the elementary and secondary levels in working with English language learners. It provides a number of practices and strategies that can be used in the school and the classroom, an exploration of the English language learner, and a list of references and resources for further reading.


English as a Second Language and English Literacy Development: The Ontario Curriculum Grades 9 to 12 (2007). Ontario Ministry of Education. Queen’s Printer for Ontario. Online.

Faltis, Christian and Cathy A. Coulter (2008). Teaching English Learners and Immigrant Students in Secondary Schools. New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc.

Many Roots Many Voices: Supporting English Language Learners in Every Classroom (2005). Ontario Ministry of Education. Queen’s Printer for Ontario.Online.

Supporting English Language Learners with Limited Prior Schooling (2008) Ontario Ministry of Education. Queen’s Printer for Ontario. Online.