Helping English Language Learners Succeed

crayons_3221661646_637e5a65a7_mMany schools in the U.S. today are a mini-United Nations of ethnicities and languages. According to statistics from the Migration Policy Institute, in 2013-2014 K-12 English language learners (ELLs) made up approximately 10 percent of public school students, or about 5 million students, with the greatest concentration in the states of California and Texas (Migration Policy Institute). To understand how recent immigration affects school libraries, I asked five West coast elementary librarians about their strategies for working with non-native speakers and providing library resources and services.

Welcoming English Language Learners

As school begins, school librarians are making plans to welcome students, including English language learners to their libraries. Check out this advice:

  • “Many students come from places that don’t have public school libraries or organized places filled with books and computers. It can be really overwhelming. Even if you don’t speak their language, make them feel welcome, [demonstrate] that the library is a place they can be comfortable, and that you hope they come again. This needs to be communicated on the FIRST time they enter the door. After that, it gets harder” (Courtney).
  • “When new ELL students arrive, I shake hands and repeat their name to make sure I’m saying it correctly. I ask them to take a seat using my hands to indicate where. I use pictures of my expectations such as sitting crisscross, eyes on the teacher, no talking, etc. If the student appears to be having difficulty understanding what I am saying, peers in the class offer to help in translating” (Alicia).
  • “All new students are paired with a peer mentor for the first few weeks until they get a handle on library procedures. They have the opportunity to see me model for them, and they work on a skill in a small, low-pressure environment with a peer” (Melissa).
  • “Allow them to enter their own student number and scan their library books for check out. This gives them a sense of ownership and responsibility, and it is something they can do on their own and feel good about accomplishing” (Mia).

Practices to Support the Academic Efforts of ELLs

Providing the scaffolding to help each student succeed can range from the commonplace to unusual solutions.

  • “Adding a motion to a new vocabulary word or difficult concept is very important to students’ understanding, use, and retention. ELL students pick up more difficult, subject-based words better than common vocabulary because often there is a direct translation for the word. Adding movement to the words or concepts allows them to have multiple access points to remember a word. Making up a silly song or a chant also helps students to use a different part of their brain to retain new words” (Courtney).
  • “We have new comers straight off the plane to students born in the U.S. who are bilingual. Our library needs to have books available for different interests and on many different reading levels. Purchasing books in other languages is important; however, cost and the difficulty of finding sources for selected languages (such as Samoan) deters us from having a large World Language collection” (Jana).
  • “I use TumbleBooks [a subscription-based online collection of picture books, ebooks, audio books, and educational videos] available through our public library system. It displays the words of a story on each page; and as the words are read aloud, they are highlighted so students know where we are in the text. Using their new public library cards (all students receive them), kids can access the resource at home and listen, read along with a story, or watch videos to increase background knowledge” (Mia).

Challenges and Solutions

Working with English language learners can present special challenges that require thoughtful solutions to overcome the hurdles.

  • “My challenges involve not knowing what students are capable of and whether my expectations are too high for their grasp of the language, if they are capable of more but not wanting to complete an assignment, or trying to figure out on the fly how to help students who are not able to participate. This year I had a 4th-grade student who did not speak or understand English well but was fairly literate in Spanish. I assigned an activity in which the students were to type a poem about themselves, but she was finding it difficult. I asked if she wanted to type it in Spanish, and she excitedly agreed. When she finished, I used the translating function in Word; and although it did not translate completely (mostly because of her spelling errors in Spanish), it did allow me to understand what she was trying to say” (Alicia).
  • “The library can be a very overwhelming place for ELLs becauseP1070924 there are books, materials, and computers everywhere. The only way to overcome this hurdle is to be quietly persistent; really study these students and their behaviors as they come in. What do they avoid? What are they drawn to? Who do they connect with? The craziest positive thing in my library is the Betta fish I brought in at the beginning of the year. Students come in and stand near his small bowl, put their faces next to it, and talk to him. Finding as many ways possible to attract and interact with students is key to their success in using the library…eventually. Keep in mind that library is community, not just literacy” (Courtney).
  • Vocabulary is a big hurdle in all subject areas for most ELLs. Working with students who are learning English while learning curriculum is challenging. We have found that teaching important vocabulary before teaching lessons (front loading) helps them grasp concepts faster. Much of the time not knowing what teachers are referring to and not having background knowledge is what holds the students back. Teaching vocabulary first helps all the students be better prepared when the lesson and new information/strategies are introduced” (Jana).
  • English’s more unique vocabulary associated with social studies or science is often hard to teach. With the introduction of one-to-one computers, if a student is stuck on a word or theme, in a matter of seconds I can pull up a translation, image, definition, or video to teach those concepts. In turn, the students are able to do the same with concepts from their language with which I am unfamiliar” (Melissa).
  • “The materials in our library are so old, and I cannot purchase new non-fiction, folktales, and realistic fiction in all 40 languages we support at our school. I have a young girl from Cambodia, and she has checked out the 3 library books [about her country] multiple times. I would love to offer more, but it is difficult to find the resources (and funds). One solution is the new public library system cards. I can refer the students to the premium database, e-books, and TumbleBook section using our school district ID numbers; and students can access the materials at home on any device with an Internet connection. This new [public library] access has helped me to give ELLs additional support for their whole family” (Mia).

Nonfiction_10432777574_9377d141f4_qAs you begin a new school year, consider the experiences, tips, and advice from elementary librarians Alicia, Courtney, Jana, Melissa, and Mia. For additional ideas:


Migration Policy Institute. “Number and Share of English Language Learners by State.”, (accessed July 6, 2016).

Image Sources:

Braynebrayne. “Paul Jr. Crowntail Betta (Siamese fighter) Fish.” Used under Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike License.

Douchette, Matt. “Crayons.” Used under Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike Noncommercial License.

Enokson. “Nonfiction.” Used under Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial License.



Author: Helen Adams

A former school librarian in Wisconsin, Helen Adams is an online senior lecturer for Antioch University-Seattle in the areas of intellectual freedom, privacy, library ethics, and copyright. A member of the AASL Knowledge Quest Advisory Board, the ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee, and a KQ blogger, she is the author of Protecting Intellectual Freedom and Privacy in Your School Library (Libraries Unlimited, 2013) and contributor to The Many Faces of School Library Leadership (2nd edition, Libraries Unlimited, 2017). Email:

Categories: Blog Topics, Intellectual Freedom

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2 replies

  1. Our school has international students and one thing I know they appreciate is to see signage welcoming them to the library in their own language–Korean, Vietnamese, Spanish, etc. I always double check with students to make sure the word is correct and the character is right.

  2. Maria,

    Thank you so much for your no cost but very welcoming tip.

    On July 18, 2016, eSchoolNews published an article on apps for ELLS, “8 of the Best Apps and Resources for English Language Learners.” The link is


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