Challenges for ELLs

A Look at the Common Issues ELLs Face Within Content Areas

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(image credit: Many Roots, Many Voices)

Introduction & Rationale

The purpose of this page is to inform other educational professionals about the learning complications elementary level English Language Learners may have when studying material in various content areas.

Our group asked the question: What concepts seem to be challenging for ELL students in Math, Science, Language Arts, and Social Studies?, and How can we as teachers combat these challenges?

After conducting research, our group synthesized the information, summarized the most important ideas we came across, and organized the material in an easy to understand layout. We believe this information is important for all educators to have an awareness of so that English Language Learners in the school system can receive the attention, support, and education that they need in order to succeed in life.

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ELLs vs. the Language Arts

Specific Challenges for ELLs in the Language Arts:

  • Whether it’s in writing or speech, the English language uses wide range of idioms, synonyms, and figurative language that are hard for ELLs to comprehend.

  • The use of regional US dialects confuses students, especially when the area specific terminology contradicts what formal grammar lessons have taught and ELL.

  • When ELLs may struggle to understand certain tasks such as to state their opinion, write an essay, or state a conclusion because these tasks require skills that ELLs may not be familiar with using.

  • Content specific vocabulary: character, settings, main ideas action verbs, subject, noun, verb, pronoun

  • ELLs may experience confusion by the inclusion of common symbols used in English: exclamation point, question mark, comma, quotation marks, period.

Solutions to Combat Challenges:

  • Teachers can use a variety of approaches and activities to explicitly teach ELLs the vocabulary and phrases necessary for them to understand the Language Arts.

  • Through the use of scaffolding, teachers can explain terms and patterns in a way which an ELL can relate to and therefore understand.

  • Beyond explicitly defining terminology and phrases, teachers can provide examples and ask for examples relevant to the specific lesson, discussion or content area.

  • Teachers can initiate and promote classroom or small group discussions which prompt more thinking, strengthen a response, and gain multiple perspectives or understandings of what is being taught.

EDU 650 W01 group

ELLs Vs LanguageArts by EDU 650 W01 group

English Language Learners vs. Science

Specific Challenges for ELLs in Science:

  • ELL's may lack the background knowledge needed in Science.
  • Our "hands-on" approach is different from what they are used to.
  • Drawing conclusions on their own may be difficult for ELLs.
  • In their own culture, students may not have been trained to make guesses.

Challenges That ELLs Face When Studying Science:

  • The vocabulary of science presents a huge difficulty. There are a special set of terms for the student to learn. Even simple words that the student may know, could have another meaning in science.
  • Material is often covered very fast.
  • Directions are often multi-step and difficult.
  • There are too many concepts explained on each page of a science text.
  • Cooperative learning may not fit in with students experiences in learning.
  • Visuals may be confusing and difficult to understand.
  • Sentence structure is complex and the passive voice is used in textbooks.
  • What was taught in class does not always match the assessment.
  • ELLs may not be used to science labs or experiments.
  • Students lack background in Scientific Method.
  • There is no standard form of delivery of information.

Solutions To Combat Challenges :

  • Making use of concrete materials to demonstrate usage (for example, using a real flashlight when introducing the word).
  • Creating an illustrated vocabulary chart to help students visualize the words.
  • Using familiar synonyms for academic terms (for example see-through for transparent).
  • Making students aware of cognates, which are words in English that sound similar in a student's native language (for example, the word atomos is Spanish for atoms).

EDU 650 W01 group

Challenges ELLs Face in Science by EDU 650 W01 group

English Language Learners vs Math

Difficulties that ELL's face in Math:

  • Formation of numbers varies from culture to culture

  • The use of decimal point and comma vary from culture to culture

  • ELL's have no experience with our measurement system, so when learning it, it is abstract

  • Math is not spirally taught in many cultures, so ELL's might not know a lot about geometry

  • Many ELL's have never seen or worked with manipulatives. Since they rarely work with manipulatives, they might not take a lesson with manipulatives seriously.

  • ELL's learn math by rote memory.

  • Math curricula in their native countries may be primarily calculation.

  • Word problems may not be introduced until a later grade.

  • Estimating, rounding, and geometry are not often taught as early in other countries.

  • Mental math may be the norm for ELL's. They might not show work in addition, subtraction, multiplication and division or they may show work in a different way.

Solutions to Combat Challenges:

  • Create Vocabulary Banks – Having a chart that has key math vocabulary and phrases to help students with their math thinking. On this chart, it can have the words that are accompanied by the illustrations.

  • Elicit nonverbal responses, like thumbs up or down – Nonverbal responses will help the teacher check for understanding without requiring students to produce language.

  • Use prompts to support student responses – This can help ELL’s get started when responding to a question, such as “You figured it out by…” or “It is a polygon because…”

  • Utilize partner talk – The teacher can ask a question and then give the students a minute or two to talk to their neighbor about a problem. It allows for the students to participate in the classroom discussions, and it will eliminate the pressure that comes with speaking alone in the front of the group.

  • Increase student language production – Teachers can help increase this by have students share problem-solving strategies (such as asking did anyone solve this a different way and then showing the class); incorporate writing activities like math journals (simple prompts about what they learned and what questions they still have: “One thing I learned today….” “One way I can get the help I need….” “The answer to this problem is…”); challenge students to create their own math problems (by creating a problem and checking the answer – they are reinforcing their own learning).

EDU 650 W01 group

Group 3 by EDU 650 W01 group

English Language Learners vs. Social Studies

Specific Challenges for ELLs in Social Studies:

  • When studying the United States, or other countries and civilizations that are non-native to an ELL the ELLs will lack prior knowledge the history, terms, geography, and the current issues.

  • Some concept and terminology encountered in Social Studies do not exist in other cultures and therefor make this content area difficult for ELLs

  • For the most part our schools are set up to teach through timelines while other cultures study history by “dynasty”, “era”, or “period”.

  • Due to the amount of material covered in discussions and text, ELL students may have a hard time understanding what is being said and establishing what is important to take note of and what is not important.

  • ELL students may find Social Studies content complicated because it contradicts their own culture’s perspectives and beliefs.

Solutions to Combat Challenges:

  • Prior to instruction, a teacher should analyze their lesson plan in order to identify potential areas of confusion.

  • Teachers should attempt to use simple language to break down concepts into their most basic components.

  • Using a variety of visuals such as maps, photographs, and graphic organizers, can greatly aid an ELLs understanding of Social Studies content.

  • ELLs should be provided with ample opportunities to practice using new vocabulary, or demonstrate that they understand the content being taught.

  • Teachers can allow students to be creative in their writing assignment, that way ELLs can focus on the writing form that is their strongest in order to write out what they have learned from a lesson.

  • Use acting and songs to help students illustrate the vocabulary, people and events they are introduced to in Social Studies.

EDU 650 W01 group

ELLs Vs Social Studies by EDU 650 W01 group

References & Citations

Academic Language of the English-Language Arts. (n.d.). Retrieved April 23, 2015, from

Alegrai, A. (2014). SUPPORTING ENGLISH LANGUAGE LEARNERS IN THE SCIENCE CLASSROOM THROUGH CRITICAL PEDAGOGY. International Journal of Science & Mathematics Education, 12(1), 99-121. doi:1007/s10763-013-9399-7.

Aslexicon. Science Communication [Online image]. Retrieved April 29, 2015 from

Cover image. (2005). In Many roots, many voices: Supporting English language learners in every classroom : A practical guide for Ontario educators. Toronto: Ontario Education.

Cruz, B. C., & Thornton, S. J. (2012). Visualizing Social Studies Literacy: Teaching Content and Skills to English Language Learners. Social Studies Research & Practice, 7(3), 98-111.

Cyparsade, M., Auckloo, P., Belath, I., Dookhee, H., & Hurreeram, N. (2013). Beating the Language Barrier in Science Education: In-Service Educators' Coping with Slow Learners in Mauritius. Science Education International,24(4), 402-415.

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Robertson, K. (2010). Preparing an Engaging Social Studies Lesson for English ... Retrieved April 25, 2015, from

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