Over the past few months, I’ve published several series of guest posts from teachers of English Language Learners: one on teaching math, another on ELLs and Special Needs, and the most recent one on teaching Science to ELLs. I also published a mini-series on evaluating foreign transcripts.

Now, it’s time to talk about teaching Social Studies to ELLs.

Today’s post by Kayla VanLeuvan is the author of the first post in this series.


Kayla VanLeuvan is a Civics and Economics teacher at Concord High School. She also works on a freshman intervention team that focuses on academic and behavioral support for the school’s freshman class:


Accessibility. A word we take for granted daily. We have access to information at the tip of our fingers and we don’t even realize the value of it. Accessibility is something that all students should have. Access to a teacher who cares, to content, and to success.

So how do you give access to ELLs in a Civics and Economics class? Social Studies has been taught through lecture for as long as I remember. This is how I learned in high school and in college. This is not making the content accessible to any student- especially ELLs.


When I teach Civics to ELLs I try to use as many visuals as I can. I will teach though only pictures some days. This could be in the form of 4 pictures, 1 word or “I see, I wonder”. By having them look at visuals and allowing them time to discuss their thoughts with peers they are having content discussions and might not even realize it. When we come together as a whole group I will make sure I write down what students are saying and using different colors to represent different ideas. For example, I taught different forms of government. For each type of government, it had a color and a picture and that way my ELLs knew that a crown meant a king/queen ruled and they then connected that to a Monarchy. It’s having a teacher that is willing to use visuals and colors to organize content in a way that ELLs can use.


Social Studies is big on reading documents. Primary sources are our thing. How do you get ELLs working with this text? My biggest success has been using websites like NEWSELA to allow students to not only access material in English and Spanish but also choose their Lexile level. I have also modified sources to only the essential information students need so that they aren’t overwhelmed. For example, I had students read about different Enlightenment thinkers. Tough stuff, even for adults. I had them first work with a partner to skim the reading and write down key words they hadn’t seen, or they felt were important. We discussed these and anticipated what the text was going to be about. I then had the students do a close read where they pulled out the key details. The KEY with giving ELLs these texts is pairing them with someone to help and scaffolding their learning. It is NOT okay to think, “Well, they won’t understand this so I will just give them the information.” They are capable. They are up to the challenge.

Many times students do not know where to start when they are writing about the content. For ELLs it is especially important for them to work on writing the content. I practice share writing in my classroom where I have students tell me what to write after they discuss a topic and then I write it on my board and students can copy it. By doing this ELLs are getting an opportunity to discuss content then write the content as well.


Classroom Environment

Teaching Civics to ELLs also means giving up the silence. Giving up YOUR idea of an “ideal” classroom. It means giving time for them to work in groups where they have a strong ELL to support the other group members and celebrating the noise. The noise means they are engaged with the content and they have access to the big ideas.

Students must feel welcome in your classroom, especially ELLs. They need to know their language is welcome to be spoken and that you are working to give them access to the material. At the beginning of the year I started with name plates for each student. They could put where they were from and any language they spoke. This let the entire class see where all are coming from. My students felt like they had a place in the classroom because myself and the rest of the class accepted their culture.



An ELL should not be failing a class. Period. They are learning the language and practicing their skills. Therefore, differentiated assessment is the key to their success. I make sure my test has all the visuals and exact definitions that I have used during the Unit. I will draw pictures beside words so that they know what the word means, and they can use that to guide their answer choices. If I have longer passages I put them in English and Spanish so that the students can see the material both ways. If a student struggles, I talk them through it. I sit and ensure that the student feels confident. Majority of the time the student is confident with the content, but not the language so I bridge that gap by having a discussion.


Teaching ELLs Social Studies should be looked at as an opportunity to get them engaged with the material. Chances are if you use visuals, song, discussion and talk-time, their trust will increase with you and they will be engaged in your material. To give ELLs accessibility is to change their life.