Running Your Classroom with English Learners in Mind

by Natalia Heckman

Natalia PostAuthor’s note: I am relatively new to Seidlitz Education, but I am not new to teaching English learners. In fact, I myself am an English learner. The concepts and tools I will share in this blog post are research-based and classroom-tested. I have either used these techniques during the last ten years of teaching or observed them during my instructional rounds as a coach, tapping into my personal experience to reflect on what worked for me as a student.


The dynamics of your room will be as unique as your students, but there are some simple steps you can take to facilitate your English learners’ success. So, how do you set up and run your classroom with English learners in mind? 


Turn on the lights


Have you ever tried reading a menu at a restaurant where the only source of light is the candle on your table? 

Why do you need to have a well-lit classroom? 

As a coach, I come across many rooms where teachers use Christmas lights, night lights, lamps, and other decorative sources of light to create an ambiance. However, unless you have students whose medical condition requires you to dim your lights, there is very little justification for turning off your ceiling lights. If you stay in the dimly lit room all day, you may not even notice how dark your room really is. When English learners are asked to learn in the dark, you’re revoking their access to the comprehensive input—visual cues such as gestures, graphics, and facial expressions—that is so critical to understanding and internalizing content. Besides, light helps us stay awake and alert. 

Students need light to be able to see a variety of things:

  • Print on the walls, such as graphics or anchor charts
  • Mouth movement of a speaker (instantly increases oral comprehension)
  • Facial expression nuances 
  • Gestures 


Assign seats 


As you walk into a PD room, where do you sit? In the front row with someone you don’t know or next to your buddies? What if you walk into a room where you don’t know anyone and you have to find a seat? 

Why is it beneficial to have a seating chart? 

Assigning seats does not make you a dictator. You are a facilitator. Many teachers allow students to choose where to sit in hopes of running a democratic classroom. However, let’s dig deeper. Is it truly beneficial for students‘ growth? 

By letting students select their seats, you are recreating the same social patterns we observe in the cafeteria: buddies, loners, cliques. That’s not what we envision for our sheltered classroom. When you assign seats, you alleviate the social pressure of being included. Without assigned seating, students will be tempted or even obliged to sit by their friends, and that is not always conducive to learning—in fact, it can have quite the opposite effect. 

We don’t want to assume that all English learners prefer to sit by others who share their language. In my experience, English learners welcome opportunities to be partnered up with native speakers but are often too shy to join them on their own. 

Assigned seating allows the teacher to achieve several things: 

  • Build strategic grouping aligned with the purpose of your lesson
  • Provide opportunities for English learners to communicate with native speakers
  • Ease the social pressure of being obliged to sit by your buddies 
  • Create preferential seating for English learners (facing the board, closer to the teacher)
  • Assign differentiated work or materials with ease (for example, leveled reading texts) 

While your basic seating chart may only change once every grading period, your daily seating arrangement may vary based on the purpose and the focus of your lesson. As an example, watch Carol Salva’s video on how to rotate between rows and groups by teaching students to move their own desks into different formations. Having a seating chart does not mean you will never let the students sit where they like. And when you do, it will be a treat and an incentive! 


Declutter your speech (and your Power Points). Less is more! 


A teacher gives a two- to three-minute explanation of a task, and then about 50 percent of the class turn to each other and ask, “What are we supposed to do?” The teacher then proceeds to repeat the same instructions to the individual students. 

Students often complain that teachers talk too much. My knee-jerk reaction is to dismiss it as nonsense, thinking, “The more exposure to the language the better, right?” Well, not always. What students are describing is called rambling. John Seidlitz refers to this phenomenon as slurred instruction. Even for a veteran teacher, it takes an effort to sensor your speech for non-essential information, needless repetition, and fillers. 

While presenting a lesson or giving instructions, cut to what is most important. Keep your sentences short and clear and your directions crisp. Do not rush through a long series of instructions. Segment it. If you want the whole class to be on the same page, stop and check for completion after each step. 

Why is it better to say less?   

    • Makes it easier for English learners to follow 
    • Helps to focus on the essence of the lesson
    • Increases retention by limiting the amount of information 
    • Encourages students to pay attention to every word you say

So, turn on your lights, assign seats, and declutter your speech! You might say that most of this is just common sense and would help all students, not only English learners. You are absolutely right! Successful teachers know how to create the environment, remove hindrances, and condition all students to be their best. The art of teaching is subtle, and the devil is in the details. Small things make a big difference.


Want to learn more from Natalia? Join her and Allison Hand for any of our upcoming “Moving ELs Forward” trainings to learn research-backed and classroom-tested strategies for helping English Learners approach the ELA EOC with confidence.

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