Bridging the Language Barrier in the Classroom

How can I possibly teach high school biology (a language unto itself) to a non-native speaker?

Mi español no es muy bueno according to my English Language Learners (ELLs) and their online translators. Likewise, my ELLs’ English is emergent or cerca de cero. And, at any given time, 40% of my students are at varying stages of learning the English language. So, how do I teach high school biology (a language unto itself) to a non-native speaker (trying to learn English and pass biology) while I do no harm (to language learning, international relations, content acquisition, nor the witness of Christ)? I am certainly no expert. But, over the years, I found that these strategies were the most effective ways to bridge the language barrier in my classroom.

Talk to your ELLs. 

While they may not want to talk, ELLs need to talk. And we need to talk to them if we want to form any type of connection with them. I have found that making an extra effort to talk with my ELLs before and after class is the catalyst to forming relationships with them. Plus, when I start including them more often in class discussions, I notice the rest of their classmates start to see these non-native students as contributing members of our classroom community as well. 

Try your second language. 

When modeling a willingness to practice a second language, teachers create a classroom culture where everyone has the freedom to try and fail as a part of the learning process. Spanish is my segundo lenguaje. My pronunciation is horrible, and my vocabulary is very limited. I try though. While my non-English speakers are not necessarily impressed with my abilities, they do appreciate my efforts. They see me willing to take some rather embarrassing risks in front of a live audience. And they see me fail repeatedly... and try repeatedly. We all learn together. 

Even though our Spanish or Mandarin or Swahili may be "emergent," our hearts can be fluent in the love of Christ.

Bring some second language into your lessons. 

Even small connections between students’ cultures and the curriculum can help raise ELLs’ comfort levels, enhancing their interaction with the content. For example, when teaching about sugars, I pointed out the connections between my ELLs’ native language and the often foreign-feeling biology content. I explained that sucrose (sugar) has the same root (suc) as azucar (the Spanish word for sugar). Even though the origin of sucrose’s root isn’t directly relevant to the biology lesson, I think identifying the similarities in our languages helped my students feel connected to the material. 

Share cultures. 

For ELLs, school can be a very uncomfortable place full of unfamiliar people, language, and even food. By bringing a familiar topic (like a cultural event or food) into your interactions with your ELLs, teachers can make the classroom feel less intimidating. For instance, my family cooked homemade tamales, and I photographed the entire process. After sharing my pictures, I learned every Spanish-speaking student’s mother makes much better tamales than I do. And each shared tips on how my next batch could be better. Connecting with ELLs in familiar, fun, non-academic ways only increases their comfort level in the classroom.

Go beyond your classroom. 

Most teachers have experienced the positive outcomes of being seen by students at a ballgame or concert. However, connecting with ELLs outside of the classroom may require a passport to a land beyond our comfort zones. I have found that stopping by a family-owned tienda mexicana or a panadería guatemalteca requires courage and extra effort, but my students, their parents, and the businesses appreciate it. Meeting students in an environment where they feel more secure, surrounded by family, goes a long way in making my ELLs feel cared for and wanted in my classroom.

Keep in contact with your English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers. 

In addition to making conversations more efficient, ESL teachers are also masterful at knowing important details about the personal lives of their non-native learners. I often seek their advice because they are able to give valuable insight into the lives of my ELLs, even directing me to the right tienda o panadería at times.  

Use your students’ names. 

Every student appreciates someone knowing his or her name. I think it probably means even more to non-English speakers—a name requires no translation. I do my very best to learn my ELLs’ native names and use them at least once in every interaction to let them know they are important to me. 

Expect your ELLs’ to learn language and content. 

Even though my ELLs are acquiring a new language, I am doing them a disservice if I do not teach them some biology too. In order to not overwhelm them, I make modifications to the content and work closely with the ESL teachers, knowing that we might have to work a little harder and longer on the learning process. Flexibility and the goal of helping my students reach their full potential guide me. It may require some extra time and effort, but it is worth it.


God is the ultimate resource for teachers to seek protection, help, and growth for their ELLs. I often pray that my ELLs will learn the new language easily. I pray that they will understand and absorb the content. I pray that they will know and grow in Christ. And I pray with thanksgiving that I get to teach these students and be such an important part of their transition into, literally, a whole new world.

Paul Johnson has been teaching biology for nineteen years. He enjoys teaching, learning, birdwatching, and traveling, especially with his wife and three children.  


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