Mentoring English Language Learners

The following tips are provided on behalf of Tracey McConnery, Manager, English Programs & International Student Services

1. Get to know your Mentee. Take the time to learn your Mentees’ names, and pronounce them correctly. Also, invite them to share stories and experiences during discussions, or to say a word or two in their own language.

2. Honour the “silent period”

Many English Language Learners (ELLs) go through a “silent period,” during which they speak very little. During this stage, they will try to be precise when they speak, and will worry about sharing their opinions if their speech isn’t perfect. Encourage them to participate, but don’t force them.

3. Simplify your language without “dumbing it down”

Speak clearly and naturally, without going too quickly or slowly, and encourage students to raise their hands if they don’t understand a word or expression.  For example, saying “run that by me again,” or “that answer is in the ballpark,” will often be confusing for ELLs.

4. Increase wait times

After you ask a question, wait a few seconds before calling on students to respond. This will give ELLs a much-needed period to formulate a response. Allowing sufficient response times when interacting orally is important as ELLs will often first think in their native language, and then compose a response in English.

5. Provide students with frequent opportunities to be mentored together.

Activities, both in pairs and in small groups, are important ways to promote peer interaction. By working in smaller groups, and practicing their language in lower-risk settings, ELLs are given a chance to express themselves with increasing confidence.

6. Use non-linguistic cues

ELLs often have a difficult time processing spoken language, so use visuals, sketches, gestures, intonation, and other non-verbal cues that will make the language more accessible and comprehensible.

7. Check for Understanding

Regular checks for understanding are essential. However, don’t simply ask, “Are there any questions?” as ELLs will often just shake their heads to be polite. Rather, you could have students write questions on a sticky note that they place on their desks, or you could have them use hand signals to demonstrate their level of comprehension. For example, you could ask them to use a thumbs up, to the side, or down motion, to indicate their level of comprehension of a particular concept.


Ferlazzo, L. (2012, March 12). Do’s and Don’ts for Teaching English Language Learners. Retrieved from

Robertson, K. (2009). Supporting ELLs in the Mainstream Classroom: Language Tips. Retrieved from

Schwartz, M. (n.d.). The Multicultural Classroom. Retrieved from

Supporting English Language Learners: A Practical Guide for Ontario Educators. (2008). Ontario Ministry of Education. (2008). Retrieved from