March 10, 2013

Anchor Charts for ELLs

English Language Learners are very resourceful students.  You may notice your ELLs checking the name plate that's hanging outside your door to spell your name correctly, or referring back to a read-aloud you did last week because they've forgotten what a carved pumpkin is called.  Developing this ability to independently retrieve information is critical for ELLs.  As teachers, we can help them become more proficient with this skill by creating and posting quality anchor charts in our classrooms.

Anchor charts reflect the learning that is going on in a classroom.  They might outline a classroom routine or procedure so that students can remember what to do.  Or, they may review content vocabulary so that students can refer to these words in their speaking and writing.  ELLs rely on these charts to help them remember what's expected of them.  Anchor charts help orient ELLs in the unfamiliar language environment of the classroom.

Anchor charts lose their utility, however, if students can't quickly locate needed information. Sometimes our walls become so full of words and lists that students become overwhelmed.   When designing charts with ELLs in mind, it's critical to make it as easy as possible for your students to find and interpret the relevant information.  Below are some ways you can help students get what they need from your anchor charts. 

1.) Get rid of the clutter.  Only post charts containing information that students will need to refer back to.  You'll know you've made a great anchor chart when you see students getting out of their seats to check it, or see them glancing at the chart while working.  Rotate anchor charts depending on students' needs and the units you're teaching.  Try not to let your walls get so crowded that the most important information is lost in a sea of words. 

2.) Categorize.  Rather than charting lists upon lists, try organizing your charts using categories.  For example, instead of simply listing alternative words for "said" (a lesson many of us teach every year during narrative writing units), group those words into categories by their emotional connotations.    This way, students can start to understand the nuances that different words carry in their reading and writing.  Even something as simple as color-coding different categories makes it easier for ELLs to quickly see which words belong together.

ELLs' writing will be clearer when they make deliberate decisions about which word to choose in order to convey their character's feeling.  In reading, students can make better inferences when they understand the subtle differences between these words.  

3.) Label.  Labels are especially helpful to ELLs because they allow you to convey the most important information with the fewest words.  Labels can be particularly helpful in creating anchor charts for classroom rules and procedures.  The visuals make it easy for students to quickly find the appropriate chart to remind them what they should be doing.  You can use charts like the one below to display class routines, such as what to do during reading block, writing block, partnerships, in the hallway, etc.

Even beginner students can be held accountable for classroom rules and routines.  Simply point to the appropriate part of the diagram to remind students of the behavior you expect.

Did you find this post useful?  Here are some other posts you might like!  For ideas about how to promote reading comprehension in ELLs and communicate expectations to parents, click hereThis post explains the importance of using graphic organizers to help ELLs structure their thinking.  Click here to take a quiz to see how well you're amplifying for the ELLs in your classroom, and here for some ideas to help you amplify further.


  1. This is a great little article! Often classrooms are so full of charts but the charts are not usable charts and have little to no meaning for students. Teachers should most definitely use more content specific charts with contextualization (especially pictures with the words) whenever possible, so students at all levels of language can be able to access language easily and therefore progress!!! Too often ELLs are inundated with a variety of concepts to remember at the same time. Having usable charts can help students to have successful learning experiences because they can be confronted with less at a time to have to think about because the language is right there. Many times the problems with ELL progress lie in the way ideas and content are presented and not problems with the learners themselves. It is vital that teachers understand that if you are teaching a new skill, you should work with old / familiar vocabulary (ie. the vocabulary on the charts). This way, students can focus on the new skill and learning one (new) concept at a time, rather than grappling with which language to retrieve first.

    Another wonderful point mentioned was about the categorizing and color coding of the language on the charts. I often start with a general chart with a language focus and then go back to the chart and dissect it. More specific work is done with the language such as a new chart with categorizing and color coding. This gives students multiple exposures to new (content specific) language and is really one of the only ways to guarantee language acquisition. Usable charts means that the students understand the language and can know how to access it and when, in order to achieve the high learning standards required of ELLs and all learners!! Using the same vocabulary in a variety of ways can / will give students multiple exposures to (new) language, more practice with the charts and language, which will therefore lead to successful language and content acquisition, which is really what (all) teachers of ELLs must always think about!!

    -Nicole Levin, ESL Coordinator in Brooklyn

  2. Your point about teaching new concepts with familiar vocabulary can not be overstated! This is one of the best ways to ensure ELL students are receiving the same quality education as native speakers--by teaching the same concepts with high expectations, but providing support and scaffolding so the language can develop alongside the content knowledge.

    Thank you also for suggesting that teachers revise their charts to present the information in the best way. It is so valuable for students and teachers to create anchor charts together, but that process often leads to messy, disorganized presentation. Taking the time to review and modify your chart after collaborating on it with students provides the best of both words. Teachers should look for ways to make the language and visuals clearer, as well as the overall organization and presentation.

    Thank you for commenting! We look forward to seeing you on here again!

  3. This chart is so helpful! I like the way the faces accompany the words. It makes it MUCH clearer for children to understand the words they can use to replace said (and when to choose a particular one).

    1. Thank you, Stacey! Hope the school year is off to a good start!