Acquiring a second language is a natural, innate process.  There is only frustration when input is not comprehensible.   Answering the question “What do I do when I don’t understand?” with explicitly-taught metacognitive strategies empowers students.

Sit along side students and think aloud as you preview the book.  Point at the difficult words and ask: “Is this too hard?  Is it boring?”  Model putting the book down and picking a new one.  Matter-of-factly pointing at the book deflects from the frustration of incomprehensible text.   The book is the problem, not the child.

Often children are assigned books in their mainstream classes.  Students can’t put just put down their math or science textbooks without teachers misinterpreting this as disrespectful or lazy.  ESL teachers can explicitly teach children to state clearly 1. what they tried and 2. where they got stuck.

  • “I tried looking at the picture and title (point) but I got stuck here (point).”
  • “I read this part (point) two times but I don’t understand.”
  • “May I talk with Maria?  She doesn’t understand these directions (point).”



Beginners or shy students will not use these strategies.  But all it takes is one student leader to open dialogue and make teachers aware of the needs of their ELLs and appreciate their efforts.  Children learn they can be assertive in an appropriate way and feel in control of their education.


Published by

Claire Walter

I am an ESL teacher and I promote differentiated, compassionate instruction and assessment for English Language Learners.

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