How to Make American History Easier for ELLs

After I earned my MA in TESOL, I took a job teaching American history through a college’s ESL program. I’ve always been interested in history, and I couldn’t understand why all of the other teachers preferred to teach grammar or reading.

A few classes later, I was so frustrated I couldn’t understand why I chose to teach it. The formative assessments showed—to put it professionally—that I wasn’t meeting my objectives. My students couldn’t tell a pilgrim from a patriot, an Aztec from a Tory, or a colony from a frontier.

I took some time to backtrack over the more important parts of America’s early days to see where, exactly, the gaps were. That gave me enough information to figure out how to get through the year with the students learning at least a little more about history while getting more practice in reading, writing, listening, and speaking.

Despite the rough semester, I signed up to teach the class again, then taught it at another college, then earned my secondary social studies certification. Over the years, here’s what I learned about teaching American history to English language learners:

1. Reasons mean more than dates. You may remember your history teacher making you match years with events, but for ELL students it’s more important that they understand the significance behind historic people’s motivations. For example, in one of my classes most of the students were business majors, so I focused on the entrepreneurial aspects of American history. That allowed me to cover the Spanish conquests, the Triangle Trade, and even the early colonies.

2. Preview and review important vocabulary. I’ve yet to find a book that doesn’t overdo some of the terms for history. Rather than do all of them, I focused on the ones I knew the students would see again later, which gave me a chance to reinforce the more important terms. So in a long list of terms for the early settlements I made “indentured servitude” less of a priority than “plantation,” because that word would come up often when we reached the Civil War era.

3. Connect activities to current events and experiences. The main value of history is that it explains why we, as a culture and a nation, do what we do. I was lucky enough to have a presidential election happen while doing lessons on the U.S. Constitution, so I could use recent news stories and electoral maps to show how the Electoral College worked. For less-opportune situations, I tried to connect what the students learned about to their own experiences. When discussing immigration in the 19th century, I noted how many immigrants (including my great-grandfather) changed their names to something more English-sounding, and I had students write position papers on either why people should change their names when they come to a new country or why they should keep their own names. The results were surprising—some students who hadn’t taken nicknames in the USA were thinking of doing so, while some who opted for nicknames regretted it.

4. Be multimodal. People born and raised in America have seen and heard enough historical ideas to give them a solid foundation of common knowledge by the time they reach secondary school. English learners, though, have had almost none of this, and not everyone learns well through lectures and textbooks. So when possible, supplement your lessons with pictures, realia, graphic organizers (timelines are particularly helpful), videos, games, and even skits to get students moving. Some possible resources include:

  • EL Civics. This site has lessons for lower-level learners. Its activities are easy to read and implement for a quick introduction or review.
  • Voice of America’s American History for ESL Learners. This site combines transcripts with recorded readings to help students improve their reading and listening skills. The vocabulary for these lessons is more appropriate for the higher-level students.
  • Teachertube. You probably already know how this site offers free videos without questionable links and advertisements. What I really like, though, is that the classic Schoolhouse Rock videos are on this site. These can make great supplements because they add both a visual and musical element to learning history.

from TESOL Blog


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