Tools and Resources for Bilingual and ELL Students

Learn how to navigate the college environment as a bilingual or ELL student. Use our guide to help develop skills and find resources to succeed.
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The number of English language learners (ELLs) in U.S. public schools has increased in recent years. In 2017, 10.1% of K-12 public school students were ELLs. Among these 5 million ELLs, 3.7 million spoke Spanish at home. Other popular home languages included Arabic, Chinese, and Vietnamese.

Giving ELLs the tools and resources needed to become proficient with the English language is important, as is honoring students who speak multiple languages.

Read on to learn about the challenges facing bilingual students, as well as some tools and resources that can help ELLs succeed in college.

Common Barriers for English Language Learners

Learning English as a non-native speaker can create challenges for students in educational settings. For example, there may be times when they don't understand what is required for an assignment. They also may struggle to understand their classmates.

Here are five common barriers that may create challenges for ELL students.

  • Not Understanding Instructions: Students may have trouble completing homework assignments because they don't fully understand the instructions. There may not be anyone available to translate for them when they need help. If a student realizes they don't understand an assignment the night before it's due, it might be too late to get help.
  • Not Learning to Read in Their Native Language: Educators in Kenya have found that students who learn to read and write in their native tongue first have an easier time learning English and Swahili later. As a result, many schools in Kenya have switched to a model where the early grades are taught in the child's native language.
  • Dual-Language Programs Don't Divide Instruction Evenly: Dual-language programs sound like a great idea, but they don't always work as well as expected. In some classes, instruction is predominantly in one language. This can result in too little immersion in English or the belief that students understand more English than they do.
  • Unqualified Translators: Although the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education require trained translators or interpreters, some schools may try to rely on having other students or untrained staff translate for parents and students. This is not appropriate. Translating and interpreting require special skills beyond simply knowing how to speak the language.
  • Inaccessible Jargon: Jargon can be difficult to understand for anyone (even native speakers), and it can be especially problematic for ELLs. Educators should be sure to speak plainly and avoid using jargon that may sound confusing.

5 Tools for Bilingual Students and English Language Learners

Bilingual students and ELLs can benefit from using a variety of tools to help build their English speaking and writing skills. The five tools listed in this section can help students increase their vocabulary, improve their spelling, and more.

Open Culture

Open Culture is a database consisting of over 1,700 free online language courses, most of which are massive open online courses. Courses include English for business and entrepreneurship, English for academic study, English for healthcare, and English pronunciation in a global world.


This language learning program allows you to select your native language along with the language you want to learn. The program uses pictures and flashcards to help you learn words in a new language. It reinforces what you learned with quizzes. This program is great for vocabulary but doesn't teach sentence structure or grammar.

Speak & Translate

This voice and text translator by Apalon Apps is available in Apple's app store. In addition to speech and text translation, you can use your phone's camera to take a picture of a street sign or other text; these can be translated, as well. The app translates more than 100 languages.

ESL Lounge

A variety of reading comprehension lessons are sorted by difficulty — from elementary to advanced. The site also features a first words section, grammar exercises, listening exercises, vocabulary exercises, and test prep.

Write & Improve

Write & Improve allows you to practice writing in English and get immediate feedback on how well you did. Exercises include writing a story about trees, writing a paragraph about your favorite musician, and writing a note to your neighbor. One caveat: Write & Improve uses British English.

5 Resources Educators Can Use to Help ELLs Overcome Language Barriers

Many resources are available to educators who work with ELLs. These include worksheets, flash cards, lesson plans, and board games. Teachers and educators can integrate these resources into their classes to help students learn more easily.

Here are five resources that teachers and institutions can use to help students overcome language barriers and succeed in college.

Busy Teacher

This site has over 17,000 worksheets, all of which are free to download and print for your students. Example English as a second language (ESL) worksheets include "English for Work — How to Ask for a Raise" and "10 Fresh Roleplay Ideas for General English."

ESL Galaxy

ESL Galaxy offers free lesson plans, activities, and worksheets for ESL classrooms. The site offers more than 2,300 printable worksheets, including grammar worksheets, vocabulary worksheets, and word puzzles.

ESL Games World

ESL Games World offers fun games for ESL teachers to use in their classrooms. Popular games include Hangman, Snake and Ladders, and picture quizzes.

ESL Video

ESL Video offers free video lessons, quizzes, and online conversation classes for bilingual students. The site has quizzes on popular songs and movies, as well as TED Talks on popular subjects.

ESL Gold

ESL Gold offers free resources to help students learn English online. The site offers conversation topics, grammar resources, vocabulary study aids, listening resources, and short reading exercises.

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Advantages of Being a Bilingual Student

  • Cognitive Development: Bilingual students typically develop flexible brains that can rapidly switch back and forth between two language systems. They may have an easier time with math, especially word problems, and often excel at remembering, focusing, and making decisions. They also may be good at using logic.
  • Social-Emotional Development: ELL students tend to have stronger relationships with their culture, family, and community. These relationships help children develop a strong identity. Bilingual students often find it easier to make new friends and maintain those friendships.
  • Learning: Bilingual students may have higher levels of abstract thinking. This can lead to increased learning abilities. Students who speak multiple languages appear to be better at ignoring irrelevant information and focusing on what is really important.
  • Reading: If students learn to read in their native language, they may be able to learn to read in their second language more easily. This is because they already know the mechanics of reading. Bilingual children who do not learn to read in their native language first still may have an advantage over monolinguistic students when learning to read.
  • Long-Term Success: Bilingual students have many advantages in today's global world. Biliterate and bilingual adults have access to more job opportunities than those who speak only one language. They also have opportunities to participate in the global community and learn from other cultures.