Teacher Preparation

Guide Tells How to Differentiate Instruction for ELLs

By Mary Ann Zehr — December 28, 2010 2 min read
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A guide by two professional-development consultants spells out in great detail how teachers can tailor instruction for English-language learners according to the students’ levels of English proficiency. The book, Differentiating Instruction and Assessment for English Language Learners: A Guide for K-12 Teachers, by Shelley Fairbairn and Stephaney Jones-Vo, arrived in my mailbox a few months ago, but I’ve just now taken advantage of the peace and quiet in the office during this holiday time to skim it and evaluate its usefulness to educators.

The writers of the book are careful to cite research to back up their guidelines for differentiating instruction. I don’t deem to be able to discern whether they have highlighted the research that deserves to be featured. But the book is very clearly written and comes with a poster organizing its recommendations that would enable teachers, in my view, to run with the information in planning lessons.

The book aligns its suggestions for tailoring instruction for ELLs according to five levels of English proficiency based on English-language-proficiency standards created by the Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages Inc. Those TESOL standards are an augmentation of standards produced by the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment, or WIDA, consortium. Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia are members of WIDA, so presumably quite a few states are in a position to take advantage of the suggestions for standards-based lesson planning in the book.

In tailoring lessons for Level 1 ELLs, or those just starting to learn English, for example, a teacher might teach writing by having students organize information with concept maps, Venn diagrams, and charts. But for Level 5 ELLs, students with advanced English skills, teachers should expect their students to produce extended written discourse, and expect the language to be precise and grammatically varied, the book says. In teaching reading to Level 1 students, teachers should provide a great deal of visual support and possibly emphasize guided reading. By contrast, in teaching reading to Level 5 students, teachers should use grade-level texts.

The book also has tons of principles that teachers should use in planning lessons for ELLs of all language levels, such as to inform students of daily objectives for both language and content, provide regular opportunities for ELLs to interact with native speakers of English, and target correction of errors for specific, level-appropriate aspects of the language.

In reading this guide, I could envision why experts in the field of educating ELLs are saying that teachers will need more explicit instructions for how to implement common-core standards for ELLs of different English-proficiency levels than what the standards document currently provides. I think that most teachers in the United States need some assistance in planning the kinds of activities and supports appropriate to get content across to ELLs at their various levels of proficiency.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.