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With Larry Ferlazzo

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English Learners Opinion

14 Strategies for Teaching Intermediate English-Language Learners

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 22, 2022 21 min read
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The new question-of-the-week is:

What are the best instructional strategies and lessons to use when teaching intermediate English-language learners?

The English-language-learner population is growing rapidly in our schools. Even today, thousands of Afghan students are entering classes throughout the country.

Many ELLs are newcomers who know very little English, but large numbers are intermediates, and all of today’s newcomers will be tomorrow’s intermediates.

Today’s post shares specific strategies on how we can support them.

You might also be interested in previous posts appearing here on Teaching English-Language Learners.

In addition, readers might also be interested in the forthcoming second edition of Katie Hull Sypnieski’s and my book, The ESL/ELL Teacher’s Survival Guide.

Today, Blanca Huertas, Jane Hill, Luisana González, Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor, Kathleen Rose McGovern, and Jenny Vo share their recommendations. Blanca, Jane, Luisana, Melisa, and Kathleen were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In my experience, one of my favorite ways for teaching intermediate ELLs is the use of instructional materials from The Write Institute. It’s a great literacy curriculum!


Blanca Huertas is an ELL teacher in Dickinson, Texas. This is her sixth year working with English-language learners in Texas. She previously worked as an ESL teacher in Puerto Rico for eight years:

Intermediate English-language learners have a variety of skills in the English language. However, many teachers may confuse their abilities in basic language skills to transfer into the academic scenery as easily. For intermediate level ELs, purposeful alignment of language and academic instruction is necessary while at the same time differentiating instruction to make content comprehensible to their level of language needs.

Instructional Strategies:

It is essential that when we are developing lessons and using instructional strategies, we develop a variety of tasks that provide intermediate level ELs with the content-level skills for them to continue to progress when they reach higher levels of their language acquisition. One of the strategies that I feel is necessary for teachers of intermediate language-learners is differentiation. Using differentiation as the basis of your instruction is important because intermediate-level English-language learners can be intermediate in all areas of the language-acquiring process, or it can be in a targeted area. For example, some language-learners are intermediate only in reading and writing, and their listening and speaking skills have been progressing.

The first type of differentiated skills that I prefer to use are tiered or differentiated sentence stem and paragraph frames. Intermediate-level writers struggle with writing sentences in the past tense and complex sentence structures. By providing a variety of stems that can support their writing of complex sentence structures and with a variety of verb tenses, this can support intermediate students with exemplars to strengthen their language. These same stems can also be used to develop lessons for the correct use of verb tenses when speaking and writing.

Paragraph frames support students to develop organizational structures of writing associated with content-level standards so that they can strengthen their writing skills by learning how to maintain their focus on a specific topic. Paragraph frames can be added to a model as students improve their writing skill in the language to guide them to develop an essay.


Lessons that make a great impact on intermediate-level students are those that are giving them a basis of the language structures to help them be successful. For example, providing students with the academic language of the grade level they are at can provide them with the content connections through language that they need to support their acquisition and their academic growth.

Examples of lessons:

Reading Instruction: Our focus should always be that students develop fluency and comprehension skills by providing comprehensible content for them to develop these skills from.

  • I like to develop thematic units that highlight culture and success to motivate students to strive for achievement.
  • I also use reading differentiated stations where students read comprehensible texts according to their reading level. Students here rotate through a series of tasks that include vocabulary skills, comprehension skills, and grade-level adapted task.

Listening and Speaking: Our focus for students is to acquire the language structures while at the same time they can listen and put into practice grade-level academic language. One of my biggest resources for doing this has been Flipgrid. “The fundamental goal of structured conversations is to allow students to ‘gain familiarity with new language forms, to hear other ways of describing academic concepts, and to hear themselves articulate an academic message.” (Seidlitz, pg. 70, 2018).

  • Developing academic conversations through Flipgrid can give students the opportunity that they want to use technology and helps them actively use academic language and develop language proficiency.
  • Flipgrid connects all four language arts. Students listen to other students on Flipgrid to make connections of content, students must speak grade- and content-level language to develop their video, and they have to make reading/writing connections to use sentence and paragraph frames effectively.
  • Flipgrid also provides students with opportunities to develop and use higher-order thinking when responding.

Writing: In writing, we want students to strengthen their writing skills and develop new writing skills.

  • Through the writing lessons that I work with students in class, I start with the basics of developing a paragraph and staying on the main topic, which align to grade-level standards. At the same time, to strengthen their language skills, I provide sentence stems with correct grammatical structures and stems that will get them to the advanced level. I also provide paragraph frames for essays when students are at that level.
  • Students also are provided with grammar lessons that guide them from the basic forms of sentence structures to more complex ones.

Intermediate students are at a crucial stage in their language-acquisition process. These are just bits and pieces of best practices that have been successful in my classes. All our students are different, and we need to see them as so. It is essential that we work to evaluate each of them as individuals in the process of language acquisition to support them accordingly and to make a true impact on their skills.


Seidlitz, J. (2018). Sheltered instruction in Texas: A guide for teachers of ELLs, The 7 steps to a language-rich interactive classroom (42-82). Irving, Texas: Seidlitz Education



Jane Hill, a co-author of Classroom Instruction That Works with English Language Learners, is a managing consultant at McREL International:

One word summarizes the most important instructional strategy for intermediate ELs: Talk!

These students need as many opportunities as possible to hear good English models and use the English they are learning, and that means a classroom where they are expected to talk with each other. A silent classroom with students working individually at their desks does not provide adequate chances for listening and speaking.

So how can we create the culture for classroom talk? You need to be PIE—purposeful, intentional, and explicit—in telling students how you are going to be asking them about their thinking. They can expect to hear questions from you like: “Why do you think that?” “Can you say more about that?” “What do you mean by . . .” Explain why hearing yourself think aloud helps to build and revise your ideas. Talking aloud and hearing others talk aloud helps shape what you are going to write. This may be new to students so expect to talk about it more than once.

After this explanation comes modeling. Consider inviting another teacher in and showing the students how you question each other to learn what you’re each thinking: “Why do you think that?” “Can you say more about that?” “What do you mean by . . .” Start with a nonacademic topic that interests your colleague. After the conversation, point out which questions you asked and how this helped the speaker expand their thinking about the topic.

With the students, too, start with familiar topics like video games, favorite foods, or family events before moving into academic topics such as why characters did what they did, what characters might do in the future, or how to solve a math problem.

Now that the expectation has been set that students should ask and answer these questions aloud, we can begin to think about making classroom talk equitable. Naturally, there will be students who are happy to be the first to talk about their thinking and reasoning, but how do we get 100 percent participation?

You could start with choral responses because this creates a safe environment where no one is singled out to respond in front of the whole class. Think of an open-ended question to which there is no one right answer, e.g., “What do you think the character will do next?” Provide think time and then count “three, two, one” for all students to respond.

After some practice with choral responses, have students talk with each other in pairs. Pairs provide more opportunity for all students to be included in a conversation than groups of four. Again, prompt the students with an open-ended question without any wrong answers to help them explain their thinking and reasoning.


Teacher prompt: What do you think about Mr. Pendergast from the novel Holes?

Student A: I think he’s a little bit nice, but he’s a little bit bad

Student B: What do you mean by a little nice and a little bad?

Student A: Sometimes he’s nice to people and sometimes he is not nice.

Student B: Why do you think that?

Student A: He said to Zero that he is not really useless and he said to Stanley that he’s going to be good.

Student A’s thinking and reasoning grew as a result of Student B’s questions, leading Student A to provide evidence from the text.

When intermediate EL students have the opportunity to talk about their thinking, they can test out their ideas before writing, reshape what they have said because of their partners’ questions, and end with a better written product.



Luisana González is currently serving dual-language students in Illinois in a 5th grade classroom. She is in her 17th year of teaching and has previously taught K-5 MLs in a resource position, 2nd grade sheltered, and 2nd grade DL:

When working with intermediate multilingual learners, or MLs, it is important to consider how to simultaneously challenge and support language development for all language domains and purposes. Learning must be multimodal and collaborative. Developing oral skills is essential in developing literacy skills. Therefore, oracy plans need to be created in order to help students grow in communicating effectively for a variety of purposes like talking to build relationships; talking to play with ideas; talking to clarify, analyze, and argue; and talking to report.

Creating opportunities for students to practice oral skills through games, inquiry, speculation, and peer affirmation are good ways of empowering students to talk about learning. Language skills must be explicitly modeled and practiced within familiar content. This can be accomplished via think alouds, constructing meaning, and writing routines from mentor sentences and close reading.

It is equally important to provide guided and independent practice to reinforce concepts and skills in varied ways since this will foster engagement and favor different learning styles. Something that has worked particularly well in my classroom is allowing students to explore mentor sentences by deconstructing and constructing the text repeatedly to closely examine the language patterns or structures featured.

Students manipulate phrases and sentences cut up on strips to play with language both collaboratively and independently. Each student is able to participate and showcase their language assets, while manipulating and revising the modeled language. Students must engage in collaborative conversations about language and should be encouraged to imitate the mentor text as they are provided with appropriate language scaffolds in order to produce strong imitations. Later, students apply language imitations into their own writing and gain confidence as authors.

All of this provides an opportunity to assess and value background knowledge, while planning to support and challenge students as they grow in their ability to deconstruct and construct familiar text to analyze, compare, and contrast. When they are able to imitate and revise, they are given the chance to celebrate themselves as authors.

All of these strategies allow learning to be student-centered and structured to meet their needs. The following resources have provided me with valuable input and growth experiences to enrich learning events in my classroom, and they will allow you to dig deeper into what I have recommended for teaching intermediate ELs.

  • Patterns of Power by Jeff Anderson & Whitney La Rocca
  • Language Dives from EL Education
  • Unlocking the Power of Classroom Talk by Shana Frazin & Katy Wischow


Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor, a professor of language and literacy education at the University of Georgia, is the author of five books addressing intersections between language education and the literary, visual, and performing arts including her newest co-authored book, Enlivening Instruction with Drama and Improv: A Guide for Second and World Language Teachers (Routledge, 2021):

Intermediate students need opportunities to practice the English language with speed and accuracy; they also need opportunities to communicate fluently without regard for accuracy—sometimes even without words! Rehearsing fluency rather than accuracy moves students toward communicative competence (Hymes, 1971) in the target language, where one can understand, be understood, and/or get a task done in the target language even if they haven’t mastered it. Further, it moves learners toward intercultural communicative competence in which language learning is viewed as a cultural practice and helps to establish a classroom community, building a trusting environment for risk taking and reflective practice.

Many drama and improv games and activities not only encourage fluency and language play, but they also help students undertake critical reflection with social-justice orientations. There are so many ways in which performance activities can engage L2 learners in connections between language, identity, status, and power.

One of drama’s many wonderful contributions to second-language instruction is that it allows students to perform themselves as proficient users of the target language at all points on the path toward complete and critical L2 competency—an imaginary place where even few “native” speakers believe they perform themselves well. Viewing all language use as a performance can help learners appreciate the full range of communicative tools at their disposal—from rehearsing (rather than memorizing) word lists and grammar structures, to using gestures, facial expressions, body language, and longer stretches of culturally informed discourses to engage in meaningful and critical communication. Drama in the classroom is adaptable and flexible.

Well-facilitated drama-based activities ask student actors to explore languages’ contingencies and missteps. Drama highlights a balance of authority between having the grammar and vocabulary of what to say as well as the dynamic social and sonic aspects of how something is said, to whom, by whom, why, and to what ends. A playful, flexible, and innovative language user is better prepared for moment-to-moment improvisations and challenges in a second or foreign language.

Classroom teachers using theater games and activities have the potential to create contexts where learning is a two-way street, enhancing both students and teachers’ shared educative experiences. Drama games during L2 instruction awaken the educator to learning and laughing alongside her/his students during the unexpected turns a jointly scripted classroom might take, allowing for risks, experimentation, and meaningful communication for all.


‘Getting to Know You’

Kathleen Rose McGovern is a TESOL specialist with the U.S. Department of State and lecturer in applied linguistics at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She’s authored several publications at the intersections of drama, language teaching, and immigration theories, including Enlivening Instruction with Drama and Improv:

Instructional strategies for intermediates depend largely on the particularities of your teaching context. Who are your students? What are their goals? How did they come to be in your classroom? What curricular or institutional guidelines frame your work with your students? Working with multilingual children in U.S. public schools and working with adults learning English in Japan may call for different techniques, tools, and approaches.

That said, one of the wonderful aspects of teaching intermediate learners is that they already have considerable foundational knowledge of the target language to build on, and they still have so much you, as a teacher, can help scaffold them toward success with. I believe the best instructional strategies harness what learners already know and help learners stretch themselves to achieve new milestones in their language learning. This means, first and foremost, learning about your learners.

While you get to know your learners, as people, through Getting to Know You games and activities, you also have the opportunity to conduct formative assessments with your students by observing their interaction in the target language and building off of that observational assessment to tailor your lessons to their needs.

I would add that Getting to Know You activities don’t have to be limited to day one of your course. I often recycle the same games or lessons with different content. For instance, the game Never Have I Ever can be used to build background knowledge or to assess students’ comprehension of a variety of vocabulary or structural facets of language. For example, use “never have I ever” to practice the present perfect, provide a prompt for students to share sentences about their work or hobbies (e.g., “never have I ever worked a night shift”) to practice a particular vocabulary set; switch to the past or future tense for a different focus!


‘Their Needs Change’

Jenny Vo earned her B.A. in English from Rice University and her M.Ed. in educational leadership from Lamar University. She has worked with English-learners during all of her 26 years in education and is currently the Houston area EL coordinator for International Leadership of Texas. Jenny proudly serves as the president of TexTESOL IV :

As our English-learners or emergent-bilinguals, as they are now called in Texas, start to progress in their English-language proficiency, their needs change. Students at the beginning stage of English acquisition need more linguistic support than those in the intermediate stage. Those in the advanced stage have different needs from those in the intermediate stage. We have to make sure that we are continually adjusting our linguistic supports and instructional strategies to best meet the changing needs of our English-learners.

In Texas, we rate our English-learners at four proficiency levels to track their English-language-proficiency development—beginning, intermediate, advanced, and advanced high. Students at the intermediate level of English-language acquisition are able to understand and speak simple, high-frequency words that are used routinely in social and academic settings. For writing tasks, they are able to write on topics that are familiar and will use simple, high-frequency words. To help intermediate learners progress to the next stage, we need to continue providing them with linguistic accommodations in all the content areas. Continue providing sentence stems but vary the degree of difficulty. Continue providing visuals but maybe have the students draw the pictures. Encourage sketch noting when taking notes. Most importantly, provide lots of opportunities for conversation and writing practice.

Intermediate English-learners need lots of opportunities to practice speaking and writing, using newly acquired academic vocabulary. Thus, I always take advantage of as many opportunities as I can for structured conversation. Structured-conversation activities are planned by the teacher. They always have an academic purpose. Sentence stems are provided to help students formulate their responses. Students get to learn from each other by talking in partners or groups. Teachers can assess students’ knowledge by listening to the group discussions or having students write a response at the end of the activity.

Group discussions don’t have to take place at desks or with the same partners. You can pair up or group students in different ways. Number off 1-2 or 1-4 and have the students of the same number be in one group. You can do a Conga line in which you have students form two lines. One line is stationary and the other line moves. Add some music and have students share with each other! Another fun activity with music is the Mix-Pair-Share. Put on some music. The students walk around until the music stops. They then high-five the person closest to them and then take turns sharing. Start the music again and repeat! Students love this activity because it gets them out of their seats, they get to talk to different classmates, get ideas to add to their knowledge base, and they can dance to the music while walking around! I will usually provide a paragraph frame with transition words for students to write a paragraph as an exit ticket.

One of my favorite instructional strategies to use with intermediate English-learners that promote speaking and writing is the Picture Word Inductive Model. PWIM is a strategy that encourages students to verbalize and share their prior learning and incorporates the instruction of parts of speech, grammar, sentence writing, elaboration, and paragraph development. When used in content classes like science, math, and social studies, it also reinforces academic vocabulary and content knowledge. If you are unfamiliar with PWIM, let me briefly explain. You start off with a picture. It is best that you choose a picture that is related to the current topic of study in whichever content subject you choose. As a class, label the nouns, adjectives, and verbs you see in the picture. Then add adverbs and prepositions. You can then have students write sentences and/or paragraphs about the picture, using the words from the label. One of the activities I like to do with my students is called Power Up! in which I challenge them to elaborate on their sentences by giving more info, adding an adjective, an adverb, or a preposition. I challenge them to “paint a picture for me with your words!” We then use the process of developing that one sentence to write more sentences to compose a full paragraph!

I love using the PWIM and structured-conversation strategies because they provide intermediate English-learners with multiple opportunities for speaking and writing throughout the instructional day and will help them to continue to develop their oral English-language proficiency. In the process, they will gain more confidence in themselves because they are getting the support from you, their teacher, and their classmates.


Thanks to Blanca, Jane, Luisana, Melisa, Kathleen, and Jenny for contributing their thoughts!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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