Opinion Blog

Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Don’t Make Assumptions About Your ELL Students

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 02, 2020 17 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

(This the fifth post in a six-part series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, Part Three here, and Part Four here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are some of the most common mistakes teachers make when working with ELLs, and what should they do, instead?

Part One featured responses from Marina Rodriguez, Altagracia (Grace) H. Delgado, Dr. Denita Harris, and Sarah Said. All Part One’s contributors also were guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, Silvina Jover, Cindy Garcia, Luisa Palacio, and Laura Landau shared their commentaries.

In Part Three, Dr. Sandra Calderon, Kevin Jepson, Carrie Cobb, Melissa Wilhemi, Ricardo Robles, Teresa Amodeo, and Donna DeTommaso-Kleinert, Ed.D., answered the question.

In Part Four, Lindsey Moses, Luiza Mureseanu, Melissa Jackson, and Douglas Reeves contributed their thoughts.

Today, Joe Santiago-Silvestri, Michelle Shory, Irina McGrath, Glenda Cohen, Berta Rosa Berriz, Amanda Claudia Wager, Ph.D., and Vivian Maria Poey offer their reflections.

Racism and ELLs

Joe Santiago-Silvestri has been teaching ESL in various contexts since 2007. He has a master’s in applied linguistics from UMass Boston where he learned the importance of critical, anti-racist praxis. He is currently a high school language-development coach in Framingham, Mass., and can be found on Twitter @JSantiago47:

We are in a moment of potential where many are finally confronting the realities of white supremacy and systemic racism. All of this should have happened a long time ago, so it’s important we not give up now in our fight to disrupt and dismantle systems of oppression that operate in so many of our institutions, which very much include schools. My take on the question above is centered around the reality that systems of oppression and white supremacy that impact Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) also affect culturally and linguistically diverse students. Without confronting and accepting that truth, all other advice is moot. Therefore, I would like to focus on one of the biggest mistakes we make in education: making assumptions.

Confronting our assumptions

Assumptions are informed by biases toward others and, as we are all well aware, can lead to dangerous and deadly consequences. Although our assumptions about students may not immediately lead to such dire consequences, they are a cog in the machine of systemic racism that perpetuates larger forms of discrimination and oppression. It’s important that we not assume what a student should or should not know or what a student can and cannot do based on our perceptions of their identities.

This nonexhaustive list of common assumptions made in schools includes assuming ...

  • a student’s cultural and linguistic background based on name alone
  • students who are identified as ELs are a homogenous group with a long list of deficiencies
  • an EL student is lazy, obstinate, or unintelligent because they’re not raising their hand in class, they speak in another language to peers, or they don’t complete their work
  • sheltering content to make it accessible will not be fair to other students, makes the lesson too easy, or lowers expectations
  • teaching language is the sole responsibility of the ESL department
  • students must only speak in English at all times, and that using other languages slows their progress
  • most EL students just want a vocational education
  • a particular subject, topic, or course level is too difficult for EL students, often resulting in automatically placing students into remedial-level courses or making referrals for a special education evaluation
  • what an EL student really needs is prescriptive grammar, mechanics, and vocabulary detached from a context before they’re “ready” to learn academics alongside their peers

Disrupting our assumptions

It’s our number one responsibility to welcome and teach all students unequivocally. Confronting the above assumptions, while uncomfortable, will help us transform our educational system to one where all students have equal access to the same educational opportunities.

In order to start disrupting these assumptions, I suggest that we ...

  • learn how to say and pronounce the names of all students, including creating a safe space for students to share the pronouns they use to identify themselves
  • learn as much as possible about the background, interests, and hopes and dreams of all students
  • be prepared to assess and build background knowledge as needed
  • learn more about disciplinary literacy, especially at the secondary level
  • consider how language can change depending on role, relationship, topic, purpose, and task, and that explicitly teaching this benefits all students
  • ensure that all lessons and assessments are universally accessible by using visuals, writing while speaking, modeling, providing exemplars, having clear and concise directions, offering choice in how students demonstrate learning
  • ask yourself ourselves what else we could try or change in order to help all students be successful, and reach out to colleagues and coaches for help
  • learn from and with the students themselves through dialogic instructional practices that emphasize student-to-student interaction
  • recognize that our educational system is viewed through a monolingual lens, which is not how the world operates
  • toss out the notion that there is some arbitrary threshold of English-language proficiency a student must meet before they can participate in all classes, extracurriculars, or sports
  • accept that Standard English conventions are often used to exclude, judge, and discriminate against not only English-learner students but many BIPOC
  • instead celebrate and respect the translingual, cultural, and experiential assets of each and every student

“Lack of scaffolding”

Michelle Shory and Irina McGrath are Google-certified trainers and co-creators of ELL 2.0, a website that offers tools and resources for teachers of English-learners.

Irina V. McGrath, Ph.D., works for the Kentucky education department as an education recovery specialist. She is also a co-director of the Louisville Writing Project (LWP) and a University of Louisville and Indiana University Southeast adjunct who teaches ESL/ENL instruction as well as assessment, literature, and cultural- and linguistic-diversity courses.

Michelle Shory, Ed.S., is a district ESL instructional coach in the Jefferson County public schools, Louisville, Ky. She is passionate about literacy and helped establish Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library in Louisville.

Mistakes are inevitable. No matter how hard we try to do the right thing, we make mistakes. Luckily, many of them can be easily prevented. Below are some of the most common mistakes educators make when working with ELLs and suggestions on what should be done to avoid them.

  • False Assumptions

Sometimes teachers might make assumptions that students who are conversationally proficient are able to perform well academically without additional support. This is incorrect. An English-learner’s high level of proficiency in social language does not necessarily mean equal proficiency in academic language. According to Dr. Jim Cummins, it takes ELs up to two years to acquire a social language, but it can take between five and seven years to develop academic language. Therefore, it’s imperative for teachers to offer plenty of think-pair-share or write-pair-share opportunities for students to clarify concepts with peers. Dr. Kagan’s strategies can be helpful for assessing background knowledge and encouraging interaction.

  • Lack of Scaffolding

Another common assumption is that English-learners do not need scaffolding or that one scaffold is sufficient for all students. Teaching English-learners takes significant preparation. When presenting new information to ELs, scaffolds must be created for varying levels of English proficiency. Newcomer students need more scaffolds compared with other ELs. WIDA supports the use of sensory, interactive, and graphic scaffolds, which are described in this infographic by Tan Huynh. https://www.empoweringells.com/scaffolding-instruction/

  • Low Expectations

When educators keep a list of tasks that students cannot do, they are teaching from a deficit approach. A deficit approach may lead to an assumption that ELs are not capable of completing rigorous academic tasks until they reach full proficiency in English. To combat that, teachers need to include Els in all lesson activities and assign grade-level work that includes appropriate modifications and accommodations to support learners. Another suggestion is to follow WIDA’s recommendation to embrace a Can-Do philosophy and look at what students CAN do as a way to support and foster growth.

* Lack of Knowledge About the Cultures, Languages, and Backgrounds of Students That Leads to One-Size-Fits-All Instruction

Another common misconception is that strategies that work for students from one cultural and linguistic background will work for students from other backgrounds. Cultures shape learning and have a profound effect on language acquisition. Therefore, teachers need to acknowledge their students’ cultural and linguistic differences and learn strategies that would be most effective for students from various cultural backgrounds. In her book Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, Zaretta Hammond highlights two cultural archetypes: collectivism and individualism. Hammond shares that students who come from collectivist cultures (Guatemala or Pakistan) will probably be more interested in group work and supporting each other, whereas students from individualistic cultures (the U.S. or Italy) might be more competitive and naturally inclined to work alone. Knowing cultural archetypes can assist teachers in understanding and supporting students. To learn more about individual cultures, educators can explore Backgrounders.

  • Working in Isolation and Not Connecting With Other Educators

Another mistake that most ELL educators make is working in isolation. Not a singular person is as smart as a group is, and this is especially true in a field as complex and ever-changing as education. Teachers must all work together in order to share our collective wisdom and varied experiences. Technology has made connections much more available. Using shared planning documents via Google Drive, having impromptu meetings on Zoom or Google Meet, and connecting with educators around the world via Twitter to create a powerful PLN (professional learning network) are simple practices that can have a profound effect on our practice.

  • Labeling Teachers as ESL and Non-ESL Teachers

A final mistake often made is labeling teachers. By calling teachers “ESL teachers,” there is an implication that only ESL teachers are responsible for the linguistic growth and content scaffolds needed by language-learners. English-learners spend the majority of their days with teachers who are not the “ESL teacher,” so there needs to be a shared sense of responsibility.

In conclusion, when working with English- learners, teachers are bound to make some mistakes, but when educators focus on learning about students and their strengths, providing appropriate and differentiated scaffolds, and consistently growing in a community of educators, students will thrive.

Realistic expectations are key to ELs’ academic success

Glenda Cohen is a teacher and writer. She has taught EL learners for 17 years:

“I’m trying to do my best to meet the needs of all kids in my class. But I just don’t know if I’m reaching the ELs. They never do their assignments and they don’t seem to care about their grades. What can I do?”

In my role as a high school ESL teacher, I’ve heard this lament from countless colleagues who teach general education content classes about their EL students. Teachers in my state (Massachusetts) are required to take a course in sheltered English instruction, Yet many gen. ed. teachers still feel at a loss as to how best to engage these students. And when they ask administrators for help, they’re often told, “Good teaching is good teaching. If you’re a good teacher, you should be able to reach all students.”

I say, it’s not that simple.

From what I’ve observed, it’s not that gen. ed. teachers aren’t good teachers. The overwhelming majority are. It isn’t that they aren’t working hard enough. They’re working plenty hard. And it isn’t that they don’t care about our immigrant students. They do and want them to be as successful as mainstream students.

So what, exactly, is the problem?

I think it can be summed up in two words: unrealistic expectations. We expect our teachers to get results in students that the students themselves are just not ready to produce. And that’s not the fault of the teachers; it’s the fault of our current evaluation techniques.

First, some background. Language development occurs most rapidly in ELs at the beginning level when students go from a silent period to the basic ability to communicate. Referred to as BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills), this period emerges at about six months and may last for as long as two years. It’s during this period that it may appear that students have far more ability in English than they actually do. Just because the student may be able to express her basic ideas, she may be unable to write anything but simple phrases with limited vocabulary

Far more difficult is for students to jump from BICS to the next level of proficiency called CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency ). This level requires students to use language in tasks that are cognitively demanding in an academic setting. Students need CALP in order to write an essay, understand a science book, or read challenging literature. Studies show that it takes a significant amount of time—usually four to six years—to develop the academic language needed to perform such rigorous thinking tasks.

Most EL programs for middle and high school students in the U.S. do not provide adequate time for them to develop CALP before transitioning to gen. ed. classes. Schools such as mine place students who may have been in the U.S. for a short time and have beginning English proficiency alongside their mainstream peers in subjects like history, math, and science. Most program models require students to learn academic communications skills simultaneously with learning grade-level content, often in standard curriculum content classrooms.

This is not to say that EL students shouldn’t be placed alongside their grade-level peers in gen. ed. classes. Rather, teachers who are not ESL specialists must shift their expectations of EL students to meet them where they are in their language development and use evaluations that encourage—not discourage—academic growth.

It’s important for gen. ed. teachers to modify assessments and use different rubrics to evaluate their ELs. It is not fair or realistic to expect that immigrant students who have had a year or two of English instruction will be able to produce the same caliber of work as their native-English-speaking peers. Rather than focusing on grammatical or spelling errors, or MLA format, observe such things as: Do EL students get the gist of the reading? Are they able to demonstrate higher-order thinking skills such as analyzing, evaluating, and organizing or creating a product? Are they showing effort in trying to meet deadlines and follow directions?

Sufficient time and realistic expectations are the key to fostering language development in immigrant learners. Although ELs may be limited in their ability to express themselves in English, that does not reflect their ability to use higher-order thinking skills. By providing rich content instruction along with supportive assessment feedback, gen. ed. teachers can help ELs acquire the language skills they need for academic success.

“Emergent bilingual learners”

Berta Rosa Berriz is professor emerita at Lesley University’s Arts in Learning Division and a bilingual and special education teacher at the Boston public schools for 33 years.

Amanda Claudia Wager, Ph.D., is a Canada research chair in community research in arts, culture & education at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia, Canada. Her interdisciplinary community research, teaching, and scholarship encompass literacies, languages, and the arts with local youths, families, and communities.

Vivian Maria Poey is an associate professor of photography and integrative studies at Lesley University, served as director of the M.Ed. in Community Arts and Education program, and taught graduate courses to teachers across the country on integrating the arts into the curriculum:

In the current context of education characterized by anti-immigrant sentiment, teachers may overlook the rich resources that children of all ages bring to the learning project including their languages and cultures. The imposition of one language over another, oftentimes in this case English over their first language(s), can profoundly affect the self-esteem and academic identity that limit a child’s capacity for learning. As well, calling ELLs emergent bilingual learners rather than English-language learners puts the emphasis on their ability of becoming bi- or multilingual rather than just learning the English language. Below we offer examples of artful practices that we have done in our own classrooms to honor the students’ cultural ways of knowing as a bridge to academic literacy.

Photography: My Knowledge Collage

In order to accentuate that each member of the learning community brings knowledge to the academic year ahead, young scholars go home with a digital camera, sharing the camera and taking turns. They photograph their community and interview family members on their values, wisdom, stories, and more. They create a collage with the photos and other symbolic representation of their knowledge. Once the collages are finished, the teacher records the knowledge that each student brings to our classroom on a chart paper divided into three sections: Family/community/school knowledge. We add to this chart as we move through the academic year.

Found Poetry: Found Poems

Collage is a remix of fragments of images; in a similar fashion, students can create found poems. Found poems are a great way to use and transform words found in a text into a new creative text. There are many kinds of found poems: erasure poems, headline poems, or invented found poems from a particular text or a combination of sources. Have students create found poems out of words pulled from a hat, conversations they hear at home, from an academic text, or from found words in their neighborhoods or home environments such as ads, newspapers, or books. Invite students to reflect, transform, or resist the meaning of a text.

Drama: Tableaux

Drama throughout the curriculum involves many different activities, engaging students through an embodied literacy rather than solely depending on oral or written language. The use of tableaux, or fixed group images using the body, is extremely supportive for emergent bilingual students’ language-acquisition process because students express their emotions or their reactions to a text via their body, in a group setting, and then discuss what they see. They essentially communicate via their bodies and are not dependent on written or oral text. For instance, after reading a story about a lost dog, a group of kindergartners can create a group-tableaux expressing how they think the owner felt.

Thanks to Joe, Michelle, Irina, Glenda, Berta, Amanda, and Vivian for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader. And if you missed any of the highlights from the first eight years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. The list doesn’t include ones from this current year, but you can find those by clicking on the “answers” category found in the sidebar.

This Year’s Most Popular Q&A Posts

Race & Racism in Schools

School Closures & the Coronavirus Crisis

Classroom-Management Advice

Best Ways to Begin the School Year

Best Ways to End the School Year

Student Motivation & Social-Emotional Learning

Implementing the Common Core

Facing Gender Challenges in Education

Teaching Social Studies.

Cooperative & Collaborative Learning

Using Tech in the Classroom

Student Voices

Parent Engagment In Schools

Teaching English-Language Learners

Reading Instruction

Writing Instruction

Education Policy Issues


Differentiating Instruction

Math Instruction

Science Instruction

Advice for New Teachers

Author Interviews

Entering the Teaching Profession

The Inclusive Classroom

Learning & the Brain

Administrator Leadership

Teacher Leadership

Relationships in Schools

Professional Development

Instructional Strategies

Best of Classroom Q&A

Professional Collaboration

Classroom Organization

Mistakes in Education

Project-Based Learning

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.