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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

Nine Mistakes Educators Make When Teaching English-Language Learners

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 26, 2020 13 min read
Image of a teacher in a classroom full of kids.
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(This the first post in a six-part series.)

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?

Many of us who teach English-language learners make lots of mistakes in our classroom practice. This six-part series will explore what the most common mistakes teachers make with this vulnerable population and what should be done in their place.

Today’s column features responses from Marina Rodriguez, Altagracia (Grace) H. Delgado, Dr. Denita Harris, and Sarah Said. All of today’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.

Before we get to commentaries from today’s guests, here are my choices:

Confusing lack of proficiency in English with lack of intelligence.

Our English-language learners are just as intelligent as English-proficient students. In fact, many ELLs already speak more than one language—English just happens to not be one of them. They are able to engage in higher-order and critical-thinking skills—teachers just need to know how to teach these concepts and develop these skills in accessible ways. One benefit to developing these instructional skills is that we are then able to be better teachers for all our students—good ELL teaching is good teaching for everybody!

Looking at ELLs through the lens of deficits instead of assets.

This mistake is, of course, connected to the first one and is not limited to ELLs since large numbers of teachers view many other students in the same way. Not only do having ELLs in our classes challenge us to be better teachers to all students, but many ELLs bring wonderful gifts such as being able to share experiences that neither we nor our other students are likely to learn about elsewhere—ranging from stories of life in another country, to incredible stories of immigration hardship and resilience, to unique stories of language and mathematics from their cultures. Having an ELL in your class is not an “inconvenience.” It’s a gift!

Trying to rush ELLs to be “reclassified” as English proficient to look good under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

I have a lot of concerns about how ESSA might put pressure on quick reclassification and result in schools “gaming” the system (and, as everyone knows, schools certainly developed this kind of skill when trying to evade testing requirements during the No Child Left Behind era). In order to look “good,” I fear schools may take away needed supports from ELLs before they are ready. You can read more about these issues at The Best Resources For Learning About The Ins & Outs Of Reclassifying ELLs and at The Best Resources For Understanding The Every Student Succeeds Act.

The biggest mistake that many schools are making now during the pandemic is not providing extra support to ELLs.

Many schools and districts are confusing “equality” with “equity.” They are treating all students the same. In many districts, like ours, which are teaching full-time virtually, ELLs attend the same number of classes (two and a half each week) as everyone else. If districts were serious about equity, they would, instead, be providing extra hours of online instruction to ELLs and other vulnerable student populations.

‘We are living, breathing anchor charts for our ELLs’

Marina Rodriguez is a 4th grade dual-language teacher in College Station, Texas. She has taught 4th grade dual language over 14 years, leads an after-school blogging club for multilingual students, and is one of the co-authors of Two Writing Teachers. She can be reached through her website, marinarodz.com, or on Twitter @mrodz308:

Wherever there is learning, we will find mistakes. If I had a penny for every mistake I made ... well, I’d have a lot of pennies.

Over the years, I have learned to lean into mistakes, especially when writing in front of students. When modeling a fast draft, I’ll typically hear, “You forgot a word ...” or “You’re missing a comma ...” It is academic gold to have students notice my mistakes. They take note of my response and gain the opportunity to integrate the behavior into their own learning process.

Modeling for ELLs is a critical strategy and offering visual references, like anchor charts, are essential to learning. Students need to observe and experience mentors and models. What took time for me to realize was that their observations did not stop at the end of my lessons.

One of the most common mistakes we make as teachers is not realizing that we are living, breathing anchor charts for our ELLs. From the moment that we first make contact with a student, they are reading us. Whether they understand the language we speak or not, they read our facial expressions, our gestures, and the tone of our voice. They decide if we can be trusted or not, if we accept them or not. Believe it or not, our students can detect inauthentic kindness almost instantly.

The impact of gestures and tone of voice

Our gestures and tone of voice are two of the most powerful tools we have for teaching but especially for teaching ELLs. “Caring, disapproval, and indifference are all primarily conveyed by facial expression, tone of voice, and physical movements.” (van der Kolk, 2014) When we use our gestures and tone of voice to help students develop trust and safety, we make space for learning.

According to Stephen Krashen’s Affective Filter Hypothesis, “Boredom and anxiety are affective factors that can serve as a kind of filter to block out incoming messages and prevent them from triggering acquisition.” (Freeman, Freeman, 2014) Students under high levels of anxiety or nervousness will have trouble with input reaching the part of the brain that processes language. For some ELLs, fear or anxiety can hinder language acquisition.

We communicate without words

What we say and how we say it can communicate completely different messages. ELLs naturally depend on our gestures and tone of voice to understand us. Our gestures and tone can cause a student to feel fear or shame, even exacerbate trauma. On the other hand, we can use gestures and the tone of our voice to nurture confidence, leading ELLs to truck through trial and error, as they practice acquiring language.

Helping to reduce levels of anxiety or nervousness, before learning takes place, is the simple practice of reaching the heart before the mind. We can do this by:

  • smiling (authentically)
  • maintaining a calm and relaxed body posture
  • incorporating play and a playful tone of voice
  • modeling acceptance and respect for diverse cultures and languages
  • dramatically acting out classroom read-alouds―modeling appropriate intonation, emphasis, and pitch
  • explicitly modeling interpersonal communicative language and formal academic language
  • actively modeling being present when speaking or listening to ELLs

We are living, breathing anchor charts for our students. How we present ourselves to our students can open greater possibilities for learning. Our gestures and tone of voice are powerful teacher tools. We can reflect the joy for learning and acceptance for students without saying a word. Actively keeping a positive lens and high expectations for our ELLs can help all of our students move forward with learning.


Van der Kolk, B. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score. New York, NY: Penguin Publishing Group.

Freeman, D. & Freeman, Y. (2014). Essential Linguistics. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Background knowledge

Altagracia H. Delgado has been in education for 25 years and currently works as the Executive Director of Multilingual Services in the Aldine ISD, in Texas:

One of the most common mistakes I have found when working with teachers of ELs is the anticipation of having students with “no prior or background knowledge.” Assuming that our students are empty vessels that we are responsible for filling can cause a lack of understanding and empathy, which can harm us in the engagement of true relationships with our students.

As educators, we must remember that our students’ prior and background knowledge might be different from that being addressed in our daily lessons or those assessed in school but that our kids come to us with a plethora of experiences that round them as complex individuals.

First we must differentiate the two given terms: “prior knowledge” is defined as what students already know about the surrounding world from academic instruction and life experiences, while “background knowledge” is information that is essential to understanding a situation or problem. Background knowledge is then supplemental information that teachers can provide to create basic understanding of a concept or material to facilitate students’ comprehension of specific themes or topics in learning.

Our job then is to create webs of information that can connect students’ prior knowledge, while building and enhancing the background knowledge needed for our lessons. We can help create those webs by establishing authentic relationships with students, which allow for open communication. The more we keep the doors of communication open, the more students will share with us. By sharing their prior knowledge, we are able to help them make connections that can enhance the background knowledge needed for a particular topic. Strategic planned lessons or activities in general topics of interes, can help lower the barriers of communication with students. For example, stories that are culturally relevant to our students’ countries of origin can serve as springboards of open conversations about culture, customs, and personal experiences. We can then help students analyze similarities and differences that can provide the background knowledge necessary to help in better understanding of the new content.

Don’t make assumptions

Dr. Denita Harris is a curriculum coordinator for the MSD of Wayne Township, in Indianapolis. She has over 20 years of experience as a teacher, assistant principal, and district-level administrator. Dr. Harris is the recipient of the 2019 INTESOL (Indiana Teacher of English to Speakers of Other Languages) Best of the Best in K-12 Education, and the 2017 and 2020 African American Excellence in Education Award. Find her on Twitter @HarrisLeads:

One of the most common mistakes teachers make when working with English-language learners is assuming that because students speak English relatively well that they are proficient in academic English. Another common mistake when working with English-learners is to interpret and translate all content in a student’s native language without properly assessing the student to know how proficient he or she is in their native language.

Research has shown that English-language learners acquire social language relatively quickly and are able to communicate quite effectively with their peers; however, when it comes to applying academic language, specifically in the four domains of language: reading, writing, listening, and speaking, many students are still wrestling with the intricacies of the English language. When teachers make the assumption that a student’s ability to speak well socially is equivalent to a student’s ability to apply academic language through both oral and written communication, the teacher makes the mistake of no longer supporting the student in the classroom. Instead, some teachers blame the student’s lack of classroom success on the student by sharing that he or she lacks motivation or “grit,” not acknowledging that the onus is on the teacher to provide instructional support to assist the student in learning the English language and to increase his or her English-language proficiency level.

Another common mistake teachers make when working with English-language learners is to presuppose that by providing students with countless content materials in their native language, students will be able to comprehend the material. Too often, teachers are quick to request and order materials in a student’s native language with no clear plan of how they will support the student in his/her learning. Teachers should not provide students with content materials in their native language without first taking the following into consideration: the student’s level of proficiency in his or her native language, prior schooling, if the student is a newcomer, and how they will support the student in his or her native language and in learning English.


Sarah Said currently leads a multilingual learning program in an EL education school in a suburb 30 miles west of Chicago:

Do you still listen to your music on cassette tapes? I doubt it ... Why? Because the quality of your music is better on your Spotify through your iPhone XS that is blue-toothed to your surround speakers. So, if we know that there are better structures that are more “state of the art” to support our multilingual learners in the 2020s, why are we using 1980s structures and methods? I don’t understand why people think that students will increase their English-language proficiency by being pulled out of their general education classroom and being taught something else that is unrelated to what their class is learning.

As I say, you need to “preach to co-teach” and “command to co-plan.” Yes, we are in institutions where people are afraid of change. But with COVID-19 this year, we have been through the storm of change. Why not disrupt the system even more for the sake of students and try a co-teaching model? You can make it work. It just takes a recipe of resilience, resistance, and repeating the data on why co-teaching is better for multilingual students.

Currently, the program I serve supports multilingual learners through a co-taught model. What has made us successful is the use of the EL Education K-8 ELA Curriculum resources and the embedded ELL supports provided in the resources. Utilizing suggestions for ELL supports actually catalyzes the process of co-planning and co-teaching. Also, it takes compromise and empathic dialogue between the multilingual team, special education team, and general education team to make this structure work. At times in a classroom, there can be three adults because of multiple teachers servicing different needs at the same time. This can work. But teams need to have intentional planning to help students meet their goals and potential. And yes, you can co-teach virtually with the right platforms.

This really is the beginning for creating equity within your system for multilingual learners. Teachers need to expose multilingual learners to quality text and high-level curriculum while scaffolding and supporting for students, not watering learning down with a 1980s style pullout and ELL basel that has nothing to do with what students are learning. This does not help students gain proficiency. Throw away the case tapes and recycle the Walkman, it’s the 2020s.

Thanks to Marina, Altagracia, Dr. Harris, and Sarah 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.

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