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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Raising ‘the Bar’ for ELL Instruction

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 28, 2020 17 min read
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(This the third post in a six-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two 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.

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

“Language Dives”

Dr. Sandra Calderon, Kevin Jepson, Carrie Cobb, and Melissa Wilhelmi are coaches for EL Education. Between them, they have more than 50 collective years of experience in language education, working for and with multilingual learners in the U.S. and abroad, supporting a range of ages from K-12 through higher education:

First, a caveat. As we approached this question, we paused to discuss the phrase “common mistakes.” “Common mistakes” is so often used in reference to English-language learners’ (ELLs) efforts to grapple with a new language. Rather than focus on the common mistakes teachers make, we want to celebrate their creativity and collaboration, particularly in these challenging times. In many schools and districts where we work, 50 percent of students are classified as ELLs. In these districts, teachers are grounding new best practices for today’s remote and hybrid learning environments in trusted research, recognizing that whether instruction is delivered through the internet, telephone, or door to door, it must lift student voices in their home languages and in English.

Practice Multilingual Connections and Multilingualism

In the remote learning world, it pays off to persistently reach out to your ELLs. Continue to check in just to say, “Hi. How are you?” or “Buenos días. ¿Como estás?” Encourage learners to engage in your video classrooms, engage with interactive online activities, and make small-group and one-on-one appointments. Inviting multiple languages into the classroom helps build community as well as mastery. It also positions you as a model learner who shows curiosity about language and acknowledges students as experts with language assets to share.

Use text, email, phone—even “snail mail"—and multilingual teacher-family translation apps like TalkingPoints to check with caregivers about support and expectations. Engage (and compensate) caregiver and community members in the process of translation (written) and interpreting (spoken) school messaging, from general announcements to assignment directions, especially in remote learning environments.

At Glenwood Springs Middle School in Glenwood Springs, Colo., a family liaison along with bilingual teachers and counselors spoke with caregivers by phone during remote instruction. They engaged in weekly wellness checks to see what students and caregivers needed and connected them to school or community supports. “Even though we didn’t have bells and buses, we were a vibrant school for our community,” said a staff member.

Another opportunity we have in the world of online learning is to continue studying students’ home languages and heritage through a personalized platform like Preply. Partner with community stakeholders to provide home-language classes to staff and English-language classes to families, as applicable. Leverage resources such as Unite for Literacy or the International Children’s Digital Library to support home-language development. To ensure students had access to quality art instruction, for example, Glenwood Springs Middle School partnered with a local organization, VOICES, to create art video lessons in Spanish. Their community partner donated the art materials needed for each student to follow the lessons at home. Most importantly, take stock of your instructional resources and materials: What message do they send about the value of home languages? Even consider asking students this question directly or through written response. You may be surprised by what you hear.

Practice Direct Language Instruction

To support comprehension of language, continue to opt for direct language instruction over translating academic materials. Use realia, miming, multimedia, definitions, multiple examples, and conversations about the language. Translating academic materials can result in low cognitive work and interfere with skills required for the long term. Direct language instruction provides students with the support and high expectations needed to persevere through language acquisition. Caroline Bearshaw, a teacher in Chattanooga, Tenn., reflected on her implementation of the direct language supports embedded in the EL Education Language Arts Curriculum: “I thought translation was my only option, but I can offer my students language supports such as miming, realia, and domain- specific vocabulary charts. These practices prove to my students that I believe in them.”

At Glenwood Springs Elementary School, teachers recorded weekly lesson introductions and key explanations to ensure access during remote instruction. In their recordings, they considered student accessibility, so they spoke slowly, clearly and concisely, provided visuals, chunked instructions, and used other forms of relia and support. Annie Strugatsky, a 5th grade teacher in the Oakland Unified school district (California), took a similar tact; see an example of her close-reading instructions and modeling here.

Practice Talking About Compelling Topics and the Way Languages Works

Create ample opportunity for students to engage in a read, think, talk, and write cycle (RTTW) about compelling topics. Students can participate in RTTW in home languages as well as in English. Remember that ELLs are often eager to discuss issues that impact them, including front-page movements for collective liberation—advocacy for immigrants and refugees, Black Lives Matter protests, and actions to resist systemic racism and oppression of people of color.

Whatever the topic of discussion, students can RTTW in whole-group and small-group video rooms, one on one with their teacher, and independently. Teachers can use Conversation Cues to support student engagement and agency during discussions. These cues are a powerful tool that can be used during face-to-face or online instruction and elevate cycles of RTTW. Innovative teachers are bolstering the RTTW cycle simultaneously with virtual Language Dives. These facilitate students to break down text and language and talk about how language works. Students then practice how to use key phrases to talk about meaningful topics.

Each Language Dive may be spread across several shorter, deeper sessions, according to best practices in virtual facilitation. In May, a rising scholar in Ms. Strugatsky’s virtual class got so excited about virtual Language Dives that they took it in their own hands to text Ms. Strugatsky and request a Zoom meeting to do another Language Dive.

Keep on Innovating

Our call to action is to continue to support ELLs, who have been underserved for too long, beyond what we could have ever imagined before. As we shift toward promise and hope with online learning, educators can invest in teacher successes, support newcomers, and move intermediate English-proficiency learners to the peak of their potential. Multilingual connections, multilingualism itself, direct language instruction, and playing with languages can raise the bar.

“Teachers with a deficit lens see ELLs as not being capable”

Ricardo Robles has been in education for more than 25 years, having worked at every level from prekindergarten to high school. Throughout his career, he has been an advocate for social justice and an anti-bias educator. Ricardo is in the final year of doctoral studies, working on a doctorate in educational leadership.

The biggest mistake I’ve seen throughout my career when teaching ELLs is when teachers see students through the deficit lens. That is to say, when teachers look at ELLs as if there is something wrong with them instead of looking at them as students who are ready to learn. Teachers with a deficit lens see ELLs as not being capable and don’t hold the same expectations as they do of other children.

Mindless busywork is, unfortunately, not uncommon. I’ve seen practices such as having students copy sentences, as if that involved any thinking or interaction with language in any substantive way. When I first started teaching in middle school, I was given a group of students who were used to having coloring sheets assigned as actual graded work. Middle school students! On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve seen teachers give students the same exact work as students whose first language is English, yet not provide the necessary scaffold. To make matters worse, they blame the ELLs when they can’t complete the work.

When looking at ELLs as students who are eager and ready to learn, a useful practice is to provide a “buddy” for a newcomer. This is not an instructional practice, yet it is an important teaching practice. Young people want to help, and you will have no shortage of students wanting to help out any new student to the class. This works in elementary, it works in middle school, and I have also used this strategy in high school. The newcomer needs someone to show them around school and needs someone to help with work. When you provide a newcomer with a buddy, they have an instant support system. It makes their transition a whole lot easier and takes a tremendous amount of stress off their shoulders.

ELLs also need comprehensible input. Understanding messages matters. Look for ways to increase comprehensible input. You are looking for ways to make messages understandable to the student. Total Physical Response helps ELLs learn some language basics and makes it easier for them to understand teacher instructions. Further, ELLs need reading material that is at their reading level. There are services that will provide the same articles at different reading levels. In areas such as science and history, you can start collecting books at different reading levels for the same concepts. The caveat, of course, is that you are not watering down the curriculum and you are not lowering expectations. You are using this as a step toward the student being able to read the text that the other students are reading.

To increase comprehensible input, don’t forget the power of realia and pictures to help ELLs understand your lesson. Think about the difference in the verbal or written word “horse,” a picture of a horse, a toy horse, and an actual horse. While the actual object may not always be possible, the more concrete you can make any idea you’re working on, the better your ELL student will understand.

I’m going to group this last set together because there is quite a bit of overlap. The idea here is to lower the affective filter and make it safe for ELLs to participate in class. Use sentence stems, provide numerous opportunities for students to speak (not force), and when writing about a given topic, ask for ideas from the whole group. Write these ideas down on the whiteboard, a shared online document, a paper projected through a document camera, or whatever mechanism you have for whole-class sharing. I always remind students that teachers like to “borrow” ideas from each other, and it’s perfectly fine for them to borrow ideas from each other as well. The sentence stems can be used quite effectively at any point of the day, but when speaking prior to writing, it can be quite effective. Sentence stems can also be used prior to the actual writing assignment, as a “Do Now,” as an exit ticket. It’s all about the teacher’s creativity and professional discretion while assessing what their class needs.

Teacher biases

Teresa Amodeo is an ESL/language-acquisition program coordinator for District 302 in Illinois. She has a master’s in literacy, with endorsements in ESL, middle school (language arts concentration):

One of the most common mistakes teachers make when working with ELLs is allowing their assumptions or bias to interfere with the learning experience of the student as well as their confidence in teaching the student(s). Many teachers have come to me for support in teaching our ELL population; many are collaborative in the sense of instructional planning and delivery, while others make it clear that they just can’t teach our students who are ELLs. This is mind-boggling at the very least.

Teachers should view ELLs as resources in their classroom, who enlighten the knowledge of differences amongst all students. Teachers should also understand that changes or additions to instructional planning and delivery that support ELLs can support ALL students. Therefore, a teacher should have an open mind in creating an environment, lessons and units that integrate culture and incorporate various strategies that meet the needs of the students, including collaborating with an ESL teacher in a co-teaching format. If the student requires or benefits from primary-language usage, that can be implemented in a collaborative approach as well.

The importance of having high expectations

Donna DeTommaso-Kleinert, Ed.D., is an online adjunct professor at Rosemont College teaching the ESL certification courses. After spending 35 years in education, she now resides in Florida and also works part time for Scholastic Book Fairs:

My English teacher told me that my writing was weak. She suggested I read more, that reading would improve my writing. ...The next day after class, I turned in my revised paper to Miss Bell. She glanced at it, placed it on a pile of papers on her desk, and picked up a book. “Have you read The Grapes of Wrath?” she asked. “It’s a wonderful novel by John Steinbeck ...” I finally understood what Miss Bell meant when she told me to read for enjoyment. (Jimenez, 2001).

This excerpt is from Francisco Jimenez’s memoir Breaking Through, a novel that makes a difference in my ESL classroom. No matter the country my students come from, they see themselves in these pages. The memoir is a mirror to their lives. Jimenez grew up a second-language learner, economically disadvantaged, and grew from a dependent learner to an independent learner. In his memoir, Jimenez references many teachers and his interactions with them. The one common theme my students are quick to point out: Jimenez had teachers who held high expectations for him, challenged him, and expected him to work to his level of genius.

They are quick to talk about their teachers. They refer to teachers who have gotten to know them, respect their cultures, see them as learners, expect them to grow, and believe in them. Teachers who see them as bright learners and teachers willing to build background and bridge their gaps in culture and concepts. They will also discuss teachers who place them in the back of the room, leave them to a teaching assistant, ignore them, or get upset because they have to modify, provide additional instruction, or provide them with additional time. They quickly know who invests in them and who does not.

A common mistake that teachers make is believing that due to a lack of language proficiency that English-learners cannot access critical thinking or reach high expectations. They fear teaching or expecting higher-order skill development and believing that ELLs cannot grasp these critical-thinking skills until they know English. Hence as Hammond (2015) indicates in her text, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, this results in “a disproportionate number of culturally and linguistically diverse students becoming dependent learners.” As dependent learners, these students cannot access the curriculum.

Furthermore, with good intentions, often a response by teachers and administrators is to teach to the test. This just makes our ELLs become better test-takers and not independent learners capable of higher-order thinking. There is a difference between teaching to the test and preparing for the rigor of a test.

Finally, teachers often are uncomfortable and struggle with where to begin and what to do with students from lack of formal education and interrupted education. These students arrive with a different set of gifts, culture, and background. They do have intellectual capacity. They come from the capacity to have have survived violence, unrest, working a farm, going to work, helping to maintain a household, or selling in a market. Despite not being fully literate in their first language, they do have problem-solving skills,cognitive ability, and the ability to achieve. We have to tap into these strengths and use them to teach higher-order cognitive skills.

Many already come with grit and a growth mindset from the circumstances that brought them to the United States. Emily Francis, currently an ESL teacher, writes on the website Language of Hope. “Overjoyed to be in the United States, Emily realized that as a 15-year-old with a 6th grade education who spoke little English, it was time to get to work. “I wanted to learn,” she said. “I wanted a high school diploma and to go to college. I wanted to be someone.” Emily today has been on “The Ellen Show” and was named a teacher of the year. This did not come without challenges. Within three years, Emily bridged her gaps and tested out of ESL; however, she could not get past the state history assessment and did not receive a diploma. This did not stop her. She went on to earn a GED and then fulfilled her dream of college. Today she not only gives back to her students, she shares her reflections, strategie,s and teaching journey with other teaching professionals.

Teachers often ask, “How can I teach higher-order thinking and expect cognitive analysis when they don’t know how to read or write in English?” Operationally, this takes training in culturally responsive teaching and instructionally training in SIOP (Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol). Being culturally responsive means high expectations for all students.


Hammond. Z.L. (2014) Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. Corwin.

Jiménez Francisco. (2001). Breaking through. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

The Language of Hope. (2019, July 22). Retrieved from https://features.uncc.edu/the-language-of-hope.

Thanks to Sandra, Kevin, Carrie, Melissa, Ricardo, Teresa, and Donna for their contributions!

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