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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

Response: Differentiate for ELLs by ‘Establishing a Welcoming and Safe Classroom’

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 10, 2018 24 min read
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(This is the second post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

How can you best differentiate instruction for English-language learners in a “mainstream” classroom?

Part One‘s responses came from Valentina Gonzalez, Jenny Vo, Tonya Ward Singer, Carol Ann Tomlinson, and Nélida Rubio. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Valentina, Jenny, and Tonya on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Sandra C. Figueroa, Becky Corr, Sydney Snyder, Adria Klein, Michael D. Toth, and Barbara Gottschalk share their suggestions.

Response From Sandra C. Figueroa

Sandra C. Figueroa, who has devoted her life to increasing opportunities and literacy achievement for underserved students, has served as a teacher, mentor teacher and leader, elementary principal, K-12 director of curriculum, and English-language specialist:

The first step in differentiating instruction for an English-learner in a mainstream classroom is establishing a welcoming and safe classroom space, followed by working on building strong bonds, establishing mutual respect, and, finally, sharing a joy for learning. Here are the seven ways I establish an inclusive classroom environment that differentiates learning for all learners:

  1. Establish clear content and clear language and social learning outcomes that are flexible, posted, measurable, observable, and in student-friendly language. I engage my students by showing and telling them what they have to know, how to do it, and why each goal and outcome is important. This is done by using creative ways to make the language accessible, such as reading the goals at the beginning, middle, and end of every block of time.

  2. Establish a student-centered classroom. The walls “talk” and show that all student work is valued, authored, shared, created, and celebrated. My classroom walls are clear on the first day of school except for a morning message. We negotiate, share read, and share write, and our walls become the place where we publish our work, post our resources, and display our learning artifacts. I turn down the florescent lights, open the window shades, create cozy reading nooks, bring old secondhand lamps and furniture from home, all to make our classroom feel as cozy and comfortable as possible. Students are heterogeneously grouped into flexible teams of four so that everyone learns from each other. Each group has an exemplary English-language model, two intermediates, and one emergent or pre-emergent English learner. I explicitly model how to share roles, responsibilities, and jobs as team members.

  3. Establish an effective classroom with rules, procedures, and behavior expectations for students. We negotiate and create norms of how we will work and learn together. We establish our routines and rituals, find ways to facilitate bathroom passes, take attendance and applications for classroom jobs. Behavior expectations are drafted, revised, and edited as a whole class shares writing process before we post them in our classroom. We create everything we need as a resource together instead of purchasing resources at the local teacher store.

  4. Establish a classroom library that is organized with student input and that has a variety of genres, meets students’ interests, and is accessible to all. We establish the classroom library in the first two weeks of school. With my support, students’ organize, read, label, and create a system that will be managed by them while I conduct reading/writing conferences with my English-learners and then meet with individual students one on one to talk, read, listen, and bond. he classroom library becomes the most important working center in our classroom. Students learn to self-select books they love in a variety of genres (adventure, fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and so on) where they can read all the words and completely understand the content.

  5. The space for word walls and key vocabulary charts are created with and by students. The words for word study come from science, social studies, and math units of study and from the students’ writings. The words that we study together are systematic and explicit, but we create symbols and pictures and use the words as a resource for reading and writing all year long. Once we have studied the words in a variety of ways such as: cheering them, signing them, and writing them in the air, these words can never be misspelled. If ... they show up in their writing drafts, I immediately return the writing to the student and say, “I can’t read this because you have not done your job.” They go back to the word wall or key vocabulary charts on our wall and fix their words all by themselves.

  6. Establish the use and presence of objects and real-world examples. Assistive technology is essential for my English-learner depending on his/her physical, emotional, and behavioral needs. I have a variety of sitting configurations such as bean bags, rocking chairs, cushions, low tables, stools, etc. Magnetic letters, special grip pencils, white boards, sand trays for writing, cubes, tiles, chalk, picture books, art, music, head phones, stress balls, I-pads, microphones, translators, typewriters, old overhead projectors, and puppets. These are just a few examples of assistive technology accessible for my English-learner.

  7. Establish effective and efficient transitions. I value every teaching second because every second counts. By using movement, music, reading aloud, chimes, and movement between activities such as brain-breaks, word study, and word sorts, there is no wasted or down learning time between activities.

English-learners enrich my mainstream classrooms. I differentiate for my English-learners by ensuring that we have a space where all students are responsible for their learning and value each other’s strengths, languages, and differences.

Response From Becky Corr

Becky Corr is the president of EdSpark Consulting, which is dedicated to igniting partnerships for diverse learners through professional development, technical writing, and systems analysis. In her role as an English-language-development team lead in the Douglas County school district in Colorado, she coaches, mentors, and supports teachers, and facilitates family-engagement opportunities:

English-learners arrive in our classrooms carrying with them a wealth of knowledge, talents, and strengths. Approaching differentiation from that perspective reframes the conversation and allows teachers to consider what students can do. Therefore, teachers are better equipped to plan differentiated instruction and assessments.

Typically, English-learners spend most of their day with “mainstream” teachers. The graphic below shows that much of an ELL’s language learning will occur in the mainstream classroom. Therefore, it is very helpful for mainstream teachers to collaborate with ESL/ ELD teachers.

Begin by reaching out to the ESL teacher(s) and asking about students’ backgrounds, interests, abilities, learning preferences, and language levels. Building profiles of what students are able to do will help teachers to build on what students can do. Ask parents and students to participate by completing a graphic organizer designed to elicit background information, strengths, and goals. Visit my blog for ready-to-use templates and examples.

Create language objectives. Multilingual and monolingual students benefit from focusing on academic language. Identify the language demands of the lesson and think about the supports available to help students meet those expectations. Here are examples of language objectives for students studying the area and circumference of shapes:

Emerging (Level 1) students will discuss math vocabulary of area and circumference using sentence stems and a word bank.

Developing (Level 3) students will discuss math vocabulary of area and circumference using sentence stems.

Bridging (Level 5) students will discuss math vocabulary of area and circumference using complex sentence stems.

As you can see, the content is the same in every language objective. However, the supports are aligned to what students are able to do at their current language proficiency. This allows teachers to maintain rigorous expectations while providing supports and affirming student abilities.

Make learning comprehensible. Use multiple ways of making the content understandable for students. One way to make content comprehensible is by making learning more visual. Utilizing pictures and graphics helps students contextualize information. Using Google Images to search and find photos can help for beginning and advanced students alike (be sure that safe-search mode is on). Adding graphs and charts that represent information in multiple ways helps students to make meaning of abstract concepts. Anchor charts and posters provide students with scaffolds and reminders as they practice new skills and learn new concepts. Graphic organizers provide ways for students to organize their thoughts and demonstrate their learning. They can be used for everything from defining a new concept to planning an essay.

Another way to make content comprehensible is by using gestures. Both elementary and secondary students benefit from teachers using gestures and from using gestures among peers. Whether pointing to important words, demonstrating actions, or showing relationships among words and ideas, gestures are easily and quickly incorporated into everyday instruction.

Collaborating with the ESL/ ELD teacher as well as other colleagues, parents, and students allows teachers to build a profile of what a student is able to do, in order to build in supports for students at all levels of English proficiency. Being intentional about academic language, through the use of language objectives, supports and extends student understanding of content knowledge. When used in conjunction with strategies for making content understandable for students through the use of visuals, graphic organizers, and gestures, students are honored, supported, and are provided with equitable access to rigorous content.

Response From Sydney Snyder

Sydney Snyder co-authored Unlocking English Learners’ Potential: Strategies for Making Content Accessible (Corwin, 2017). Chapter 3 explores the topic of scaffolding instruction for ELLs in greater depth. Snyder is also a principal associate at SupportEd, LLC, a woman-owned small business based in the the Washington, D.C., area that supports ELLs’ and their families’ educational equity by providing professional development and technical assistance to schools and districts. Sydney has more than 20 years of experience in the field of ESOL and EFL (English As A Foreign Language). In her current position, she provides professional development to teachers on such topics as culturally responsive instruction, effective strategies for teaching ELLs and students with limited or interrupted formal education (SLIFE), teacher collaboration, and teacher leadership:

One of the most effective ways to differentiate instruction for English-language learners in a content classroom is to use scaffolded instruction and materials. Scaffolding is temporary support that enables students to complete a task that they would be unable to successfully complete independently (Gibbons, 2015). Scaffolding can include the materials you provide students, how you introduce and teach content, and how you group students (Staehr Fenner & Snyder, 2017).

If you have a solid understanding of your ELLs’ strengths and needs as well as the linguistic challenges that they may face with an academic task, lesson, or unit, you can provide the appropriate scaffold and foster language development. I offer three suggestions for scaffolding instruction for ELLs, while teaching the rest of your students, that can provide opportunities to differentiate what is being taught, how it is taught, and how students demonstrate their learning.

  1. Look for opportunities to embed scaffolding seamlessly into instruction and assessments: Some ELL scaffolds, such as modeling activities and using graphic organizers, will benefit both ELLs and non-ELLs. For those ELLs who need additional language support, you can provide them with tools such as interactive word walls, words banks, glossaries, sentence stems, and/or paragraph frames. For example, if you want students to engage in a class discussion about something they read, give ELLs sentence stems (the beginning phrase of a sentence) to support them in developing their ideas. Then, provide opportunities for ELLs to practice sharing their ideas first in pairs, so that when it comes time for the whole class discussion they will feel more confident with the academic language needed.

  2. Offer alternative assignments and assessments (when appropriate): It is essential that ELLs engage with grade-level texts and tasks. However, it is also important to identify those assignments that are taking your students beyond the essential lesson or unit objectives. Look for opportunities to engage students in academic-language development. For example, if you were teaching a unit on genetics, instead of having your ELLs read a magazine article on gene therapy, you might have them work in pairs to match key vocabulary words with their definitions and then answer questions about the vocabulary. Also, look for alternative, less-language-demanding ways for ELLs to demonstrate their understanding of content. For example, you might ask ELLs to complete a concept sort using images or words or phrases from the unit.

  3. Differentiate through small-group work: Pair or small-group work offers an excellent opportunity for differentiation. You could group students with common home languages so that they can engage with a task and check understanding in their home language first. You could also provide small groups with supporting resources, depending on their language-proficiency level, such as a modified text that facilitates students in deconstructing complex sentences and learning unfamiliar vocabulary. Small groups can also be an opportunity for students to gain essential background knowledge on a topic that your non-ELLs might already be familiar with or to provide focused instruction on an independent word -earning skill such as understanding the meaning of a word with multiple meanings in a text.

Determining and developing appropriate scaffolds for each academic task can feel daunting. I encourage you to start small and begin by scaffolding one academic task. See how your ELLs respond to those scaffolds. Over time, you will learn which scaffolds are most beneficial to your students. It’s exciting to see the progress that your ELLs can make when they are provided with engaging, language-appropriate tasks and supports.

Response From Adria Klein

Adria Klein, Ph.D. is the center director and trainer for early-intervention programs at Saint Mary’s College of California and the author of Scholastic Edge™ - a program designed to address the needs of striving readers. She is also a professor emerita of reading education at California State University, San Bernardino, where she was the chairwoman of the Department of Elementary and Bilingual Education; she has served as president of the California Reading Association and on the ILA (International Literacy Association) Board. Dr. Klein has written a number of professional books and articles as well as children’s books:

We are all developing language in addition to building content knowledge as we learn about language through conversation, wide reading, writing in response to reading, and expanding our vocabularies. So let’s start by acknowledging that differentiated instruction is the expectation of Response to Intervention in any Tier 1 classroom setting. We mostly talk about interventions in Tier 2 and Tier 3 settings, but the basic expectation is that every teacher is providing Tier 1, differentiated scaffolding for all learners in a “mainstream” classroom, including English-language learners (Klein et al., 2017).

The first thing to consider in addressing the needs of English-language learners is how conversation is being fostered in the various learning environments within a classroom, whether in whole group, small group, partner collaboration, and through conferring. We can think about how we group English-language learners to differentiate, not by levels of language development, but by interests, creating opportunities for them to talk with different students at various times throughout the day. Perhaps during reading, students have several partners to choose among as they work together. In writing, there are other groupings, and those group partners might differ in yet other ways during math. This is not about ability grouping, nor being at the same language level based on an assessment; it is about developing language through conversation. For example, we need to consider putting quiet students together as partners, rather than a more talkative student with a quiet student. I call these “talk-alike groupings,” and this strategy is most helpful to support English-language learners (Nemecek et al., 2014).

A second differentiation opportunity is to incorporate shared reading in small groups in the classroom. While commonly used at the whole-group level, shared reading is a great scaffold in small groups (Avalos, et al., 2007). English-language learners need to get language to the ear by listening, to the mouth by speaking, to the eye by reading, and to the hand by writing (Clay, 2004. P. 5).

Third, we can consider multiple options for partners to write together. Most classroom practices for differentiating are connected to reading or pair/share-type response options. Having students write together is a way for them to work on a writing response task using a shared pen. Surprisingly, it is one of the easiest ways to support English-language learners in the mainstream classroom, but it is not used often. This strategy works across the content areas for quick response writing, and it may include the use of dictation, alternating sentences, and even take the form of a write/pair/share, which is one of the strongest ways to provide language practice time before any whole-group response activity. Don’t worry too much about the “rules” of writing together; kids are resilient and can work this out as they collaborate.

Above all, supporting English-language learners in a mainstream classroom requires seeing all students as both literacy and language learners, even in the earliest grades (Klein, et al., 2017).


Avalos, M.A., Plasencia, A., Chavez, C., and Rascon, J. (2007) Modified Guided Reading: Gateway to English as a Second Language and Literacy Learning. The Reading Teacher. 61(4) p. 318-329.

Clay, M. M. (2004). Talking, reading and writing. Journal of Reading Recovery, 3(2), 1-15.

Klein, A., Zuniga, J., Briceno, A., Torres Elias, A. (September/October, 2017). Literacy and Language Learning as Partners in the Classroom. Principal. NAESP.

Nemecek, D., Klein, A.F., Briceno, A., and Wray, S. (2014). Students Are Talking ... Now What? ASCD Express, Vol. 10, No. 5. www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.

Response From Michael D. Toth

Michael D. Toth is the author of the award-winning book, Who Moved My Standards, the co-author with David Sousa of Improving Social, Emotional, and Cognitive Learning Through Academic Teaming (forthcoming, 2019), and the co-author with Dr. Robert J. Marzano of The Essentials of a Standards-Based Classroom, School Leadership for Results, and Teacher Evaluation That Makes a Difference. Toth founded Learning Sciences International, where he serves as the CEO and leads LSI’s Applied Research Center. Toth addresses teachers, school leaders, and superintendents at national conferences, policy forums, and workshops, including past addresses to the U.S. Department of Education and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation:

ELL Students in Team-Centered Classrooms

English-language learners can thrive in inclusion or mainstream classrooms, as long as an effective instructional model is in place. Team-centered classrooms benefit ELL students’ speaking skills while giving them a personalized, rigorous experience, even in large mainstream classrooms.

Close Monitoring and Support by Students and Teachers

Differentiated instruction is more focused on what the teacher does. What we have found is that student teams actually personalize instruction for each team member through team structures, as illustrated in Improving Social, Emotional, and Cognitive Learning Through Academic Teaming (Sousa & Toth, in press).

In a team-centered classroom, students are expected to monitor the team tasks and verify the team’s accomplishment of a learning target. The team members and teacher ensure that all students in the team can demonstrate evidence of their learning.

If an ELL student needs extra support, that need will become more visible in a team-centered classroom than it would in a traditional, teacher-centered classroom, where it’s much harder to know what students are thinking. Through observing students discussing, questioning, and debating within their teams, teachers can decide what kind of extra support ELL students need.

Engaging Peer Support in Academic Teams

Students are often capable of providing support to each other. Students can be amazingly perceptive, and when given the chance, we have seen them step up to coach their peers.

One example comes from a 3rd grade inclusion classroom we observed. A student with disabilities felt he couldn’t keep up with the pace and became upset; the team encouraged their frustrated team member to write down only page numbers for the evidence they were citing together, rather than the full quotes. They came up with this solution entirely on their own, the teacher approved, and this adjustment to the task allowed the team to reach their learning target while still keeping the task rigorous. Besides practicing their problem-solving and critical thinking, these students were also practicing crucial social-emotional skills in an authentic situation.

As a last resort, the teacher can step in to remediate students, correcting misconceptions or providing different learning strategies (the teacher will have more time for this kind of individualized support in a team-centered classroom than in a traditional classroom, due to less time spent on direct instruction).

ELL Teaming Success in the Des Moines Public Schools District

Des Moines public schools shifted toward team-centered instruction and saw promising outcomes with their ELL students. 2017-2018 math and reading assessment scores indicated that ELL students in Des Moines public schools where teaming was implemented outperformed ELL students in Des Moines public schools where teaming was not implemented.

In addition to the impact on student academic achievement for ELL students, our LSI Applied Research Center has also observed evidences which show positive student-behavior changes and increased social-emotional-learning competencies correlated to academic teaming.

Team-centered instruction has enormous potential to reach English-language learners in mainstream classrooms without having to separate them or offer them less rigorous tasks than their peers.

Response From Barbara Gottschalk

Barbara Gottschalk is a recently retired English-language-acquisition teacher from Warren Consolidated Schools in suburban Detroit. She taught ELLs in middle and elementary school magnet programs and was a school-based elementary ELL teacher. Her book, Get Money for Your Classroom: Easy Grant Writing Ideas That Work, was published by Routledge in 2017:

“What should he do?” asked a student as I was walking by her desk during morning-bell work. She gestured toward the new student from Albania seated next to her. His first day in our class was already worrying her.

“Tell him to copy, copy,” I replied, knowing both students spoke Albanian. I pointed to the board and to the new student’s paper, gave him an encouraging smile, and continued checking in with other students.

This exchange was from a video of me teaching a self-contained class of 4th and 5th grade newcomers over 10 years ago. I recently retired and have been going through old computer files, deleting what I’ll never need and wasting time watching old videos in the process. I discovered it’s not a complete waste of time, though. I’d completely forgotten this incident, but watching the video reminded me of how I was differentiating instruction on the fly for a new ELL. Mainstream teachers might wonder why I needed to differentiate in the first place since all the students in this class were ELLs. Still, even with everyone relatively new to the United States, I found myself adjusting instruction for the really new students who needed something different. This is true for all teachers, no matter who or what we teach.

We often forget one important thing about differentiation. Even though ELLs need instruction that’s different, they don’t want to feel different. When I told the new student to “copy, copy” the sentences other students were copying and editing, I was matter-of-factly giving him a task he could do without calling him out. I intended to collect all the students’ papers, including his, to check completion. I was following the advice I often give mainstream teachers—find out what your ELLs can do and then hold them accountable for doing it.

The students in my newcomer class often spent several weeks in general education classrooms before being transferred to our district’s newcomer center. After their English improved enough to describe the experience, they sometimes told me how bored and “different” they had felt in their general education classrooms. For example, their well-meaning teachers would park them in front of a computer for much of the day. There are many good websites for ELLs, but asking an ELL to work on them while the rest of the class is doing something else doesn’t meet the “don’t single out an ELL” test. Having an ELL do computer work when other students are doing so too is differentiating without making anybody feel different.

My video also reminded me I had seated the new student next to another student who spoke his language. I was also asking that more capable student to use her native language to orient her new classmate. That’s differentiating. In contrast, some ELLs have told me they were assigned seats next to students who spoke their language, ostensibly to provide help, but then were chastised for asking their seat partners about the lesson. In this case, teachers were differentiating, but then calling out the ELL as different.

I deleted the video by the way—no need for it now since it was made for a graduate class completed long ago. Ironically it ended up being just as useful to me years later for pointing out the differentiation I was inadvertently doing. I’d recommend teachers be more mindful about this than I was, but if you can differentiate your instruction without making your ELLs feel different, you’ll be doing it in the best possible way!

Thanks to Sandra, Becky, Sydney, Adrea, Michael, and Barbara 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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This Year’s Most Popular Q&A Posts

Race & Gender Challenges

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Best Ways to Begin The School Year

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Look for Part Three in a few days.

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.