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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

Response: Helping English-Language Learners to ‘Survive & Thrive’

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 26, 2015 18 min read
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(This is the last post in a two-part series on this topic. You can see Part One here.)

This week’s question is:

How do you help English Language Learners when your school has no ESL curriculum?

In Part One, educators Wendi Pillars, Annie Huynh, Regie Routman, William Himmele, and Pérsida Himmele shared their advice. You can also listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Wendi and Annie on my BAM! Radio Show. You can find also see a list of, and links to, previous shows.

In this post, Mary Cappellini, Ekuwah Moses, Giselle Lundy-Ponce, Pamela Mesta, Olga Reber and Heather Wolpert-Gawron contribute their suggestions. I also include some comments from readers.

Response From Mary Cappellini

Mary Cappellini is an Educational Consultant and Author of: Balancing Reading and Language Learning: A Resource for Teaching English Language Learners, K-5:

There are many things you can do to improve the literacy of your English Language Learners, even if your school has no formal ESL or ELD curriculum. Here are 5 things I will highlight: Know your learners--both their language and their reading level, provide a balanced reading program with effective modeling and practice, teach academic vocabulary and content within a theme, and not only provide comprehensible input which includes environmental print and understandable talk but also expect appropriate output from your ELLs.

In order to plan for instruction you need to listen to each ELL talk, assess his/her language level and also assess his/her reading level. You need to know if s/he is a fluent reader in her/his primary language, which means that s/he will have the necessary literacy skills to transfer this knowledge to English. Use the information to track progress across the year on a developmental language and a developmental reading checklist and to help form groups.

More advanced readers may be less advanced speakers, and yet within a balanced reading program the children should be placed in guided reading groups according to their reading level, not their language level. Extra care should be used to choose appropriate books based on their developmental language level. If your ELLs are not yet speaking in the past tense, then books that are written in the present tense, like most nonfiction books, might be the best choice.

ELLs need modeling of effective reading strategies and effective language patterns by having you not only read but also chart the important information in read alouds and shared reading. And they need time to try out the strategies and the new language in small groups and independently, being able to refer to the charts not only for the strategies, but also the language patterns which they need to improve their speech.

Teach new academic vocabulary in thematic units, which focus on content area learning. ELLs need to see graphs of content learning, with adjectives, nouns, verbs and other parts of speech used to “tell” about what they are learning, whether about the ocean, space or the artic circle. They can then use that new language in different contexts or within the same theme or as they come across the same words again in their independent reading. They start to make connections between the academic vocabulary and the language that they are hearing and starting to say orally, as they are reading and writing.

By slowing down, making talk more understandable, and writing down the essential elements in a lesson and putting it up on the walls of your classroom, creating valuable environmental print, you are not only able to help highlight important information, but you provide comprehensible input which can help ELLs who are struggling to make sense of the main ideas. Providing opportunity for ELLs to speak with their peers of various language levels and to expect output from them comparable to their developmental level, you are able to help them within your classroom to survive and thrive.

Response From Ekuwah Moses

Ekuwah Moses is currently a Family and Community Engagement Facilitator in Las Vegas, Nevada and works for the Clark County School District. Previously, she served as an Instructional Coach, Literacy Specialist, Learning Strategist, and elementary classroom teacher. Moses is a published ILA author and has presented internationally. She is a new blogger and enjoys sharing experiences, authentic classroom photos and innovations in professional development with other educators. Follow her on Twitter @ekuwah or Facebook at “Cues from Ekuwah Moses":

Without an ESL curriculum, concentrate on saturating students in a readily available, active, and organic academic cueing system. These student-generated and literacy-rich environments don’t just happen. They must be strategically planned and continuously modified with constant student participation and intentional collaboration. Attention to relevant environmental and visual cues is paramount. Use all available school hallways, classroom walls, or physical structures to exude and explain eye-catching academic language and functions. Specifically, refine your traditional charts and bulletin boards.

Teachers have been making or purchasing charts for decades; however, the visual process of co-constructing anchor charts with ELLs keeps the focus on learning and teaching academic language during tier one instruction, whether whole group or small group, and is not program dependent. Any school. Any budget. Any teacher. Active charting is a universal mechanism any educator can use to elicit productive discourse, embed academic vocabulary, and visually scaffolding content as students write to convey application and understanding across all curricular areas. Co-constructed anchor charts empower teachers to bring back creativity and artistic expression to abstract lessons. The guidelines for successful charting are loose enough to yield high student achievement and respect a teacher’s expertise. To masterfully support ELLs, it is imperative to add vivid visuals or images, personal relevance, multiple content-based examples, and tangible realia while charting. The teacher’s consistent verbal and gestural cues to a chart’s academic language and non-linguistic support guide the oral and written discourse of learners. The collaborative investigation and chart co-construction gives students access to ideas and content that would otherwise be too abstract and impenetrable. It’s an ELL secret weapon!

Simple tweaks to the standard “cute” bulletin board can also yield exponential results with ELLs. The academic wall display, a reimagined bulletin board, is an environmental and visual cue to support increased academic discourse (oral and written) school-wide. Elementary teachers typically display their best class work in the hallways. Rethink what is displayed and how it is marketed. Eliminate wasted instructional time on holiday projects or cut-n-color activities that dominate the boards. Academic wall displays are still attractive and eye-catching; but, reload with prominent academic language used in the previous classroom instruction. View the display as a billboard advertising critical academic vocabulary; thus, providing a teacher the strategic opportunity to use verbal and gestural cues while walking in the hallway (maximizing the entire school day). An ELLs’ eye is immediately and repeatedly drawn to the concise and bold title of academic language, vivid visual support of content, and application of that vocabulary in current student-generated work.

The effective cueing system shifts the ELLs attention to specifically what they are learning, why they are learning it, and seeing vocabulary connections throughout the entire school day. As ELLs gain more intentional repetitions of academic vocabulary, gain access to robust instruction and tasks (displayed in the hallway and co-constructed anchor charts), and are sufficiently cued to write to convey knowledge in all subjects, this will ultimately raise student responsibility for achievement.

Response From Giselle Lundy-Ponce

Giselle Lundy-Ponce has been working in the field of PK-12 program development, education policy and advocacy for the last twenty-two years. Currently, her work focuses on policy and research analysis for the American Federation of Teachers and she leads the AFT’s work on English language learners and Latino student achievement:

ELLs benefit the most when mainstream content is adapted to their needs, especially since it is not unusual for ESL curricula to have weak connections to grade-level content. So, while it is a challenge to create an ESL curriculum, educators do not need to start from scratch. Ideally, they should see creating an ESL curriculum that complements the mainstream curriculum as an opportunity to collaborate and innovate with their mainstream and specialized colleagues. Even when ELLs are not yet proficient in English, they can still be exposed to rich curriculum that explores grade-level topics such as the Gettysburg Address, ancient Egypt and the works of authors such as John Steinbeck, among others. Experts such as Diane August, Kenji Hakuta and Lilly Wong Fillmore point out that ELLs learn language best when they engage with rich content. Rich content, including fiction and informational text, inspires enthusiasm, inquiry, discussion, and ideas.

When creating a curriculum, keep in mind the following:

  • Align the curriculum to the academic standards and the English language proficiency standards used in that state (remember, standards are not curriculum)
  • Be cautious in selecting materials. In many cases, textbooks and curricular materials targeted to ELLs are heavy on visuals (illustrations, graphics, photos, etc.) and light on alignment to academic content; too often, they include very little complex text or academic vocabulary.
  • Start out with pilot lesson plans to see how they will need to be adjusted and revised rather than create a complete curricular unit without first testing it. When developing lesson plans aligned to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), refer to the EQuIP Rubric:
  • Include diagnostic activities to make sure students understand the content/skills being taught
  • Include a rubric for how student work will be evaluated
  • Take into account the content knowledge and skills taught in previous grades, as well as the preparation needed for the next grade level. After all, learning is part of a continuum. Especially for students with interrupted formal schooling, specify which instructional scaffolds may be needed.

A few additional resources may be helpful:

In this comprehensive and insightful article, expert ESL teacher educator and ESL program administrator Julie Motta walks readers through adapting a unit for ELLs from existing curriculum. It includes a template and an exemplar, two must-haves for new educators or educators new to ELLs.

This link includes three lesson plan exemplars for ELLs in 1st, 4th and 8th grades, aligned to the CCSS:

In these articles and blog entries, experts share their views on the role of curriculum in the classroom, and on its importance for democracy and equity to thrive.

The Role Of Curriculum

Creating A Curriculum For The American People

Response From Pamela Mesta & Olga Reber

Pamela Mesta’s experience includes ESOL, bilingual, elementary, early childhood, educational technology, professional development and interpretation/translation. She currently works as an ESOL Supervisor in a public school district and is also an adjunct college professor. Mesta has her B.A. in communications, her M.A. in education, and has done post-graduate work in ESL, educational technology and school administration. Her certifications include ESOL Pre-K-12, Elem/MS 1-6, Administrator I/II, and National Board Certification in Early Childhood.

Olga Reber’s experience includes ESOL, EFL, professional development and interpretation/translation. She currently works as an ESOL Resource Teacher in a public school district and is also an adjunct college professor. Reber has her B.S. in secondary education/foreign language instruction, her M.A. in linguistics, and has done post-graduate work in educational technology. Her teacher certification is ESOL Pre-K-12:

Tip #1: Know your learners!

Before planning instruction and assessment for your ELLs, it is critical to know their background. Information to research: Prior schooling/experiences: grade last completed and when, interrupted education, level of literacy in the native language (L1), exposure to English (formal or informal), previous grades/progress in school, etc.; Cultural background: values, beliefs, customs and the impact these may have on education; English language level: know how ELLs are tested and leveled in your state and obtain copies of your students’ language testing. Consult with ESL staff in your building, as they can help answer many of these questions.

Tip #2: Teach language through content!

ELLs should not be removed from the challenges set forth in the standards, but rather supported in meeting them. With appropriate scaffolding, ELLs can participate in meaningful instruction before they can demonstrate native or near-native language proficiency. Use content and language standards to drive your instruction. This is the key to planning and delivering high-quality instruction in absence of a prescribed ESL curriculum, and can prove to be quite successful if implemented effectively. Start with your grade-level standards and content, along with the language standards supported by your state/jurisdiction. Build on students’ background knowledge and prior experiences. Pre-teach essential academic vocabulary for each unit of study, and provide repeated exposure in a variety of settings. Use high-quality visuals, media and realia to help students make connections. Co-plan with ESL and related support staff to ensure that students are learning language and content concurrently.

Tip #3: Give students access to the core curriculum!

It’s not as difficult as it sounds! The key to providing access is reducing the linguistic complexity that exists in the curriculum. First examine your curriculum, lessons and assessments and ask yourself, “How can I simplify the language while keeping the content intact?” Preview your content for multiple meaning words and cultural bias, as these could pose significant challenges, especially in the area of mathematics. Increase the frequency of key academic vocabulary exposure and the use of necessary language structures. Capitalize on the presence of cognates (words that have the same linguistic derivation/root). Create an effective communication and service plan with your ESL professional and related staff, and be sure to communicate this your ELL families. Examine service models, grading practices, content modifications and accommodations, and be open to change. Be sure that your assessments match your instruction. Seek additional interventions for your ELLs that support literacy and content development.

Continue to explore resources in your jurisdiction (supplemental materials, access to professional development, interpretation/translation support, etc.), advocate for your ELLs and embrace a growth mindset when it comes to supporting your ELLs.

For more information, check out our upcoming book: The Classroom Teacher’s Guide to Supporting ELLs.

Response From Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Heather Wolpert-Gawron is an award-winning middle school teacher, blogger, and author of such books as DIY for Project Based Learning for ELA and History, DIY for PBL for Math and Science, and Writing Behind Every Door: Teaching Common Core Writing in the Content Areas. Heather believes curriculum design should tell a story, and hopes teachers play a role in 21st Century lesson development. She is passionate about educational technology and its role in helping students communicate all subjects:

Here are a few suggestions:

* Enhance history lessons using primary source pictures to begin discussions.

* Turn on captions for any Ted Talks that you might be watching. Also, watch the speeches with the sound off so that they can work on their facial expressions and gestures. Notice that when people move on a stage sometimes indicates the organization of the speeches themselves.

* Use Google’s Add-on ReadWrite. That will read any text uploaded to Google Drive (albeit in a robotic voice) and will highlight the text as it reads along.

* Allow discussion at all times! Teach debate. Give them the confidence with oral speaking in the classroom that comes with the comfort of being allowed to take risks. So many students remain stagnant in EL programs because they aren’t interacting with the material orally. Give them the confidence to speak up in class.

* Bring in the family. As consultant Lisa Dabbs says, bring the school to the families. Don’t just call when there’s a problem. Call home with praise, too. Don’t invite families to the school for coffee, ask if there’s an EL family that will host in their home. Break down the fear of school that might also be present in the family unit by making sure you are reaching out in ways that help them take your hand.

Responses From Readers

Joanne Yatvin (a past president of the National Council Of Teachers Of English):

Helping ELLS who enter high school knowing little or no English is very difficult; not only because they tend to use their native language socially in and out of school and stay silent in classrooms, but also because high school curricula demand more competence in English than they can reach in so short a time. Having a specialized class for English learning, in addition to regular classes, does help students somewhat, but it is rarely enough for the fast transition they need to be successful in high school.

On the other hand, helping ELLS learn English at elementary level is doable when teachers have the right training. Over five years I visited classrooms in four high poverty elementary schools, in rural Oregon, with large numbers of English language learners. Because those students came to school many different native languages, it was not possible to have special classes for speakers of each one. Therefore, regular classroom teachers were charged with doing the full job of teaching their ELLs English and the whole class the regular curriculum in reading, writing, math etc.

Early on, I found out that elementary teachers in this school district were required to take a weeklong course called Project GLAD (Guided Literacy Acquisition Design), so I decided to take the course myself. It was excellent, and it helped me to appreciate what the teachers I was observing were doing.

In the beginning, the essentials are partnering a new ELL with a native English speaker who would help the newcomer with the basic routines, such as finding materials in the classroom, standing in line in the lunchroom, and essential language such as “Where is...” What the teacher does, from the beginning and throughout the year is, as far as possible, to present new material visually and orally along with written forms, and to use stock phrases to accustom ELLs to the regular language structures of English and the basic information and skills of the material being taught. To help ELLs remember the information taught or important vocabulary, teachers frequently invent songs or rhymes for students to learn and repeat in chorus.

Another basic component is teaching is consistency: using the similar formats to present new material throughout the year, modifying them somewhat as students become more familiar with them. In addition, teachers continue to use visual presentations on a regular basis --mostly roughly drawn images to help ELLs understand new concepts and vocabulary.

Katy Torres:

Why would ESL students have a different curriculum than mainstream students? All students should have access to the same curriculum, created with UDL principals, and receive additional support based on their language proficiency levels and level of background knowledge. Mainstream teachers have a shared responsibility to support ELs.

Thanks to Mary, Ekuwah, Giselle, Pamela, Olga and Heather, and to readers, for their contributions!

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