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: Teach English-Language Learners by Meeting Them ‘Where They Are’

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 24, 2015 16 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

(This is the first post in a two-part series on this topic)

This week’s question is:

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

The number of English Language Learner students in our schools is rising fast, often in communities that have little experience supporting them. What do you do when your school and class receives ELLs, but neither your district or your school has resources ready for you to help them?

Today, educators Wendi Pillars, Annie Huynh, Regie Routman, William Himmele, and Pérsida Himmele share 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.

I’ve been teaching multiple subjects to all levels of English Language Learners for many years, and I’m very impressed with the advice that is shared by guests in this post and the suggestions that will be shared by them in Part Two. I’d like to suggest just three additions readers might find helpful: One, a short post my colleague and co-author Katie Hull Sypnieski wrote for Edutopia titled Do’s & Don’ts For Teaching English-Language Learners; two, a collection I’ve developed called The “All-Time” Best Resources, Articles & Blog Posts For Teachers Of English Language Learners; and, three, my weekly posts at The New York Times on teaching ELLs.

In addition, you might want to explore previous posts in this blog about teaching ELLs.

Now, it’s time to hear from today’s guests:

Response From Wendi Pillars

Wendi Pillars has taught language learners in ESL/ EFL for 18 years, in grades K-12, both stateside and overseas. She is a member of the CTQ Collaboratory and serves on the leadership team for the Teacher Leadership Initiative as a cohort Facilitator. Her forthcoming book is titled Visual Note-Taking for Educators: A Teacher’s Guide to Student Creativity:

How do you help you ELLs when your school has no ESL curriculum?

Think ACE with these 3 non-negotiables for starters:

  1. Assess
  2. Collaborate
  3. Expect


I have never worked with a specific ESL Curriculum and the vast multitudes of instructional direction can definitely be paralyzing. Keep the 3 above non-negotiables in mind, though, for a successful startpoint. First, provide students with opportunities to demonstrate their level of ability and proficiency through pre-assessments which include a writing task--based on reading comprehension or a standalone prompt, labeling pictures (body parts, maps, areas of a house, etc.), and speaking informally (greeting as they come into the room each day, small conversations). I also consider their listening abilities and habits (attention to single and multiple step directions, averted gazes, default looks to peers, and so on).


With this baseline plus any transcripts, files, and reports from previous schools, you can determine where your language learners are starting from before you begin to map out their destination. Once you determine skills they need to be proficient in the next level of their language progression, collaborate with classroom and content area teachers to understand topics or themes ELLs will soon be learning. Foster mutual collaboration by sharing your knowledge and understanding of the students’ abilities and proclivities with their other teachers.


Armed with collaborative information, focus on a single area, say, social studies or science, into which you can easily incorporate reading and writing skills, as well as speaking and listening. Expect them to achieve proficiency at subsequent levels (using language development standards, such as those provided by WIDA) as you scaffold their learning and outcomes. Nurse the content as a base from which to launch, either pre-teaching or deepening key concepts and themes. Either choice can be valuable confidence boosters, as they become more comfortable using the vocabulary, understanding the main ideas, and adding more and more details to their knowledge base.

Remember, too, that it’s not all about content. Yes, content is valuable, but emphasize the acquisition and learning processes, the metacognitive aspects, and how students are expected to use the language once they’ve acquired it with contextual support. Additionally, be sure to include social language. Teach them phrases of etiquette once prom is announced, basic application vocabulary for those seeking jobs, how to order a pizza (or other food) politely, how to ask for help in class and out of class... Vocabulary, vocabulary, vocabulary--encourage them to ask you what something is, and what different forms of environmental print mean. In other words, be attentive to their needs and take the time to get to know them as much as possible.

Response From Annie Huynh

Annie Huynh is the Director of Curriculum and Assessment at Boys Prep Bronx Elementary School. Her areas of focus include literacy, TESOL, and anti-bias education. Annie is a member of the ASCD Emerging Leaders class of 2014. Follow her on Twitter @TchrAnnie:

Supporting Multilingual Learners in the General Education Classroom

Classrooms across America are becoming more enriched with student diversity now more than ever as students coming from multilingual backgrounds are on the rise. In classrooms, we expect to teach students of various backgrounds, needs, and strengths, such as English language learners and students from multilingual households who may not qualify for ESOL instruction. Schools may or may not have a dedicated curriculum for multilingual students, so educators have the opportunity to support multilingual learners in the general education setting. In this blog, I describe some classroom supports to help English Language Learners I have used to support multilingual learners when I taught abroad in Taiwan and in the elementary classroom comprised of majority immigrant students of various levels of English language proficiency inclusively.

Meet students where they are. In order to teach, plan, and differentiate, it is important to know what students can do. Using English Language Learner assessment data, such as WIDA’s Can Do descriptors, on students’ reading, writing, speaking and listening levels, a teacher can better understand what the multilingual learner can do and what the next level of rk is. With this knowledge, teachers, general education and ESOL specialists can collaborate to design appropriate instruction, assessments, and learning activities that support long-term language growth. For example, if a second grader can tell what people are doing in pictures, then a teacher can support the student in developing retelling skills with a story containing pictures in a sequence.

Build vocabulary. When introducing new concepts, content, and processes, it is important to build on prior knowledge and introduce critical vocabulary words needed to understand the concept. Limiting the new vocabulary to less than five words with pictures, a sample sentence, and other conjugated forms focus on the most important information and allows students to better understand the lesson. When possible, pre-teaching vocabulary and/or previewing the lesson is ideal. Another way to support vocabulary is to provide sentence frames or stems to support students in effectively communicating their ideas.

Provide multimodal learning opportunities. English language learners, in particular, benefit from the use of multimodal learning, such as visual, audio, kinesthetic, and reading/writing learning activities. The use of real-life objects, demonstrations, video, among other strategies better support English Language Learners than lecture-style. For example, when teaching about prediction, I modeled how to make a prediction in a fiction story by reading aloud, making a prediction, providing possible sentence starters to prompt student thinking. After reading another part, multilingual learners, who may be paired with a language-model peer, can share their prediction with their partner, and then apply what they have learned in their own reading.

Create a multilingual-friendly classroom. Multiple language literacies support language development and growth, including the English language. Instill pride in knowing multiple languages and create a classroom where students respect and relish in the learning, sharing, and practicing of different languages. For example, my students used greetings in various languages and practiced counting one to ten in different languages for the game “Ten”. These are small ways that a classroom can foster a love for languages and for English language learners to feel competent and accepted.

Supporting the language development of multilingual learners in a school without an ESL curriculum is a challenge, but it is also a rich learning opportunity for educators and students alike.

Response From Regie Routman

Regie Routman is an educator who works in underperforming schools to increase and sustain reading and writing achievement for all students. She is the author of many books and resources, most recently Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success (ASCD, 2014). She can be contacted on www.regieroutman.org:

The posed question assumes that ELLs need a separate curriculum, an assumption with which I disagree. With all due respect, let’s reframe the question to “How do we help all ELLs succeed in school?” ELLs need and deserve the same challenging and relevant curriculum--accompanied by high expectations--as all of our students. Anything less is demeaning and disenfranchising.

The traditional definition of curriculum is the academic subject matter of content to be learned, and that includes standards and testing. As a matter of course, we often limit curriculum for ELLs believing that because English is not their first language they lack the capacity for learning and high level thinking. Evidence of that assumption abounds--students leaving class for segregated and specialized training, separate subject matter and resources, scripted low-level curriculum.

We need to think about changing the way we often do things with ELLs. Many of our beliefs and actions are not mandated but are rather business as usual actions based on habits, ingrained beliefs, and past behaviors. For example, too many educators hold the belief that children who speak a different language are somehow less capable. Low expectations commonly accompany that belief. A glaring example is the commonly perceived need for separate curriculum for ELLs, which marginalizes what’s possible and limits potential for deep thinking and discussion on important world-related matters.

All Ell’s need to have high-level curriculum with expert scaffolding and sustained time to apply what they learning, all done in a meaningful and relevant manner. Part of the problem is that many teachers are unsure how to teach ELLs. First and foremost, ELLs need to know the learning goals--what they’re learning, why it matters, and the evidence that proves they’ve learned the material; to have the students do 50% of the talking in their content area and expecting them to use the academic language in a meaningful context.

By anticipating and addressing the learning challenges of ELLs, effective teachers design their instruction to ensure that the content is accessible and manageable. By engaging ELLs--and all students--in meaningful content, giving them sufficient time, strategies to learn content area key vocabulary, support, and practice to process the information, students experience success as learners.

Twelve Actions to help ALL English Language Learners Succeed in Schools:

  1. Celebrate successes. Notice and name learners’ specific strengths and efforts before focusing on what needs improvement.

  1. Set up and sustain a safe environment for taking risks. Students who are learning a second language need to be assured their ideas and thinking matter and are respected, even when attempted responses are incomplete.

  1. Include ELLs in rich conversations. Give students time to show evidence for their thinking; support and scaffold to clarify, define, revise their thinking, and find useful resources to support their thinking.

  1. Teach whole-part-whole, not part-to-whole. Begin with whole, excellent texts in reading and writing. Avoid isolated skills teaching and embed most skills work within meaningful contexts in order to maximize comprehension.

  1. Rely on the reading-writing connection to maximize engagement and learning. Starting in kindergarten, it is through daily writing for authentic audiences and purposes--and rereading their writing--that many ELLs learn to read, slow down and cement their letter-sound and word knowledge, and become proficient writers.

  1. Do daily reading aloud of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. As you read, provide necessary background knowledge, think aloud your reactions to what’s happening; explain how you figure out what certain words and phrases mean including academic vocabulary, comment on the rhythm and flow of the language; suggest how students might try out in their own writing a technique the author used. Include interactive read aloud, as well, where students also share their own thinking.

  1. Encourage the ELL specialist to work in the classroom (“push in” rather than “pull out”) alongside the classroom teacher, to support ELLs to comprehend the same high level, curriculum all students are receiving.

  1. Offer daily, shared experiences that are engaging and culturally relevant. As the teacher, take the lead to shape the actual reading and writing of content, but encourage and accept the ideas and voices of all students.

  1. Provide constant, comprehensible input to authentic, purposeful work. Use multi-media, physical objects, role-playing, and all modalities to ensure vocabulary, concepts, and language are understood.

  1. Do more small group work and work with peers. Flexible small groups and partner work provide more opportunities for interactively grappling with ideas through meaningful talk and collaboration. The more opportunities ELLs have to listen and talk with peers and to share their thinking around challenging and relevant curriculum and ideas, the more sophisticated their thinking and language will become.

  1. Advocate for best research-based practices for ELLs. A strong body of research confirms valuing and teaching in a student’s home language at the same time the student is learning a second language.

  1. Give assessments in students’ native language, when possible. Such assessments highlight ELL’s optimal comprehension and content knowledge and do not penalize students’ limitations in English proficiency.

Response from William Himmele and Pérsida Himmele

Drs. William & Pérsida Himmele are Associate Professors at Millersville University in southeastern Pennsylvania. They are the authors of the ASCD books Total Literacy Techniques, Total Participation Techniques, and The Language-Rich Classroom. They can be reached at whimmele@millersville.edu and phimmele@millersville.edu. Follow them on Twitter: @williamhimmele and @persidahimmele:

Even if your school had an ESL Curriculum, chances are that it wouldn’t fit your ELL students’ needs for very long. Teaching English to ELLs is not like teaching photosynthesis. When you teach topics like photosynthesis, most of your students, if not all, are at a beginning starting point in their knowledge of the topic. Since none or few of your students know anything about photosynthesis, you could conceivably turn to lesson 6 on page 89 of your textbook and find the content that most of your students would need. If you teach it well, by adding some engaging opportunities for the students to process the information, chances are that most would walk away having learned something about photosynthesis. That’s not the case when you’re teaching English to ELLs.

ELLs bring varied educational histories and varied first language proficiencies in listening, speaking, reading and writing. Some of your English language learners may have strong academic skills in their home language, which will make it easier for them to learn English. Some may have spent the majority of their lives in refugee camps with limited prior schooling experiences. Some may have learned formal English in their native homeland and are getting used to hearing it spoken in an unfamiliar accent, and yet others, may have born in the continental U.S. Their conversational proficiency may seem on par with many other students who speak only English, but because they struggle with academic English, they are unable to test out of ESL programming, and are struggling in many academic areas. Knowing where your ELLs are in their English proficiencies takes more than a simple proficiency or commercial product placement test. It takes an understanding of your students’ linguistic and academic histories. It takes observing students and using frequent formative assessments that provide information regarding what your students need help with.

Commercial ESL curricula may be packaged nicely and may give you something to teach, and they may actually work sometimes, but because of the complexities involved in learning language, and because of the variety of life, linguistic, and academic prior experiences that students bring with them, their usefulness is often short-lived.

Instead of looking for an ESL curriculum, look at the content that you teach. We’ve developed a framework that we call CHATS. It consists of 5 components that can help support content learning as well as academic language learning in linguistically diverse classrooms. The CHATS acronym stands for Content Reading Support, Higher-Order Thinking, Assessments (formative), Total Participation Techniques, and Scaffolding (but not replacing) reading through the use of pictures and multimedia. We created a CHATS unit planning mat that you might find helpful in planning. It’s meant to provide reminders, as you plan, of areas where ELLs will benefit from additional support, while still keeping the lesson cognitively engaging for the rest of your class.

Because of the complexities in learning language and content at the same time, packaged ESL curricula are simply unable to deliver on many of the promises they make. Instead, focus on teaching your content in ways that build both language and content at the same time, by keeping some important principles in mind. The concepts in the CHATS Framework are meant to help you do just that.

(For more information on CHATS, see The Language-Rich Classroom, Himmele & Himmele, ASCD, 2009)

Thanks to Wendi, Annie, Regie, William and Pérsida for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment 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.

Anyone whose question is selected for weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook 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 four years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. They don’t include ones from this current year, but you can find them by clicking on the “answers” category found in the sidebar.

Classroom Management

Student Motivation

Implementing The Common Core

The Best Ways To Begin & End The School Year

Teaching Social Studies

Project-Based Learning

Brain-Based Learning

Using Tech In The Classroom

Parent Engagement In Schools

Teaching English Language Learners

Student Assessment

Teaching Reading & Writing

Education Policy Issues

Differentiating Instruction

Author Interviews

Teaching Math & Science

Professional Development

Teacher & Administrator Leadership

Relationships In Schools

Instructional Strategies

This Year’s Most Popular Q & A Posts!

Look for Part Two in a few days.....

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.