Find your next job fast at the Jan. 28 Virtual Career Fair. Register now.
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

Teaching Opinion

Response: Teaching Strategies for ELLs in Content Classes - Part One

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 14, 2015 11 min read

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

This week’s question is:

What are the best strategies to use when teaching English Language Learners in content classes?

The question above is my simplified version of the actual one sent by a teacher who requested anonymity. Here is what was submitted:

I’m at my start of second school year teaching 8th grade social studies which is tested! My population of Spanish dominant students is the majority. Social studies was never taught at the elementary level. I feel hopeless. I’m using different strategies that include foldables class discussions essential questioning visuals primary sources ...etc etc!! I cant reach them! Sometimes I wonder if its me..other teachers say I work too hard. But I really want my student to learn about history but I have to be both a English teacher and social studies teacher at same time. I need help!

Today’s post shares responses from four experienced educators: Judie Haynes, Mary Ann Zehr, Bárbara C. Cruz and Stephen J. Thornton. You can also listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Judie and Mary Ann on my BAM! Radio Show.

Feel free to contribute your own responses -- I’ll be including them in Part Two of this series.

You might also be interested in resources I’ve collected at The Best Sites For Learning Strategies To Teach ELLs In Content Classes. I’ve also written a very practical article for ASCD Educational Leadership about this topic titled Get Organized Around Assets. Here’s a short excerpt:

Before I became a high school English as a second language teacher 9 years ago, I spent 19 years as a community organizer, primarily in immigrant neighborhoods and with institutions focused on immigrants. Organizing is a process of helping people--many of whom might be reluctant to change--learn new skills and engage in the world in a way that improves their situation. Organizing means helping people use their assets--their experiences, traditions, and stories--to reimagine themselves and their dreams. It’s about helping them tap into their intrinsic motivation and embark on a journey of action, discovery, and learning. I call the process that successful organizers use the organizing cycle. As a teacher, I’ve adapted this cycle to help English language learners become accomplished readers and learners.

The organizing cycle includes five actions: Build strong relationships with students; access prior knowledge through stories; help students learn by doing; identify and mentor students’ leadership potential; and promote the habit of reflection.

Now, to suggestions from my guests:

Response From Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes taught ESL for 28 years. She is the co-author and author of seven books, the most recent being The Essential Guide for Educating Beginning English Learners (2012):

In our book, Teaching English Language Learners Across the Content Areas, Debbie Zacarian and I proposed four essential strategies to use when teaching English language learners (ELLs) in the content areas. These strategies are all related to providing comprehensible input for ELLs in content area classrooms. Language is not “soaked up.” The learner must understand the message that is conveyed in order for learning to occur. ELLs acquire language by hearing and understanding messages that are slightly above their current English language level.(Krashen, 1985)

The following four strategies are examples of how to provide comprehensible input.

1. Connect content to ELLs’ background knowledge. Teachers need to consider the schema that ELLs bring to the classroom and to link instruction to the students’ personal, cultural, and world experiences. This is especially true in social studies where many ELLs will not bring significant background knowledge and experiences to the tasks. Teachers also need to identify what their English language learners do not know. They must understand how the cultures of their ELLs impact learning in the classroom.

2.Make lessons visual, and kinesthetic. Use visual representations to introduce new concepts and vocabulary. Find graphs, maps, photographs, drawings, and charts. Create story maps and graphic organizers to scaffold comprehension of text and teach ELLs how to organize information. Don’t be shy about acting out the meanings of key concepts and new vocabulary. ELLs will benefit from hands-on activities. Have them learn by doing. Investigate project-based learning and Makerspaces.

3. Use cooperative learning strategies. Lecture-style teaching excludes ELLs from the learning in a classroom. We don’t want to relegate ELLs to the fringes of the classroom, doing a separate lesson with a classroom aide or on their own. Working in small groups is especially beneficial to ELLs who have an authentic reason to use academic vocabulary and real reasons to discuss key concepts. Give students a job in a group, and monitor that they are participating.

4. Modify vocabulary instruction for ELLs. ELLs do not usually learn new vocabulary indirectly. It needs to be explicitly taught in order for them to understand texts that they are reading. ELLs need many more exposures to new words than native-English speakers. They need to learn cognates, prefixes, suffixes, and root words to enhance their ability to make sense of new vocabulary . Understanding context clues such as embedded definitions, pictures, and charts builds ELLs’ schema. They should actively engage in holistic activities to practice new vocabulary because learning words out of context is difficult for them.

Don’t overwhelm students with too many new words. Pick vocabulary that is absolutely essential in each unit. Introduce the vocabulary in a familiar and meaningful context and then again in a content-specific setting. For example, in a unit on tornadoes, the word “front” needs to be reviewed in a familiar context and then taught in the context of the unit.

Haynes, J. & Zacarian, D. (2008) Teaching English language learners across the content areas. Alexandra, VA: Association for Supervisors and Curriculum Developers (ASCD)

Krashan, S (1985)The input hypothesis: Issues and implications. New York: Longman.

Response From Mary Ann Zehr

Mary Ann Zehr is starting her fourth year in 2014 as a history teacher for English-language learners at Woodrow Wilson High School, a public school in the District of Columbia. For 14 years, she was a reporter for Education Week and specialized in writing about English-language learners:

I teach 9th grade world history and 11th grade U.S. history to English-language learners. Increasingly, I’m trying to plan lessons with the primary goal of teaching language or a skill using history content rather than teaching history with a secondary goal of supporting students to acquire language and skills along the way. For example, I have students learn to compare major religions by using Internet resources to fill in a chart about the origin, founders, sacred books, and beliefs and practices of five religions. This is a traditional history lesson. But it’s partnered with a language lesson in which the students write sentences about religions using the language of comparison, which I model for them. They need to use connecting words such as “and,” “while,” or “but.” For instance, a student might write: “The Bible is the sacred book for Christianity while the Quran is the sacred book for Islam.” Within the lesson, we also review confusing aspects of talking and writing about religion such as the usage of “Christian” versus “Christianity” or “Muslim” versus “Islam.”

As a new teacher I had a tendency to try to get a lot of history across to my students and gave short shrift to teaching language. This last year, my third year of teaching high school ELLs, I forced myself to slow down and teach them how to write sentences, paragraphs, and essays. I made the culminating products the assessment grade for some units so we cut out the time to review for and take traditional tests that focused on facts.

The test on a unit about U.S. imperialism, for example, was to write a five-paragraph essay arguing whether the U.S. is more or less imperialistic than it was 100 years. With several language-focused lessons, we learned the steps to making an argument and writing an essay. Before writing anything, we had a very structured debate on the issue. Students wrote their arguments on white boards using sentence starters: “One reason the U.S is more/less imperialistic than it was 100 years ago is_____________.” “Another reason the U.S. is more/less imperialistic than it was 100 years ago is ____________.” Students were assigned a position and had to argue with a partner who had been assigned the opposite position. Then we had a class discussion in which student expressed and justified their own personal viewpoints. Following the debate, students selected one of these viewpoints from the debate to create a topic sentence for a persuasive essay. We brainstormed possible topics for the body of the essay and created an outline using a graphic organizer. I taught students how to include a counterargument in their essay and refute it. Students wrote most of the essay in class. And they also got assessment points for revising their essays. With such step-by-step instruction, most students could produce an essay.

I’ve learned that if I focus too much on history content and not enough on language and skills, the material I’ve covered with students doesn’t stick. I use a variety of strategies such as providing visual support with short videos, using graphic organizers, modeling, and having students write ideas on white boards and share them with a partner. But planning what strategy to use isn’t as important as planning what skill or language concepts I want them to learn and figuring out how the strategies will support students to synthesize ideas and information from history in an activity that forces them to use language and communicate.

Response From Bárbara C. Cruz and Stephen J. Thornton

Bárbara C. Cruz and Stephen J. Thornton are Professors of Social Science Education at the University of South Florida. They are coauthors of Teaching Social Studies to English Language Learners and coeditors of Teaching ELLs across the Curriculum:

Most subject-area teachers consider themselves math teachers, science teachers, etc. They see their primary responsibility as teaching the subject -- in English. But these days an ever-growing number of students speak languages other than English.

How can we be true to the goals we have for teaching our subject and still effectively reach students who speak little or no English? This is a huge challenge and there are no panaceas. But there are some common threads which can act as rules of thumb.

Curriculum Planning.

Good teaching based on planning is indispensable when considering ELLs --who among themselves vary in English proficiency-- while giving traditional attention to English speakers.

  • Be clear about the big idea (or two) of the lesson and build the activities around that idea(s).
  • Have language objectives in addition to content goals

Materials and Resources

  • Simplified text that reduces the cognitive load: this is not dumbing down text! The same concepts and relationships can often be conveyed in simpler language (e.g., fewer multi-syllabic words, avoidance of arcane vocabulary). Sometimes it’s a matter of identifying appropriate resources; sometimes you might have to simplify the text yourself.
  • Rich in visuals: A surprising number of ideas can be conveyed through visuals rather than words. Have a picture dictionary, especially one made specifically for your subject, available to students and be sure to incorporate visuals in all your presentations.
  • Pre- and post-reading focus questions: all students can benefit from knowing what to look for in, a reading assignment, and will benefit too from review at the assignment’s end.

Instructional Strategies

  • Photos and illustrations: as noted, use as many visuals as you can to make as much of the content accessible. This needn’t be to the exclusion of text -- in fact, parallel versions can be extremely helpful to learning.
  • Graphic organizers (e.g., timelines, Venn diagrams, cause & effect diagrams): these are invaluable aids to learning for practically all students, but are also ways for ELLs to understand content they simply are not yet ready to understand from text.
  • Pairing and small group work: ELLs benefit greatly from not just hearing English, but also speaking and writing it. These opportunities are maximized in small groups with native English speakers.

Thanks to Judie, Mary Ann, Bárbara and Stephen 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. I’ll be including readers’ responses in Part Two.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at 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.

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 three years of blog, you can see a categorized list below. You won’t see posts from school year in those compilations, but you can review those new ones by clicking on the monthly archives link on this blog’s sidebar:

Classroom Management Advice

Student Motivation

Implementing The Common Core

Teaching Reading and Writing

Parent Engagement In Schools

Teaching Social Studies

Best Ways To Begin & End The School Year

Teaching English Language Learners

Using Tech In The Classroom

Education Policy Issues

Teacher & Administrator Leadership

Instructional Strategies


Teaching Math & Science

Brain-Based Learning

School Relationships

Author Interviews

Professional Development

Education Week has published a collection of posts from blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Watch 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.