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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.

English-Language Learners Opinion

Ways to Differentiate Instruction for ELLs

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 09, 2018 21 min read
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There are millions of English-language Learners in U.S. schools, and many—if not most—of them are in mainstream classes with students who are much more proficient in English. Given that situation, how can teachers best differentiate instruction for ELLs in their classrooms?

This three-part series will explore that important question.

Today, responses will come 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.

I’ve been teaching English-language learners for 17 years. Here are sources of advice I recommend:

Of course, you’ll also want to explore previous posts that have appeared in this column about Teaching English-Language Learners and on Differentiating Instruction.

Response From Valentina Gonzalez

Valentina Gonzalez is currently a professional-development specialist for ELLs in Texas. She works with teachers of English-learners to support language and literacy instruction. In addition to presenting, she writes a monthly blog for MiddleWeb focused on supporting ELLs. She can be reached through her website, elementaryenglishlanguagelearners.weebly.com, or on Twitter @ValentinaESL:

There is a misconception that differentiating for English-learners means that we take the summative assessment (which could be a project, worksheet, or test) and accommodate it by adding visuals, eliminating choices, allowing the use of translation devices, etc. In classrooms across the country, mainstream teachers have either been turning in these assignments to their ESL colleagues in hopes that they will make the work easier for ELLs to access or they’ve been accommodating them on their own.

Accommodating a summative assessment is only one piece of the puzzle, and if we wait until it’s time to work independently to accommodate, then we are too late.

The best ways for mainstream teachers to differentiate instruction for English-learners is BEFORE the independent work is required. Differentiating for ELLs means accommodating three categories of our teaching: verbal, procedural, and instructional.

Verbal Differentiation

This is about the way we present information. It can take many forms. Simply slowing down our speech can support ELLs as they listen, process, and translate the input. Rephrasing and clarifying ensures that students have full comprehension. Sometimes the gestures and total physical response we incorporate into our verbal instruction can maximize student comprehension, too. The use of visuals is huge with English-learners but supports all students as well. All of these techniques require little planning but do require intentional thought.

Let me give you an example.

If I am conducting a read aloud, I will might preteach some key vocabulary to a small group of my English-learners who are at the beginning stage of language proficiency and possibly a few students who struggle with vocabulary. If I’m lucky enough to have a co-teacher, the co-teacher may gather this group and also introduce the book to the students. While reading the book to the class, I will ensure that I make my reading and thinking visible to the students. I will enlarge the text under a document camera, so students can see what I’m reading. If there are pictures, I will show them and provide opportunities to talk about the visual and the text. Students will turn and talk about the text.

Procedural Differentiation

The way we group our instruction makes a difference, too. From whole group to small group to individual. This type of differentiation supports students with the gradual release of responsibility. Our goal is for students to do things we are teaching them with ease and automaticity. Differentiating the way we instruct the groups of our students supports their independence. By beginning with whole group and keeping that a short mini-lesson, we can show students how to do “the thing.” We model. Model explicitly. Be as explicit as possible. This is how it’s done. In reading and writing workshop, this is the mini-lesson ,and it is usually about 10 minutes of the lesson. Next is group work or WE do. Working with a group is moving toward independence but still with support. In a balanced literacy classroom, this can be seen during guided reading, small groups, shared reading, and shared writing. Working in small groups allows for a lower teacher-student ratio. This type of setting is highly effective because it lowers the affective filter and gives students more opportunities to participate and interact with peers as well as with the teacher. And finally, students move toward independence with YOU do when they work alone to apply what they have learned with their teacher and peers during the I do and WE do phases. During reading and writing workshop, this can be seen while students are reading and writing on their own.

Instructional Differentiation

Using graphic organizers can be extremely powerful if students are explicitly taught how and when to use these tools on their own. There are many types: story maps, Venn Diagrams, T-Charts, tree maps, word webs, semantic maps, etc. If students understand the power of using graphic organizers for reading and writing, then they can pull these tools out at any time to enhance their comprehension and structure their own learning.

Instructional differentiation also includes the use of exemplars and touchstone texts that match students. Students need to see attainable goals so they are able to meet our expectations. Giving each student the same example or goal to reach does not allow for differentiation. Not all students are ready for the same goal. Students are all on their own path in their learning journey. Providing each student with an attainable target seems difficult, but it’s really not that challenging. What I do is save student samples and use them as targets, exemplars, or touchstone texts depending on the content area.

Keep a constant pulse on your language learners. Where are they in language and content development, what do they need next, what supports do they no longer need? Learning content and language simultaneously seems challenging, but it can be achieved with proper planning, engagement and ongoing teacher support.

Response From Jenny Vo

Jenny Vo earned her B.A. in English from Rice University and her M.Ed. in educational leadership from Lamar University. She has been teaching for 22 years and is currently an ESL ISST (Instructional Support Specialty Teacher) in Katy ISD in Katy, Texas:

An English-language learner’s lack of English proficiency does not mean that they cannot learn the same content as the native English-speaking peers. However, we cannot expect them to learn the same content in the same way. There should be some differentiation in your instructional strategy and in your materials.

KNOW YOUR STUDENTS. To best differentiate instruction for your English-language learners who are in a “mainstream” classroom, you first must KNOW who your students are. You must know their English-proficiency level. You must know what gaps they have in the content areas of math, science, and social studies. You must know about your students’ learning styles. Knowing these things about your students will help you support them in the mainstream classroom. Not all ELLs will need the same amount of support nor will they all need the same type of accommodations. The following are some accommodations you can use to differentiate instruction for your ELLs in the mainstream classroom.

PLANNING. When planning your lessons, don’t just think about the content objectives. You also need language objectives. What vocabulary will the students need to know to help them master the content objectives? Do you need to preteach the vocabulary to your beginners and intermediate students? Then think about what activities can be used to teach the vocabulary. Vocabulary should be taught explicitly, and students need to practice the words in context many times. Attach pictures to vocabulary words and put the words on word walls for students to refer to throughout the unit or the year.

TEACH SPECIFIC READING AND WRITING STRATEGIES. Explicitly teach your ELLs specific reading and writing strategies. Because they will need ample time to practice these strategies, I would recommend just teaching them a few that you feel are the best. Use small-group time to reteach and give them more practice. We want the students to be able to use these strategies proficiently to help them improve their reading and writing skills. I love Jennifer Serravallo’s The Reading Strategies Book and The Writing Strategies Book. The lessons are short and quick. The books themselves are organized in a very teacher-friendly way.

MODIFIED TEXTS/ACCOMMODATED ASSESSMENTS. For your ELLs who are not reading at grade level, you can differentiate their reading materials by modifying the reading selections for them. Keeping in mind the essential content you want the students to learn, you can rewrite the reading material by rewording sentences, taking out extraneous information, and adding visuals to aid in comprehension. Assessments should also be accommodated to the level of ELLs. They shouldn’t be given the same tests as the other students. Reword sentences, omit extra information, add pictures, and eliminate an answer choice from multiple-choice questions.

CHARTS. Charts are a great way to highlight essential content for ELLs. Make sure you use pictures with your charts. Short phrases accompanied by visuals will greatly aid your ELLs in understanding and remembering the content. As an extended accommodation, make notebook-sized copies of the charts for students to put into their interactive notebooks so that they can use them to study at home.

SENTENCE STEMS. I’m a big proponent of providing ELLs with sentence stems. This accommodation helps so much in developing our ELLs’ speaking, reading, and writing skills in English. Select a few to use for each objective or unit. Put them on the walls. Give students multiple opportunities to use them so they can internalize them.

Being an English-language learner does not mean you are deficient in learning. Lack of language does not equal lack of intelligence. With linguistic support, ELLs can learn and master the same content in the mainstream classroom as their native-English-speaking peers. Provide them with the differentiation and support they need, and you will see what they can accomplish.

Response From Tonya Ward Singer

Tonya Ward Singer is a keynote speaker and author who consults internationally to help K-12 educators transform teaching for equity and ELL achievement. Tonya’s best-selling book, EL Excellence Every Day: The Flip-To Guide for Differentiating Academic Literacy (Corwin, 2018), is the go-to resource to help teachers ensure English-learners, and all students, thrive with rigorous literacy. Her first bestseller, Opening Doors to Equity (Corwin, 2014), was recognized by the U.S. Department of Education via Teach to Lead’s Leadership Lab and featured in a spotlight by the Gates Foundation:

Effective differentiation for English-language learners (ELLs) begins with two essential teacher mindsets: 1. That we value our ELLs’ assets; and 2. That we expect excellence from every ELL. Yes, we can teach at a high level, we can actively engage students, and we can use awesome strategies. But none of these efforts will raise ELL achievement if we don’t have these two mindsets in place.

Value ELL Assets

Valuing ELL assets begins with the recognition that multilingualism is an asset, not a liability. Differences in background (language, culture, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic level, and/or life experiences) than the teacher or a school’s majority population are just that: differences.

Seek to understand the unique assets of each ELL you serve. ELLs are an incredibly diverse group of students so they cannot nor should not be summed up as a single group with a single set of needs. In addition to their widely diverse interests, strengths, life experiences, and prior schooling, ELLs come to learning with a range of proficiency levels in English and other language(s).

Essential reflection questions:

  • What strengths in language and learning do students bring? How am I connecting my teaching to students’ background knowledge, home language(s), and experiences?
  • Does every student feel a sense of belonging and connection in my classroom community of scholars? How do I cultivate a strong sense of belonging for each ELL in my “mainstream” class?

Expect Excellence from Every ELL

Teacher expectations can make or break student learning. (Gerson, Holt & Papageorge, 2015, Carrasqulillo & Rodgriguez, 2002, Darling-Hammond & Schon, 1996). We know this, yet we get stuck.

I, too, was stuck back in my early years in the classroom. When my students struggled, I found myself protecting them from that struggle—even with high expectations right from the start. Modifications I made to my lessons, at a superficial level, might have looked like differentiation, but they weren’t. To be honest, I was “watering down": I simplified my language and I lowered my expectations. The result? Over time, this kind of approach leads to long-term ELLs, students who have been in U.S. schools for more than six years and are still designated ELLs.

There is a better way . . .

Differentiate with Strategic Supports

With the two above mindsets in place, we differentiate for ELLs in the very same way we differentiate for all students in a mainstream classroom. We engage in ongoing inquiry about our impact ruled by the following reflections:

  1. EXPECT: What are my goals for student learning? What aspects of language must students understand and use to excel with these goals?
  2. ENGAGE AND OBSERVE: What can students now understand and do in relation to these goals? What language choices do students make and what do these choices reveal about their assets and next-level goals for language learning?
  3. SUPPORT: What instruction and supports will I provide to help students build from current understandings and language use to succeed with the goals?
  4. REFLECT: How did my instruction impact student learning? How will I adapt my approach to ensure every learner thrives?

In short, there is no magic-wand approach to differentiating our ELLs’ instruction in mainstream classrooms. First, we must shift from shopping for nouns (“ELL strategies” or silver-bullet solutions) to owning the verbs (Value, Expect, Engage, Observe, Support and Reflect) that are essential to impactful and culturally relevant teaching. Only then will our school ignite teachers’ agency and efficacy to teach for ELL excellence in every classroom, every day.

Response From Carol Ann Tomlinson

Carol Ann Tomlinson’s recent book with ASCD is Differentiation and the Brain: How Neuroscience Supports the Learner-Friendly Classroom, 2nd Edition (ASCD 2018); she has also authored Leading and Managing a Differentiated Classroom (2010) with Marcia B. Imbeau. Carol’s career as an educator includes 21 years as a public school teacher and 12 years as a program administrator of special services for struggling and advanced learners. She was Virginia’s teacher of the year in 1974. More recently, she has been a faculty member at the University of Virginia Curry School of Education, where she is currently William Clay Parrish Jr. Professor and Chair of Educational Leadership, Foundations, and Policy:

Many teachers feel a bit lost as they think about how best to differentiate instruction for students who are not yet fluent in English. It’s important to remember that those students often feel powerfully lost as well. There are many straightforward ways to make the classroom more successful for students who are trying to learn both content and the language of the classroom simultaneously. Here are five ideas to consider:

  1. Do whatever you can to be welcoming as the students come to your class. A smile and a warm greeting can go a long way in reassuring a student that they matter. Invest in guiding all students in your class to be supportive of one another and make time in the early days of school for students to get acquainted and to begin working together whenever possible. Working with peers can provide rich opportunities to use English while also lessening a sense of aloneness in the classroom.
  2. Get to know your students. Surveys, checklists, notes to you, peer interviews that can be shared with the class, posting photos, and many other strategies can jump-start the process of learning about students while they signal your interest and begin to build a sense of community or team in the classroom.
  3. Use formative assessments to understand where students are in relation to key content—but be sure ELLs can read and respond to the assessments so that their responses provide you with accurate information. That may sometimes mean you’ve had someone translate the assessment into the student’s language, or that the student can answer the questions orally in his/her own language with another student or ELL support teacher or parent volunteer translating the answers into English for you. Sometimes students can draw what they know better than they can write it. The goal is for you to know what the student actually knows rather than planning from misinformation.
  4. Think about your curriculum as a highway that all of your students will travel but also plan in regular “exit ramps” that allow students at key points to work on their own needs for a time. Those exit ramps are key to differentiation. They enable students to work on needs in reading, vocabulary, writing—whatever will best facilitate their growth in the content of your class.
  5. Strategies like learning contracts, learning centers, and personalized homework support you in providing students with work tailored to their needs. Think-Pair-Shares feel less risky than answering in front of the whole class, and they also model oral English. Websites and apps that provide reading material at varied reading levels, podcasts, or materials designed to help ELLs with language growth are helpful as well. There are many such sources. A few interesting ones are Newsela, Learning A-Z, Vocabulary Spelling City, STORYWORLD, and Fluent U. The Smithsonian’s news site offers Teen Tribune, Tween Tribune, TT Junior, and TT Espanol. At each level, the site provides articles on a variety of contemporary topics at multiple reading levels. It’s also helpful to scaffold the work of ELLs (and other students ) with lists of key vocabulary, digests of content, options to work with partners, examples and visuals, graphic organizers, and other supports that facilitate student support.

As often as you can, check in with the students one on one to see how they are feeling about their work. Ask for their suggestions about what is most helpful to them in learning and follow up accordingly. Help them track their progress. Let them know you want to be part of their success. It’s nearly always the case that strong teacher-student connections lead to greater student growth.

Response From Nélida Rubio

Nélida Rubio is a teacher at Rockwood Elementary School in the Calexico Unified school district in Calexico, Calif. She has been teaching English-language learners for 22 years. She is a member of the Instructional Leadership Corps, a collaboration among the California Teachers Association, the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, and the National Board Resource Center at Stanford:

Any teacher can read books, attend trainings and conferences, participate in specialized programs for ELLs, and/or even have the background of being an ELL themselves, yet differentiating instruction for an ELL in a mainstream class does not have a one-size-fits-all solution. There are many very efficient strategies including trends like providing sentence frames or word walls for ELLs, but none serves all ELLs. A sentence frame is of no use when a student does not understand the words around the blank they need to fill. Word walls are great for those who know their meaning and use, but not for those who do not understand their context. And then there is the common belief that translating for a child or providing cognates will help the ELL, not when the content is brand-new and there is nothing the child can make connections to.

Differentiating for an ELL is much more complex than knowing and applying strategies. Each individual learner has different language experiences acquired either at home and/or school, their attitudes toward the new language differ, and their languages have unique structures. There is nothing more effective when differentiating instruction than truly knowing the learner’s background and language abilities in order to encourage language development. A teacher needs to research the individual’s cultural origin by interviewing the child, their parents, or colleagues who might also know about the learner’s background. Educators must take the time to focus on what the student can understand and produce, instead of limiting their own view with what the pupil cannot do.

I recommend class projects or activities that promote sharing students’ background sin a way that uncovers information crucial for the teacher. For example, students can create an All About Me Poster in which a student may include visuals that tell about their favorite activities, pictures and/or facts about their family history, lists of what makes them unique, goals they want to achieve, and other information a teacher might want to know about. Learning about the student’s interests will help teachers encourage language development through the use of high-interest content. Moreover, a family night is ideal to make connections with families. Parents and students can be given a questionnaire with questions such as how long a student has been in school, how well they have performed academically, how they feel about learning a new language, and questions to find out their concerns about home-school connections. If technology is available, families can record a clip or what I call a selfie video in which families answer the questions. By participating in such activities, the learner acquires a sense of belonging, thereby motivating a positive attitude toward language development.

In addition, gathering as much information as possible about their students’ literacy background and native language is essential when planning for differentiation. Researching the similarities and differences between the native language and English language will help target instruction. For example, if the language structures in their native language are close to English structures, transfer of skills will make language development easier, especially if the child has a strong literacy background.

Knowing students’ level of English allows teachers to scaffold content through the use of level-appropriate questions. It is quite impossible for a level 1 student to explain their reasoning with a verbal complex response, but they will most definitely be able to identify a response with a visual or by answering a yes/no question.

Teachers must be committed to getting to know their ELLs and adjust their curriculum to enhance each learner’s language. Adjusting the use of effective ELL strategies and/or using simple questioning techniques that require responses at the learner’s ability level will not take away from the content. Most importantly, when ELLs feel that their teacher knows them, their affective filter is lowered, and language becomes accessible.

Thanks to Valentina, Jenny, Tonya, Carol, and Nélida for their contributions.

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

The new question-of-the-week is:

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

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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Look for Part Two in a few days.

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