Posts Tagged ‘English Language Learners’

English Language Learners as Writers

Friday, November 21st, 2014

Author: Dana Ellis, Write for Texas Instructional Coach

According to school accountability data tables, students who are limited English proficient typically struggle in mastering writing skills behind their native English speaking peers. In some ways, this reality is not wholly unpredictable. After all, it takes both knowledge of a language and time experimenting with it to be able to skillfully arrange words into precise lines of reason capable of moving a reader. Though certainly not lacking in reason or passion, English Language Learners do not have the arsenal of English words at their disposal nor knowledge of American style to use on state writing assessments. To top it off, they are still students learning about life while being asked to massage meaning out of it.  Therefore, to ensure academic success in writing, special attention must be given to ELLs.

From the onset, before students memorialize their words on paper, a culture of safe writing must be established. Writing is a personal and intimate act, potentially full of the risk of social acceptance or rejection. Teachers should not skimp on time spent discussing behavioral expectations for writing workshop. Students should be thoroughly convinced that writing efforts will be met with respect and acceptance. Teachers should model their own writing for the class as well. Watching the teacher write messy drafts underscores the idea that all writers make mistakes. If all writers make mistakes, then ELLs are released from the self-imposed mandate to deliver print-ready manuscripts from the outset. All these actions work toward producing a safe, productive place in which to write.

Research from a wide variety of sources consistently supports the effectiveness of explicit writing instruction. However, classroom visits often reveal that teachers favor writing practice over writing instruction. For ELLs especially, writing must be broken down into individual goals, procedures, and features.

For example, ELLs may not realize that standard American academic writing is linear in nature. This type of writing identifies a topic directly and then consistently follows that topic through, without deviation, to a conclusion. However, the ELL may be more familiar with another culture’s academic approach. For instance, Semitic languages like Arabic favor colorful language and repetition or backtracking. Eastern languages such as Japanese explore a topic without stating a writer’s thesis. The reader is meant to mentally engage with the ideas written and draw his own conclusions. Students who transfer from a culture with a different academic writing style will be unfamiliar with the structure of an American essay. Therefore, teachers should point out text features such as a thesis, transitions, conclusions, persuasive arguments and so forth in model essays to help students conceptualize American writing styles.

A major goal for teachers of ELLs is to uncloak the thinking tools used by experienced writers as they compose texts. This means that writing processes are systematically taught through extensive modeling and metacognition while stimulating purposeful writing experiences. This cognitive approach to writing encourages students to construct meaning within a clear, easily duplicated framework. Specifically, students should build a writer’s tool kit so that they are able to approach a writing task declaratively, procedurally, and conditionally. They can determine what the writing task is, how to approach the writing, and when they have achieved the writing goal.

Following this thinking, a teacher might approach an expository essay assignment by leading the class through activities designed to build background knowledge on the topic about which students will write. Academic words used to describe the topic would be identified, explained, and verbally used by the students. The activities would be translated into concrete, language-rich classroom references (anchor charts, word banks, or desk tools). Next, the teacher would introduce a model essay on the topic, analyzing and color coding the model while using spoken thoughts to guide students through the discovery process. Emphasis would be placed on identifying audience and author’s purpose in the piece. Parts of the essay which demonstrate the focus skill would then be labeled clearly. Next, the teacher would provide some type of writing recipe, a graphic organizer, set of index cards, flipbook, or similar device that divides up the writing task into components that imitate the mentor text. Alternately, drawn boxes on notebook paper could indicate an introduction, body, and conclusion. Finally, students would be asked to focus their thoughts into a specific writing task while the teacher circulates and provides feedback. Immersion into the topic in this manner would pave the way for writing success.

To summarize, helping ELLs to be effective writers in the classroom involves being aware of cultural differences; building a safe writing climate for risk taking; giving students the tools, words, and models needed for achievement; and then allowing them time to practice writing. With these practices in place, students and teachers can change history!



Barkaoui, Khaled. “Teaching Writing to Second Language Learners: Insights from Theory and Research.” TESL Reporter 40.1 (2007): 35-48. Web.

Booth, Carol O., and Robert Landa. “A Cognitive Strategies Approach to Reading and Writing Instruction for English Language Learners in Secondary School.” Research in the Teaching of English 41 (2007): 269-303. Web. 29 Oct. 2014.

“NCTE Position Paper on the Role of English Teachers in Educating English Language Learners (ELLs).” NCTE Comprehensive News. ELL Taskforce, Apr. 2006. Web.

Radford, Colin. “The Power of Words.” Philosophy 68.265 (1993): 325-42. Scholastic. Web.

Samway, Katharine Davies. When English Language Learners Write: Connecting Research to Practice, K-8. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2006. Print.

Sentence Stems

Friday, November 21st, 2014

Author: Joseph Kanke, Write for Texas Instructional Coach

Sentence stems are a writing scaffold which provide students the opportunity to effectively respond using complete sentences.  When provided this scaffold, the pressure of having to think about how to formulate a response is alleviated.

There are four key steps to making sentence stems work with your content.  First, you must create a list of sentence stems.  Be sure that the stems include academic vocabulary and/or mimic sentence structures that are difficult for students.  Next, model the process for students by showing them some of the sentence stems and where you might use them.  At this point students will need time to practice using the sentence stems by responding to questions or completing a writing assignment.  Finally, ask students to share their complete sentences and add clarification as needed.

Sentence stems can be used at any point, in any lesson, to structure meaningful conversation.  Sentence stems may be provided to help respond to a text, as peer response to a presentation, or to activate prior knowledge, teaching students how to seek clarification or to re-enforce academic vocabulary.  Refer to the chart below for some examples.



Increase Student Interaction in Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing

Thursday, October 24th, 2013

Authors: Monica Gonzalez, Education Specialist, ESL/Bilingual

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” — Benjamin Franklin


According to TEA’s reports there are 817,165 ELL students in Texas, 456,051 enrolled in bilingual education, and 310,812 enrolled in English as a Second Language.  There are over 120 different home languages represented in Texas schools. 91% of ELL students speak Spanish.  With this increase in English language learners, our approach to teaching has to evolve in order to ensure success for this group of students.  English language learners (ELLs) are tested every year to measure their language development in listening, speaking, reading and writing (the 4 language domains).  Studies have shown that the best way for ELL students to rapidly increase their linguistic proficiency in these four areas is to increase student interaction.  Do you ask yourself, “What does that mean? What does that look like?”  Read on to find the answer to these questions.


Student interaction has been called classroom interaction, cooperative learning and student engagement. Regardless of the title or term used, student interaction is a practice in which listening and speaking skills of English language learners are enhanced through meaningful conversations with classmates. This interaction enables ELLs to think critically and orally share their views with classmates.  To know how to increase student interaction, you need to understand the linguistic development of these language skills.  As you read these descriptions, think of what you would need within each of these domains if you yourself were to learn another language.


Listening is the ability to understand spoken language, and to comprehend and extract information. It is imperative that students learn how to comprehend social and academic language.  Speaking is the ability to use social and academic language appropriately and effectively in different situations. Practicing social and academic language increases student comprehension and accelerates their oral proficiency.  Reading is the ability to comprehend and interpret written tests at a grade-appropriate level. Beginning readers may need lessons in phonics to learn the sound system of the English language. Finally, writing is the ability to produce written text with content and format to fulfill grade-appropriate assignments.  The expectations of writing will differ for each writer’s proficiency level.  Drawings would be appropriate for a beginner regardless of age or grade level.


Teachers who effectively engage students at high levels of interaction utilize three steps that scaffold each of the 4 language skills.

Modeling All students need to understand the desired outcome for the lesson.  Modeling is essential for beginning ELLs because the teacher is creating comprehensible input by demonstrating the processes students need to use to fulfill lesson objectives.   Teachers can translate and/or clarify, which increases student understanding and comprehension.

Guided practice is an activity that provides students the opportunity to grasp and develop concepts or skills while the teacher monitors students’ progress.  This setting allows for a risk-free environment in which students are free to verbally express themselves without the fear of making a mistake.  Students also feel comfortable because of the support of their peers.  Guided practice is not simply assigning a worksheet, problems or questions to be completed in class.

Independent practice provides students the opportunity to apply what they have learned.  When students are aware of the final outcome with resources such as rubrics and criteria charts, they can work together to practice or edit each other’s work before it is turned in to be graded.

This process of modeling, guided practice and independent practice is commonly called “I Do”, “We Do” and “You Do.”


The following table shows student interaction activities that follow the process in each of the four language skills.

Increase Student Interaction-table



TEA, last modified October 12, 2012.  Snapshot of ELLs in Texas.

Seidlitz, John and Auer, Valerie. Navigating the ELPS in the English Language Arts and Reading Classroom. San Clemente, CA: Canter Press, 2010.


Best Practices for Teaching Beginner English Language Learners (ELLs) at the Secondary Level

Friday, March 29th, 2013

Author:   Oryan Landa, ESL Instructional Coach



Walk into just about any secondary campus today and you are bound to find a teacher wondering what to do with a student who doesn’t speak English. And for a teacher who might have a class of 30 students, knowing how to meet the needs of that one non-English speaker can be a seemingly impossible challenge. What often transpires is a climate of avoidance or the idea that someone else on campus is (or should be) serving that student’s needs. But the reality on many campuses is that there isn’t that “someone else.” The education of these students falls onto the shoulders of all of their teachers – often through the form of Sheltered Instruction.

Sheltered Instruction is a program model designed to help ELLs access grade-level subject matter. Many of the strategies are geared towards students with an Intermediate proficiency level or above; however there are a lot of strategies that content area teachers can use to assist beginners as well. Those are the strategies addressed in this article.

In an ideal world, Beginner ELLs would also have direct, targeted instruction in English, in the same manner that our students here study French or Spanish; something that some schools offer through local elective courses. Simply being here in this country isn’t enough to “pick up” the language, especially if they are Spanish speakers and can easily go most of the day speaking their native language. We also place a lot of focus on developing academic language, but knowing academic language isn’t enough to pass a test if they can’t read all that English in between the academic words. The reality, however, is that most schools are not offering direct English instruction, while at the same time wondering why these students are not passing their classes and statewide assessments.

There are few appropriate interventions for beginners because the students’ lexile score is typically not high enough to participate meaningfully in the program. Meanwhile, ESOL classes are geared towards mastery of the English Language Arts TEKS which is not the same as learning the English language. The two classes would have different curricula and different methodologies.


Here at Education Service Center Region 13, our focus is on finding solutions. And regardless of whether schools are providing direct, targeted instruction in English, the education of these students is the responsibility of an entire campus; not just the ESL teacher.  With that in mind, there are many things content area teachers can do to assist the language acquisition and development for Beginner ELLs.

In order for content area teachers to appropriately meet the needs of their ELLs, teachers need to know their students’ proficiency levels. These scores can be found in the TELPAS results located in any student’s permanent record, where they will be marked as having Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced, or Advanced High proficiency in listening, speaking, reading, and writing.


Before we can move towards a target, we have to be clear about what that target is. The first thing a teacher should do is have patience and know that learning a language doesn’t happen overnight. According to research, developing social language alone can take 2-3 years and academic language can take 5-7 years. Our goal with Beginner ELLs is to move them from “little or no ability in reading, writing, listening and speaking” to an Intermediate proficiency level defined broadly as the ability to understand, read, and write simple, high-frequency English used in routine settings. From a solid foundation, we can move them to more advanced proficiency. But without a solid foundation, the students’ language development will suffer.  For teachers, this means creating opportunities for students to feel successful, rather than situation like failures. We need to praise students’ achievements and encourage them, focusing on their progress rather than focusing on what they cannot do.


As we move towards a specific target, there are things we have control over and things we don’t, and it’s important to know where we do have influence. For one, teachers have influence over a student’s motivation through encouragement and positive reinforcement. Controlling the affective environment – making these students feel welcomed and safe to take risks – is a major factor in their language development. This can be achieved through such things as greeting students with a smile, having a consistent classroom routine, seating them in the front or middle of the classroom, simplifying your speech (by speaking more slowly, using fewer words to explain concepts, avoiding idioms, paraphrasing ideas, and keeping directions short and simple), praising student attempts to use English, never ridiculing, pairing students up with a buddy who speaks their language and who is willing to befriend them and help them settle in , giving them a tour of the school, and putting their native culture on display. A teacher could also use a tool such as Google Translate to communicate with these students socially.

In group work, students can either partner up with a more advanced ELL, or have the Beginner ELL “tag-along” with another student, who pairs up with someone else – forming a trio. The key is to make them feel included.

Secondly, teachers have influence over these students’ access to language. This includes having appropriate materials available such as native-language/English dictionaries, translators, low-level/high-interest reading materials, and/or primary language resources. A teacher can also create a language rich environment with content-related posters, labels of the classroom, magazines and books with lots of visuals, and student-generated Word Walls. The idea is to fill your classroom with print and interesting things to talk, read and write about, so that students feel immersed in English just by being in your classroom.

Another way teachers can influence Beginner ELLs’ access to language is by making the instruction understandable. In ESL jargon we call this “comprehensible input.” This simply means making your messages easily understood. This is something that is most easily achieved through the use of visual communication or gesturing, and avoiding lecture-only instruction. Visuals should always be used to reinforce/explain what a teacher is trying to communicate. Once students achieve Intermediate proficiency, we can place more focus on developing academic language. But for a Beginner ELL, our focus should be on making things understood, so as to develop their receptive language skills. Developing students’ ability to understand English will positively influence their ability to produce English.

When interacting with Beginner ELLs, it’s also important to keep in mind that a lot of translating is going on in their heads. This means allowing them plenty of think time to both absorb information as well as formulate what they want to say. It also means that sometimes our messages need to be restated exactly the same way, because sometimes these students need to hear something several times to process its meaning. If a student still doesn’t understand, then we can rephrase our explanation, but what we want to avoid is explaining something five different ways, thereby giving them five different messages to process and translate. Less is always more.


  • Pre-teach and re-teach material – ideally in a small group, using visuals – or provide informational text in the student’s native language (which may mean translating articles or other texts, using Google Translate or a similar website).
  • Avoid passing over information only once. Beginner ELLs need multiple exposures to the material.
  • Modify assessments by underlining or bolding key words, paraphrasing or simplifying directions/questions, or allowing dictionaries/translators.
  • Provide alternative assessments such as true/false or multiple-choice tests instead of short answer formats or exams that require lots of writing. Other options include oral administration, or allowing for non-linguistic representation. The idea in the beginning is to assess for content knowledge – and not language ability.
  • Provide students with academic glossaries that provide explanations in the student’s native language.
  • Have students write in their native language, and then use Google Translate (or other resource) to translate their writing to English. Then have them copy the English version by hand.
  • Provide plenty of resources and opportunities for reading, which will help develop their grammar and vocabulary, as well as their listening, speaking, and writing ability.
  • Provide opportunities to practice speaking and writing in English, to cement the learning of both the content and the language.
  • Use the “I DO, WE DO, YOU DO” model of instruction to provide Beginner ELLs with plenty of modeling, guided practice, and peer support.
  • When students are working independently, support Beginner ELLs with one-on-one support.
  • Allow for single word or yes/no responses, grammatical and spelling errors, listing and labeling, peer support and cooperative learning, and use of drawing.
  • Provide language scaffolds such as sentence stems, paragraph frames, and graphic organizers.

Having a Beginner ELL in class can be intimidating for any teacher. It’s even more intimidating for the student. There’s a lot we don’t have control over, such as a student’s home environment, their prior schooling, or their personality. The key is knowing what needs to be in place for successful learning to occur. We do have influence over the environment we create, the relationship we establish with them, and the language we give them access to.

Student Interaction at the Secondary Level; Increasing Language Development for ELLs

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

Author:  Trish Flores, Bilingual/ESL Specialist


Engaging students at high levels of interaction is a goal for today’s schools.  High levels of interaction ensure that students are learning to use metacognitive skills to reflect on what they are learning and how they are learning.  Meaningful interactions create opportunities for students to practice what they are learning and apply it to authentic situations.  Typically, our thoughts on establishing these learning environments revolve around core subject areas such as math, science, literacy, and social studies.  It is not uncommon for teachers of elementary students to engage them in cooperative learning activities that lead to high levels of interaction.  Recently however, secondary teachers of students whom are second language learners are seeing the value and importance of implementing cooperative learning activities to accomplish two goals: content mastery and language development.

It is a wide held understanding that a skill or new learning is perfected after it is practiced and used frequently.  One does not learn to play an instrument on the first or even tenth attempt.  Learning a new skill takes targeted and focused practice that needs to be structured.  In a middle school classroom, teachers can create this learning structured environment by establishing learning stations that are geared to the specific needs of English language learners.  These mini islands of knowledge are organized to allow students the opportunity to use new and existing academic vocabulary in various expressive manners in order to master content and increase their English proficiency.  Although this might be new territory for middle school teachers, it can be accomplished with relative ease and high levels of success.


Student Grouping

As with planning any activity for your classroom, teachers need to be aware of the ability levels of their students when assigning them to station groups.  When working with second language learners, teachers need to know the language proficiency levels of students so that they can create groups that will be successful in expressing their knowledge in a variety of ways. This information also assists teachers in knowing how to scaffold the lessons linguistically.  The proficiency levels for all four communication strands (listening, speaking, reading and writing) can be found in the chart below.

Beginning Intermediate Advanced Advanced High
Beginning ELLs have little or no ability to understand English used in academic and social settings. Intermediate ELLs have the ability to understand simple, high frequency English used in routine academic and social settings. Advanced ELLs have the ability to understand, with support, grade-appropriate English used in academic and social settings. Advanced high ELLs have the ability to understand, with minimum support, grade appropriate English used in academic and social settings.

Groups are flexible and can be changed based on the knowledge level of the content and the language proficiency of the students.



The activities placed in learning stations need to reflect the rigor of the content being taught in a whole group setting.  Once the content is introduced, activities to extend the learning are placed in the learning stations.  Keeping in mind the language proficiency levels of students, teachers need to differentiate the activities by providing resources such as vocabulary word banks, sentence stems, paragraph frames, visuals, dictionaries and other materials that provide scaffolds for ELLs.  It is important to keep in mind the goal of language development when designing activities. Students need to be able to develop expressive skills such as speaking and writing as well as the receptive skills of reading and listening.  It is vital that activities be structured to support student-to-student or group interaction and provide ways for  ELLs to use English to explain concepts and contribute to the work. This gives teachers an opportunity to gauge what the student has learned while assessing student progress in English language development.



It is crucial that students understand how to manage themselves at learning stations. Teachers need to communicate their expectations for time management and group conduct.  Roles such as time keeper, leader, materials person and scribe can be assigned to students to encourage participation and accountability.  These roles also offer hidden opportunities for students to develop their oral language.



Learning stations offer teachers opportunities to observe their students and gauge their level of understanding of content and language use.  As students complete activities they place work in station folders for teacher review.  Teachers may review the assignments to assess students’ use of language.  It is in this final step that teachers can provide students feedback and refine the learning tasks to create higher language learning expectations.

High levels of student engagement are goals for educators.  All teachers, regardless of content or grade level, should strive for high levels of engagement so that their ELLs can have opportunities to enhance their language skills.  Students should not merely be recipients of knowledge but active constructivists of their own learning.  This can only be accomplished when teachers create authentic learning environments that require students to speak, read, and write on a daily basis.