TCHERS' VOICE / English Language Arts

5 Key Strategies for ELL Instruction

English Language Learners (ELLs) face the double challenge of learning academic content as well as the language in which it is presented. Teachers have traditionally treated language learning as a process of imparting words and structures or rules to students, separate from the process of teaching content knowledge. This approach has left ELLs especially unprepared to work with the complex texts and the academic types of language that are required to engage in content area practices, such as solving word problems in Mathematics, or deconstructing an author's reasoning and evidence in English Language Arts. ELLs need to be given frequent, extended opportunities to speak about content material and work through complex texts in English with small groups of classmates.

The new, widely-adopted Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards also call for all students, including ELLs, to master an array of academic language practices that are critical to achievement in content areas. Examples of these academic language practices include: argument from evidence, analysis of complex texts, and developing and using models. At Stanford's Understanding Language, we have found that ELLs benefit from instructional approaches that treat language and content in an integrated way that is designed to help them build the language skills that they need to succeed in content classrooms, college and careers.

Working closely with Denver Public Schools teachers Ms. Emily Park-Friend (Bruce Randolph School) and Ms. Katie Langlois (Morey Middle School), we're glad we can show through this video series ways that these 7th grade ELA teachers prepare their learners by activating prior knowledge, scaffolding meaning making with complex texts, and developing ELLs' discipline and academic language practices in ELA classrooms.

ELL Lesson Overview

The set of six video clips begin with this short overview by Understanding Language ELA work group members George Bunch (University of California, Santa Cruz) and Aída Walqui (WestEd). This overview video discusses the key shifts found in the Common Core for ELLs and the opportunities for ELLs to grow their disciplinary knowledge and English language skills in heterogeneous classrooms. Through the classroom videos, we see several key strategies for encouraging English Language Development:

Scaffolding Understanding

The classroom video series highlight how ELA teachers can take account of the language demands that ELLs face in content classrooms and help ELLs meet these demands with increasing autonomy over time. As discussed in this video, this means providing ELLs with strategic types of scaffolding, such as graphic organizers, visual aids, peer help, or home language help, and removing these supports as students' skills develop. This way, ELLs can be given the opportunity and the necessary support to meet rigorous academic standards.

Purposeful Grouping

Heterogeneous Classrooms

Also, as this video explains, ELLs learn best when they are in heterogeneous classrooms. ELLs need to be given ample opportunities to have extended interaction (such as doing 'jigsaw'-type activities) with peers of varying English proficiency levels, who can provide ELLs with a range of models for how to use English words or structures appropriately, as well as abundant, personalized feedback on ELLs' own developing English use. It is best for ELLs if, within their classrooms, teachers sometimes group students heterogeneously according to English proficiency, and sometimes homogeneously, depending on the purpose of the task at hand.

Background Knowledge

Another teaching technique (demonstrated here) that is beneficial for ELLs, is to provide them with relevant background knowledge about a topic to be discussed in class, or activate their existing knowledge of a topic. Besides increasing student interest, this allows students to focus more fully on the instructional goals, rather than being overwhelmed with too much new information at once. It also allows ELLs to bridge new knowledge to old knowledge, increasing understanding, and it helps some ELLs fill in contextual information (such as American political history or cultural details) that they may not have due to coming from different cultural backgrounds.

Extended Discussion

Extended Discussion

Though teachers have generally attempted to teach ELLs difficult vocabulary before having them read texts, ELLs learn new vocabulary best through extended discussion with their classmates after reading or between multiple readings, as this video explains.

Valuing Linguistic Differences

Schools and teachers can help ELLs greatly by learning about ELLs' home cultures and languages, treating cultural and linguistic differences as resources rather than obstacles, and reaching out to students' homes and communities to build learning opportunities together.

Here are more resources for teachers and administrators who are seeking to better support ELLs:

Rebecca Greene has a Ph.D. in Linguistics, specializing in Sociolinguistics, from Stanford University, and a Certificate in Teaching English as a Second Language from the University of Kentucky. She has extensive and varied experience as an instructor. Most recently she taught Language and Culture at California State University-East Bay. She has been working as a consultant with Understanding Language for two years. She also works as a Senior Research Assistant for Stanford University and for NORC at the University of Chicago.

Understanding Language aims to heighten educator awareness of the critical role that language plays in the new Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards, and to improve education for English Language Learners.


Rather than focusing soley on the skill of reading and writting,  ELL litteracy standars highlight the importance of the written text, students must read and project the text vocally to be ready for the high demands of the ever changing scope of the futre and the growing needs of society. Articulate communicators will be the intermediariesd between the highly skilled and low skilled workers.  The changing standards based on needs of the future, means that there needs to be a common unifiing form of communication.  That form of communication is English and those that master the art of communication will dominate the future landsacpe.

Recommended (0)
Three strategies I can comment on are , first Valuing Linguistic Differences.I can use my classroom language and culture diversity as a resource .As an ELD instructor I can plan activities and support that can relate to them.The video Persuasion Across Time and Space demonstrated how we should start with lessons that are more familiar to them.It is welcoming and encouraging for the students to work with culturally responsive topics and then move on to varied and complex contents.Another strategy helpful to my ELLs is to assign them to homogeneus and heterogeneus groups alternatively.Rebecca Greene(from Stanford's Understanding Language Initiative) stated in 5 Strategies for Ell Instruction,that Ells benefit from instructional approaches that treat language and content in an integrated way.This works best and helps them achieve.Lastly the strategy of Extended Discussion demonstrated in the video that ELLs reviewed and dissected key vocabulary at the end of the unit.I have used vocabulary games and techniques at the beginning but I am looking foward to use them at the end of the lesson as well.This and a lot of repetition of texts and specific words will greatly benefit my ELLs proficiency and literacy. levels
Recommended (0)
The lesson plans should be for 3rd grade.
Recommended (0)
Many strategies regarding ELL have also been utilized for intensive level classes. By making simple alterations to some intensive scaffolding, and purposeful grouping, I have found these same strategies to be extremely helpful for ELL.
Recommended (0)
I have been thinking a lot lately about how to better valued linguistic differences in my classroom. I think many times as an ELL educator I want my students to work on English. So much research shows that if we value home language and take steps to try and connect that language to English ELLs will have better chances of success. I think a lot of being successful has to do with literacy. Because of this I try to encourage my students to read in whatever language they choose. I would of course prefer that they read both in English at home and their native language, but the reality is that that does not always happen. I then try to get them to summarize what they have read in a few sentences. I have found that this helps them to decode what they have read. I really like this helpful site to help with fluency and to develop literacy in ELLs.
Recommended (0)

Tchers' Voice

Tchers’ Voice is filled with great ideas from passionate educators just like you. Let's get better together!