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Three simple steps for adapting lessons for English language learners

By September 8, 2010June 14th, 201612 Comments

At some time or another, we’ve all probably all had the frustrating experience of trying to converse with someone in a foreign language. We may catch snippets and phrases here and there, generally getting the gist of what’s being said to us. But when it comes time to open our mouths and speak, we’re tongue tied. Our vocabulary (“I don’t know how to say sprint; I’ll just say run instead”), conjugation (“Let’s see … what’s the third-person plural of correr?”), and dialect fail us (“Shoot. I still can’t roll my r’s.).

At this point, a fear begins to grip us. We worry that our conversation partners may judge by our underdeveloped language skills that our intellect is similarly on par with a toddler.

That judgment would be wrong, of course. Just because we’re not yet conversant in a second language, doesn’t mean we can’t grasp difficult concepts.

Teachers face a similar challenge when they have English language learners in their classrooms. While those students’ language skills may not yet be fully developed, they are still very much capable of grasping complex content. And all learning can’t stop while students acquire their language skills—if it does, students’ will find themselves well behind their peers once their language acquisition catches up to their intellect.

In a new article for, Jane Hill and Cynthia Bjork, authors of training-of-trainer materials that support the book, Classroom Instruction that Works for English Language Learners, identify three simple steps for adapting lessons for English language learners students to ensure they continue learning content while learning English:

Step 1: Know the stages of second-language acquisition. All learners progress through five stages of language acquisition, write Hill and Bjork: pre-production, early production, speech emergence, intermediate fluency, and advanced fluency. Knowing where their students are in this continuum helps teachers to plan their assignments accordingly.

Step. 2: Tier student thinking across the stages of second-language acquisition. Hill and Bjork’s article provides a matrix that overlays the levels of thinking from Bloom’s (new) Taxonomy to the stages of language acquisition. They recommend teachers use this matrix to plan homework and class assignments accordingly.

Step 3. Set expectations. In this stage, teachers combine stage one and two, identifying their students’ level of language acquisition and assignment at-home and in-class practice assignments accordingly.

By knowing where students are on this continuum and scaffolding their learning to the next stage of the continuum, teachers can ensure their students are gaining valuable knowledge while at the same time advancing in their language acquisition.

Read the whole article here.

Follow these links to learn more about McREL’s English language learners instructional leadership academies and books.

Bryan Goodwin is McREL’s Vice President of Communications & Marketing.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


  • Karen Meidlinger says:

    Dear Bryan,
    Thank for your insights into English language users. The information you posted is invaluable to me. As a teacher in a Middle Eastern country, I am finding more and more of my students are second language English speakers.
    The school has made no provision for staff training nor provided any resources to give us the tools to deal with this situation. It has been left to individual teachers to enrich themselves, using personal funds to attend courses and purchase resources.
    Your comments in relation to students ability to still grasp concepts even if they are not proficient in language skills have given me hope. I now realize that my students are still learning, even if they cannot always express their new-found knowledge. You have inspired me to keep going.
    Karen Meidlinger

  • Ashley says:

    I have 2 students that speak only Spanish at home. While at school though, they do not seem to have any problems with understanding English. They interact well with students and teachers. Rarely they will have a problem with finding the correct word. This has helped me to see which level they are on and how I can help them to succeed even more.

  • Alyson says:

    Dear Bryan,
    You have provided information that is invaluable to all teachers who teach English as a Second Language. My classroom is formatted for students who struggle with the English language. My classroom is predominantly made up of ESL learners but I do have some English Language learners in my classroom who struggle with their first language (English). After reading your post, I realized that I can use these tools with my English learners as well as my ESL learners. It is nice to know that they are learning, even though it is not always expressed.

  • Empress Divine says:

    I enjoyed reading this post. It was very informative. I took a class in Structured English Immersion which was also very informative and I learned some of these same strategies that are listed here. One challenge that I have ran into is that I have a student who is Spanish speaking only (well, Spanish lip reading only) and she is deaf. Thankfully, I know enough Spanish to communicate with her, but only one other person in the entire school building can communicate with her. I wonder how these strategies can be modified even more to help my deaf student succeed to her fullest capabilities.

  • Brittany Tucker says:

    Dear Bryan,
    I found you thoughts very insightful. I am a LOTE teacher and I actually have students who are English language learners. I find it difficult at times to relate to them because I do not know their native language. I teach Spanish in a high school in up-state NY. Some of my students come from places where they do not speak English. They are struggling with learning English yet they are held to the same state standards for LOTE. If find this challenging and at times frustrating because I have not been fully informed on how to help these students. Thank you for your thoughts. I will certainly take them into consideration.

  • Thanks to everyone who posted here recently. I wish I could take credit for the insights, but they really belong to two great educators who work here at McREL, Jane Hill and Cynthia Bjork. I’d encourage you all to add Classroom Instruction that Works with English Language Learners to your reading list. It has a lot of great insights, especially for mainstream teachers who have limited English proficient students in their classes.

  • Erin Springthorpe says:

    After reading your post, I found myself agreeing with the following comment: “Just because we’re not yet conversant in a second language, doesn’t mean we can’t grasp difficult concepts”. While working in a school with a large population of ESL learners, communicating effectively was a requirement. Understanding each student’s language acquisition level was needed in order to design chemistry lessons that would enhance their learning. This task was accomplished by teaching chemistry in a creative, collaborative, hands-on environment allowing students to not only process somewhat difficult information, but “own” each experience. Implementing collaborative groups allowed students to discuss topics in both their native language and English, thereby building self-confidence to later speak to the class.
    We as teachers must continue to develop strategies to help our ESL students become successful learners and understanding language acquisition is the first step in this process.

  • Janine DiDomenico says:

    Dear Bryan,
    Thank you so much for posting information on how to help our English Language Learners. I work as a substitute teacher, desperately looking for a full-time elementary position, in a school district where the Hispanic community is growing every year. Unfortunately, every teacher I have spoken with in my school district who has a large number of ELL students in their classroom has informed me that helping these ELL students is the responsibility of the ESL teacher. I am always astonished at this response. The ESL teachers in our district are only with the ELL students for maybe two hours a day, leaving the students in a room where they probably feel completely out of place.
    I have been researching and seeking new and better ways to reach these ELL students to give them the education they deserve. In my most recent research, I found a couple articles giving examples of activities that can be implemented into the mainstream classroom to be used for both English speaking and ELL students. It is hard to find strategies to use, so I am very excited to have found your post. I am definitely going to read the book you have mentioned and educate myself even more. Hopefully I will be able to make a positive impact on my school district’s outlook on instructing our ELL students.
    Thank you again!

  • Tina Baca says:

    I enjoyed your comments on Enlish language learners. I have one student at presnt and reading through the different stages has given me a better understanding of his struggles. It is difficult to get students to a level in which they can preform to the same level as other native English speakers.

  • Tracie Badeaux says:

    Last year I had an opportunity to teach a student who ws in America for only 2 months. We met 3 days before our Christmas break. At the time, he could only respond with 2 words – “Thank you.” Through modifications and high expectations, I witnessed hem by the end of the year wanting to peer tutor during our reading lessons.

  • Kristin Scherman says:

    Thank you Bryan for your insightful considerations of English Language Learners. After having gone through extensive SIOP training through Pearson, and then going back and working alongside teachers to implement these strategies, including the three mentioned in the article, I am again reminded of the importance of providing teachers time to work together in a PLC format to really look at their students, and plan lessons together that scaffold in such a way that they are meeting the needs of their students. Having gone through this process with teachers, it is imperative that they have support as they begin to work through refining their lesson planning and design to best meet the needs of ELL learners.

  • Katie Woodward says:

    I am a second grade teacher and this is my first year having English Language Learners in my classroom. My students are very proficient with the English language, but there are some barriers that we both face in the classroom. I have quickly learned that the assignments for my ELL students are little different, maybe more one-on-one and verbal or pointing to an answer, then what other students are doing. Just because we have language barriers doesn’t mean they aren’t learning. I just find it frustrating that this isn’t represented on a state standardized test because it is hard for ELL students to pass the test in third grade but I know they know the content.
    Thanks for the inspiration and the reminder for teachers with English Language Learners.
    Katie Woodward

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