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Books in Translation

Best Practices for Teaching ELLs
May 24, 2012 | Volume 7 | Issue 17
Table of Contents 

Two Challenges in Teaching ELLs

Primary Language Use and Book Selection

Larry Ferlazzo and Katie Hull Sypnieski

This is an excerpt from Ferlazzo and Sypnieski's book The ESL/ELL Teacher's Survival Guide, which will be published in summer 2012 by Jossey-Bass.

There are many challenges in teaching English language learners. Here are two that we encounter and how we respond to them.

Primary Language Use in the ESL Classroom

Use of students' primary language (called L1, native language, or heritage language) in the English as a second language (ESL) classroom has been a controversial topic. Some claim that its use can hinder learning English and can result in students getting accustomed to using it as a crutch. And researchers appear to confirm that overreliance on a primary language can indeed result in less effective language learning.

However, more and more research has found that careful and strategic use of a student's primary language—whether through a translation by a teacher, peer tutor, bilingual aide, or assistance from students themselves—can in fact help English language learning, particularly in understanding grammar concepts, vocabulary, instructions, and developing teacher-student and student-student relationships.

There will be times, however, when limiting primary language use could be important. During certain group activities where the focus is speaking in English, we will often say that the next 15 minutes is an English-only time. The chances of this request being generally respected are high in our classroom because students know that we do not typically restrict their use of L1 at any point (in fact, we often use L1 in the strategic ways mentioned in the last paragraph).

We also periodically share with students what research says about L1 overreliance and request that most L1 student use be related to helping each other understand English. Their commitment is more of the honor code variety (because we do not speak all the languages present in our classrooms), but from what we have seen and from what students have written, we believe it is relatively respected.

We believe that most instruction in ESL classrooms should be carried out in English. But, as researchers William Saunders and Claude Goldenberg have written, "We can imagine using the primary language in a limited but strategic manner during ELD [ESL] instruction in order to ensure that students understand task directions, pay attention to cognates [words that are similar in two languages and have the same meaning; false cognates are words that are similar in two languages but have different meanings], and master language learning and metacognitive strategies."

Book Selection

We believe that having all students, including ELLs, read self-selected, high-interest books is the best way to develop literacy skills and a love for reading. One way to encourage students to push themselves in their book selection is by helping them understand the importance of reading high-interest books that are accessible and challenging.

There is a danger in the ESL classroom of students regularly choosing very easy books to read and being hesitant to take the risk in challenging themselves. There is also the potential problem of students choosing books that are far beyond their English level because they want to show off or because they are very interested in the topic but don't have a realistic view of their reading abilities. In either case, teachers will want to help students come to their own conclusions about what kinds of books best serve their needs.

Teachers can approach this challenge by offering suggested guidelines:

  • The book should be on a topic of genuine personal interest to the student.
  • Students should look through a book first to ensure that the vocabulary is not too hard or too easy.
  • If they decide they don't want to continue reading it, they should return it and find a replacement.

Our first point can't be emphasized too much—students must be interested in the book's content. One way that we illustrate how students can determine which "challenging" book might be right for them is with a simple teacher dramatization. We first ask students if they think we can reach the top of something easy in the classroom—for example, the top of a medium-tall bookcase or even the floor. They say "Yes," we go touch it, and then explain that it was easy. Then we ask them if they think we can touch something that is out of our reach in class—for example, the ceiling. They say "No," we try (to student laughter), and fail. We then explain that it was too hard.

Finally, we identify something that we can reach with some effort—the top of the whiteboard, perhaps. We prepare with much drama, get a running start, touch its top, and explain that this is what we mean by choosing a "challenging" book—one that students are interested in and can understand with some effort. Teachers can explain this point further by asking students if they would always want to play sports opponents who were not as good or equal to them, or only perform easy songs on musical instruments. This is another way to help students see the advantages to taking risks.

In addition, for highly motivated students who have a very strong desire to read certain popular books, we have loaned them two copies—one in English and one in their primary language. However, before we provide the students with those copies, we discuss the purpose of the class—to learn English—and ask for their commitment to focus on reading the English version and use the translated copy sparingly to help them on occasion.

How have you responded to these two challenges with your students?

Larry Ferlazzo and Katie Hull Sypnieski teach at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, Calif. Their book, The ESL/ELL Teacher's Survival Guide, will be published in summer 2012 by Jossey-Bass; this article is an excerpt.


ASCD Express, Vol. 7, No. 17. Copyright 2012 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit


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