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February 2016 | Volume 73 | Number 5
Helping ELLs Excel
Six do's and don'ts help teachers engage students at all levels of speaking English—including the
Most teachers would agree that one of the best parts of the job is seeing the spark—the moment when something
you've said or a strategy you've tried lights a spark of interest in a student's eyes. But when
you're working with English language learners (ELLs), especially those just beginning to comprehend
English, figuring out how to light that spark and maintain engagement can feel like making a series of
Because beginning-level ELLs often can't communicate what they already know or what they're taking
in about a topic, it's hard to know whether you are reaching them at the right level. Even more important
is the reality that teachers often lack training in how to effectively handle situations in which language
issues complicate communication and motivation. Most teachers aren't taught how to meet the long-term needs
of linguistically and culturally diverse students. They find themselves continually questioning their choices,
searching for strategies they can count on.
Here are a few key do's and don'ts that will help
classroom teachers engage and challenge beginning-level ELLs.
The first do is to be aware of and understand the five stages of second-language
acquisition, identified by Stephen Krashen and Tracy Terrell in 1983: Preproduction, Early Production, Speech
Emergence, Intermediate Fluency, and Advanced Fluency.
The Preproduction stage, which can last up to six months, is also known as "the silent period"
because you may not hear students speak any English at all during this stage. The next level, Early Production,
is characterized by students using single words or two-word phrases in English, as well as yes-or-no responses,
names, and repetitive language patterns ("Have a good weekend!"). At the Speech Emergence stage,
students are able to speak in short sentences ("I walked to the movie"). Students can express
sentences of increasing length and complexity at the Intermediate Fluency stage; finally, they demonstrate a
near-native level of fluency at the Advanced Fluency stage.
Students at different stages, of course, have different instructional needs. When teachers and principals are
aware of these stages and where learners fall, they can set realistic expectations for what each language
learner should be able to do, in terms of using language, as that learner interacts with content and attempts
assignments. Although ELLs need to be held to the same standards as native English speakers on what they know
and understand, how they get there and how they demonstrate that knowledge will look different, depending on
their level of English skill.
This do comes with a corresponding don't: Many educators who
aren't aware of the different stages often group all English language learners together or divide them into
simply "higher level" and "lower level" groups. Teachers may even pair a high-level ELL with
a low-level one who speaks the same native language, expecting one to teach the other. This does a disservice to
both students, especially if the student who speaks English better doesn't have full understanding of the
concept he or she is expected to teach.
Once a teacher knows a student's language-acquisition stage, that teacher can pose questions about
content that match the way a student in that stage is capable of answering. As the student progresses to the end
of his or her current stage, prompts or formats should be matched to the next higher level—a strategy called
"tiered questioning." Figure 1 shows the five stages of acquisition, the characteristics of student
verbalization at each stage and corresponding examples of tiered question prompts.
Characteristics of Student Verbalization: The
Tiered Questions (Prompts)
Has minimal comprehension without support
May not verbalize
Nods "yes" and "no"
Draws and points
Show me …
Circle the …
Where is …?
Who has …?
Has limited comprehension without scaffolds
Produces one- or two-word responses
Participates using key words and familiar phrases
Uses -ing verbs
Who, what, and how many questions
Has good comprehension
Can produce simple sentences
Makes grammatical and pronunciation errors
Frequently misunderstands jokes
Questions requiring short-sentence answers
Has excellent comprehension
Makes few grammatical errors
What would happen if …?
Why do you think …?
Questions requiring more than a one-sentence response
Has a near-native level of speech
Decide if …
Source: From Using Classroom Instruction That Works with English Language Learners (2nd ed.) (p. 12) by J. D.
Hill and K. B. Miller, 2013, Alexandria, VA: ASCD © 2013 by McREL. Adapted with permission.
For example, a teacher can ask a student in the Preproduction phase to show what she knows by pointing at a
picture or selecting the correct answer phrased in simple English. When the learner advances to the end of that
stage, the teacher should begin posing yes-or-no or either-or questions (Early Production prompts), and so
When teachers ask questions at the student's stage of acquisition, they increase students' access
to and comprehension of the content and provide English learners with opportunities to practice their new
language. Asking questions from the next stage of acquisition is a transitional device that keeps students
moving through the continuum of learning the language. With the aid of tiered questions, Preproduction and Early
Production students can be included in all classroom instruction, rather than working on a nonrelated
The experience of a teacher in Newport News, Virginia, shows the benefits of tiered questioning. Ms. Case
implemented tiered questions with a 3rd grade Latino student who'd previously said very little during
class. Once she identified that the student, Leonardo, fell between the Early Production and Speech Emergence
stages, Ms. Case began asking him content questions at the Speech Emergence level while making the text and
For example, she asked Leonardo, "What do you know about frogs?" while slowly paging through a book
they were going to read about the amphibian. After they read the book together, she asked, "What did you
learn about frogs?" as Leonardo scanned the book. He immediately began responding with "Frogs can
hop" and "Frogs lay eggs in the pond." Leonardo was soon speaking much more frequently.
In-class assignments and homework can—and should—be tiered, just as you tier questions. In a social studies
unit on water conservation, for example, native English speakers might be asked to write an essay describing
water waste. Students at the Preproduction stage could instead be asked to take photographs that illustrate
water waste (such as someone brushing teeth with water running or watering their lawn during the hottest time of
Of course, all students should understand the purpose of their homework (Hill & Miller, 2013). So
it's important to ensure that beginning ELLs understand the goals and purpose behind each assignment, as
well as to accommodate their language stage. We give homework so students can practice or elaborate on what
they've already learned or prepare for upcoming instruction. When every student receives the same homework
assignment, ELLs may struggle because they haven't learned the skills they're supposed to practice
through that task. They may even practice incorrectly (Hill & Miller, 2013).
An important don't also accompanies this do: Don't
water down the curriculum for ELLs at early levels of English acquisition. When applying tiered questions with
students who are in the process of acquiring English, it's important to distinguish between low-level
questions, which lead to low levels of thinking, and high-level questions, which promote higher-order
The five stages of second language acquisition must not be equated with the six levels
of Bloom's taxonomy (Bloom, Engelhart, Furst, Hill, & Krathwohl, 1956), which categorizes thinking
activity, from lowest to highest, into Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and
Evaluation. The critical-thinking ability of Preproduction students, for example, does not
automatically correspond to Knowledge, the lowest level of Bloom's taxonomy. How well a student can speak a
second language has nothing to do with her or his ability to think abstractly.
If we expect Preproduction-stage students to work only at the Knowledge level, we will be holding them
accountable for only the lowest levels of thinking—and learning. Rather, we should design learning tasks for
ELLs at the Preproduction and Early Production stages that require the same levels of critical thinking we
expect of other students.
So how does a teacher engage students in all levels of critical thinking? Consider a secondary science
teacher who wants her Preproduction students to practice, review, and apply what they've been learning
about parts of plants and their functions and what types of plants grow in different biomes. Figure 2
illustrates examples of tasks Preproduction students might do at all levels of Bloom's taxonomy.
Teachers must teach higher-order thinking skills while using language that is appropriate to their
students' levels of English acquisition. The newer a student is to English, the more comprehensible input
he or she will need. Teachers can provide such input by slowing down their rate of speech, limiting sentence
complexity, and adding as many gestures, pictures, objects, and actions as possible to accompany the words.
For instance, for the Evaluation-level task in Figure 2, "Assess correctness of a moveable biome
model," the teacher might start by placing a picture of a cactus into the desert biome and saying,
"The cactus belongs in the desert" while giving a thumbs-up sign. Next, he would add a picture of an
oak tree to the desert biome and say, "The oak tree belongs in the desert" while giving a thumbs-down.
After using the same sentence frame with one more thumbs-down picture (such as a pine tree) and one more
thumbs-up picture (a palm tree), the teacher would show another picture, use the same sentence frame, and then
gesture for the student to decide whether that plant belongs and to give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down.
Assess correctness of a moveable biome model. Show
understanding by rearranging parts as necessary.
Plan and construct dioramas or collages to show seasons in a
Categorize types of plants found in desert and alpine tundra
biomes using pictures and labels.
Graph how tall plants get under specific
Match parts of the plant to their function.
Label and order the steps of the plant cycle. Respond to
teacher's request to point to, gesture for, draw, or match icons for steps of plant cycle.
Source: From Using Classroom
Instruction That Works with English Language Learners (2nd ed.) (p. 18) by J. D. Hill and K. B. Miller,
2013, Alexandria, VA: ASCD © 2013 by McREL. Adapted with permission.
As another example, in math, if native English speakers working at the Analysis level are required to write
real-world problems involving adding and subtracting fractions, Preproduction students can also work at this
level by using newspaper ads to create real-world problems with pictures and numbers.
And in a secondary language arts class where students are focusing on narrative text and working at the
Application level, if native English speakers are writing about how the theme and conflict of a novel the class
is reading applies to another novel or to their own life, Preproduction students could draw a scene from another
book—or from their own life—that relates to the theme or conflict of the class novel. Because Early Production
students can verbalize more than Preproduction students, they could use a sentence starter, like "The theme
(or conflict) reminds me of [another book or life event]," to accompany such an illustration.
Asking the right questions is also important (Hill & Flynn, 2008). During a categorization task matching
animals and environments, for example, a teacher could engage Preproduction students at the Evaluation level of
Bloom's taxonomy by having students indicate the accuracy of information through pointing. First, she would
show students pictures of four environments: an ocean, soil, a forest, and a desert. Then she would place a
picture of raccoons into the ocean picture, ask whether raccoons live in the ocean, and demonstrate a correct
response by pointing to a frowning face. Then she might put a picture of squirrels in the forest, ask "Do
squirrels live in the forest?" and model pointing to a smiling face. After a few examples, students will be
ready to respond on their own.
Early Production students could evaluate and provide one-word responses judging correct or incorrect
environments. They wouldn't, however, be able to recommend a different environment for an animal to raise
its young and defend the choice, as students with more English could.
Assessment tasks can also reflect all levels of Bloom's taxonomy. It's important, however, for
teachers to separate language ability from content knowledge. If, for example, as part of a secondary science
lesson on how the eyeball allows us to see, students are asked to write a comparison of the conditions nearsightedness and farsightedness, the task would test a Preproduction
student's language proficiency, not his or her content understanding. Here's a more appropriate way to
measure understanding: After an experiment using lenses to simulate eyesight, have Preproduction students use
the results to construct models of eyeball shapes that would result in nearsightedness or farsightedness.
In the classroom, there will be many times when you transmit content information. Remember that words alone don't convey meaning for English language learners. To help ELLs follow the
presentation of information, slow your rate of speech, speak in complete sentences, and use one or more of the
Be careful not to overuse idioms or pronouns; instead, use nouns, which convey more meaning to someone still
learning the language. You might record yourself and listen for idiomatic expressions—as well as how often you
use pronouns—and adjust your presentation accordingly.
Being aware of the stages of second-language acquisition and following these do's
and don'ts can help any classroom teacher be more sure-footed in their instruction.
Teachers can set rigorous, yet realistic, expectations that ELLs of all levels can meet—one spark at a time.
Author's note: All names in this article are
Bloom, B. S., Engelhart, M. D., Furst, E. J., Hill, W. H., & Krathwohl, D. R. (Eds.). (1956).
Taxonomy of educational objectivities: The classification of educational goals. Handbook I:
Cognitive domain. New York: David McKay.
Hill, J. D., & Flynn, K. (2008). Asking the right questions. Journal of Staff
Development, 29(1), 46–52.
Hill, J. D., & Miller, K. B. (2013). Classroom instruction that works with
English language learners (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Krashen, S. D., & Terrell, T. (1983). The natural approach: Language acquisition
in the classroom. Oxford: Pergamon.
Jane Hill is a
managing consultant with McREL International, in Denver, Colorado.
Copyright © 2016 by ASCD
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