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February 2016 | Volume 73 | Number 5
Helping ELLs Excel
Improving students' English-language skills isn't just the job of ELL specialists.
Amy, an elementary teacher, wants to be an effective teacher for the five English learners in her class, but
she feels her preservice program and the district workshops she attended did not prepare her to work with them.
Once or twice a week, a specialist works with the English language learners (ELLs) for about 25 minutes.
Unfortunately, they get pulled from Amy's class during some important math lessons, so they aren't
advancing in math. Amy has tried to meet with the specialist, but the specialist has so many students to work
with that she doesn't have time to meet and provide guidance.
Because of increasing numbers of ELLs in school districts across the United States, more teachers are
encountering the same challenges Amy faces. These ELLs typically spend 30 or so minutes a day with English as a
second language (ESL) teachers, leaving them with mainstream content teachers for the majority of the day. Those
mainstream teachers may or may not be prepared to help students with their language skills as they learn new
Fortunately, more schools are adopting a whole-school approach so that content-area teachers and ELL
specialists can more effectively share instruction. In a whole-school approach, classroom teachers and
specialists receive comprehensive professional development together and follow up with embedded learning
throughout the year. This approach prepares all teachers to teach academic language, reading comprehension, and
writing in their content areas so they can provide instructional support to English learners. It also
establishes teacher learning communities (or reinvents existing professional learning communities) in which
classroom teachers and specialists work together to identify their English learners' strengths and plan
lessons. Instructional coaches and administrators participate to provide ongoing support and monitoring.
In schools using this approach, as recommended by federal law, ESL teachers typically pull out beginning-
level ELLs for one or two periods of ESL a day, and ELLs spend the rest of the day with teachers who have gone
through training and know how to deliver content instruction so that English learners can participate in the
standard instructional program. ELLs at the intermediate level also get pulled out for at least one period. In
high schools, almost every teacher touches the lives of ELLs and needs to be well prepared (U.S. Department of
Justice & U.S. Department of Education, 2015)
If there are enough ESL teachers, they co-teach with general education teachers during content-area
instruction. In co-teaching situations, the ESL and content teachers take turns preteaching vocabulary, the
content teacher presents the content, both teachers monitor partner reading and summarization, and both present
and monitor the activities after reading and writing. This approach benefits all students, not just ELLs,
because there always seem to be students other than ELLs who struggle with reading comprehension and formal
writing skills. (Calderón, 2011; Calderón, Carreón, Slakk, & Peyton, 2015).
Researchers, reading specialists, second-language-acquisition experts, and linguists agree that explicit
instruction in vocabulary is necessary for students to have robust academic vocabularies. All
students—whether fluent in English or just learning it as a new language—need explicit, varied
language instruction to build solid word power. Such instruction begins with vocabulary taught within oral
discourse, reading, and writing in the content areas. This way, students learn language, literacy, and content
During professional development, teachers learn how to select 10 to 15 words or phrases that might give ELLs
trouble in a text they are about to read and categorize those words into three tiers:
Teachers choose five or six words or phrases, mainly from Tier 2, to preteach. They teach the rest of the
selected words and phrases during or after reading. They may also select more words to teach before writing,
depending on the complexity of the text structures to be used.
The sequence for teaching vocabulary typically begins with 10 to 12 minutes at the start of each content-area
lesson. The content-area teacher and specialist take turns preteaching five or six key words or phrases from
that day's text, following these steps:
After these preteaching steps, students immediately begin reading in pairs and summarizing their reading at
the end of each paragraph. Teachers monitor the peer summaries for accuracy and usage. If there is a newcomer in
class, he or she should be placed in a triad with two students who can serve as models. As they read, ELLs
continue to master the five pretaught words and other new words. Several cooperative-learning activities should
follow to anchor students' reading comprehension, oral discourse, and content knowledge. Finally, students
should use the new words they've learned in their writing.
More than any other instructional component, reading for ELLs yells out for a new approach because English
learners are not reading enough. When interviewing long-term ELLs across the United States, we discovered that
they had not been exposed to complex texts through which they could develop reading comprehension skills
(Calderón, Carreón, Duran, & Fitch, 2009; Calderón & Minaya-Rowe, 2011). Teachers
often read to them because they "couldn't read." Most of these students knew how to decode and
could read aloud fairly fluently, but they could not comprehend or summarize what they read. When they were sent
to select a book and do silent reading, they just pretended to read.
However, when teachers modeled reading comprehension strategies commonly used in each subject area, ELLs and
other low-level readers learned to delve more deeply into a variety of texts to analyze, understand, and master
the content. More important, they developed confidence in reading, which led to more reading.
As a follow-up to reading, teachers model the type of writing they require (expository, persuasive, essays,
or research texts). This writing instruction should include teaching of Tier 2 words and phrases that are useful
in that type of writing (for example, due to or as a result to show
cause and effect); discussions of how to revise and edit for each type; and explanations of how students'
work will be graded.
Teachers also need to be aware of ELLs' differing needs. A newcomer to the country may have good writing
skills in his or her primary language but limited knowledge of English and its different writing conventions. A
student who has been in U.S. schools since kindergarten may have oral fluency but lack literacy skills in either
the home language or English. Their grading, editing, and revising strategies will be different from those for
general education students at the beginning but should gradually advance to mainstream levels.
However, even though learners' needs vary, all students—not just English learners—need
further development in reading, writing, and oral language. Their success leaps ahead when a whole school
commits to integrating academic language, literacy, and content knowledge for all students.
At the structural level, content teachers and English language specialists should work together in
professional learning communities to better understand their English learners' strengths and needs and to
select or create instructional supports to address them. Undergirding this process is a continual gathering of
data on the students' progress. School districts are responsible for assessing every ELL in a timely
fashion and sending results to their schools. Once these results arrive, the content teacher and specialist
should meet to review them and develop a profile that includes such information as scores for listening,
speaking, reading, and writing; prior schooling experiences; strengths observed so far; and the possible need
for a learning disabilities specialist.
Next, the teacher teams need to turn their attention to instruction, determining what each teacher will focus
on during instruction and what strategies they will use. As they plan lessons, they identify words or phrases
that may be difficult for ELLs to understand. Then, they plan their team teaching.
The ELL specialist might preteach five or six words from the text before students read with partners. After
the partner reading, the core teacher, who also knows what vocabulary will be troublesome during a lesson, could
give students time to process and practice with peers by leading students through some cooperative-learning
strategies. Teacher plans also need to include how to provide instructional supports to ELLs at different levels
of proficiency and schooling.
Secondary schools are likely to have two very different groups of ELLs—newcomers to the country and
long-term English learners, many of whom were born in the United States and attended U.S. schools since
kindergarten but are still not proficient in English.
Newcomers. Newcomer students arrive throughout the year. Many are highly schooled and
may know more math and science than U.S. students. These students mainly need instruction in the English labels
and protocols for communicating in U.S. schools. Other newcomers are coming with interrupted formal education or
no education. Some have emotional challenges or even have post-traumatic stress disorder because of horrific
experiences on their journey here.
Some newcomers need help gaining a basic understanding of U.S. schooling. An ESL teacher cannot be expected
to address the diverse norms and expectations of all the English learners' classes. But within whole-school
teacher learning communities, the classroom teachers and English specialists can plan how to teach the basic
norms and language of schooling to the newcomer. They might review the language the classroom teacher uses for
daily routines and expectations and put together sentence frames for the newcomer. The ELL teacher could
accompany the newcomer for the first two days naming objects and explaining transitions, norms, rules, and
ELLs Expanding Their English. To support these students, interdisciplinary teams should
meet with the ELL specialist, selecting vocabulary and basic strings of discourse related to content objectives.
(For example, "One way of solving the problem is …" "First, … Then, …
Finally …") The specialist teaches and reviews these discourse protocols, but the content-area
teacher holds ELLs accountable for using them in class, providing additional phrases as they occur.
Long-Term ELLs. Although these students may have missed out on rigorous instruction on
academic language, reading comprehension, and writing skills in the content areas, it is not too late for them.
They can still benefit from having all their teachers involved in teaching language and literacy within their
content areas. Vocabulary should not be taught to these students in isolation or as an end in itself. It should
be followed by extensive reading, including close reading of different text structures; cooperative learning for
further development of skills in communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity; and content-
based writing with instruction in revising and editing strategies.
In elementary schools, teachers face the challenge of teaching the 3,000 to 5,000 words per year that
researchers recommend to ensure that ELLs do not become long-term ELLs in middle and high school (Biemiller,
2011; Calderón, 2011; Graves, August, & Carlo, 2011). Unless students enter middle school with verbal
command of at least 25,000 words, it will be difficult for them to do the type of close reading, rich
discussion, and formal writing required in the content areas. Although well-intended, increasing literacy blocks
in elementary school has meant less time allocated to oral language, reading, and writing in science, social
studies, and math.
Elementary teachers can share the task of selecting words and phrases from the texts to be read that day in
all content areas. During reading in small groups, the ELL specialist would then preteach five or six words,
asking students to do partner reading and oral summaries after each paragraph to practice using the new
With the onset of standards and school accountability, states have undertaken initiatives to assist classroom
teachers in providing more effective instruction to ELLs. The Massachusetts Department of Education, for
example, now requires all public school teachers to undertake additional training in teaching English learners
academic vocabulary, reading comprehension, and writing. Principals and other administrators must take 15 hours
of preparation on how to observe, support, and sustain general education teachers' efforts to integrate
these instructional strategies into their teaching repertoires. Teacher preparation colleges are required to
integrate these same pedagogical components for their graduates to be hired by schools.
A trendsetter is Virginia, which has been actively offering professional development for mainstream teachers,
ELL specialists, and administrators throughout the commonwealth. Fifteen school divisions in Virginia are moving
to whole-school in-depth sessions on vocabulary, reading, and writing for ELLs, followed by expert coaching,
peer coaching, and teacher learning communities. When I've visited these schools, the educators invariably
state that this systematic, rigorous approach works for all students, not just their English learners. But this
is only the beginning of an ongoing journey into unknown territory. All schools are newcomers to this
The whole-school approach calls for not only improvement in ESL or sheltered programs, but also commitment
from and extensive preparation for all content teachers. Without appropriate implementation throughout the
school, there will be minimal student effects. But when this kind of instruction is properly incorporated
schoolwide, ELLs' learning will accelerate as they interact with all teachers and peers and are held
accountable for speaking, listening, reading, and writing. And these instructional strategies benefit all
students—not just English learners.
Biemiller, A. (2011). What words should we teach? Better: Evidence-based Education,
Calderón, M. E. (2011). Teaching reading and comprehension to English
learners, K–5. Indianapolis, IN: Solution Tree.
Calderón, M. E., Carreón, A., Duran, D., & Fitch, A. (2009). Preparing math, science, social studies and language arts teachers with English learners: Report to The
Carnegie Corporation of New York. New York: The Carnegie Corporation.
Calderón, M. E., Carreón, A., Slakk, S., & Peyton, J. (2015). Expediting comprehension for English language learners (ExC-ELL): Foundations manual. New
Rochelle, NY: Benchmark Education.
Calderón M. E., & Minaya-Rowe, L. (2011). Preventing long-term English
language learners: Transforming schools to meet core standards. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Graves, M. F., August, D., & Carlo, M. (2011). Teaching 50,000 words. Better:
Evidence-based education, 3(2), 6–7.
U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Education. (2015). Dear colleague
letter: English learner students and limited English proficient parents. Washington, DC: Authors.
Retrieved from http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-el-201501.pdf
Margarita Calderón is a professor emerita and senior research scientist at
Johns Hopkins University. She is the author, with Maria N. Trejo and Hector Montenegro, of Literacy Strategies for English Learners in Core Content Secondary Classrooms (Solution Tree,
2015) and, with Liliana Minaya-Rowe, of Preventing Long-Term ELs: Transforming Schools to Meet
Core Standards (Corwin, 2010).
Copyright © 2016 by ASCD
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