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Read About Best Practices in Supporting English-Language Learners in Reading and Writing


This module explores ways to address the specific needs of ELL students and how to scaffold their language and literacy development. You will examine observable behaviors that indicate students’ progression through stages of language acquisition.

English-language learners are students who have acquired their primary listening and speaking skills in a language other than English. They require support and attention to their unique needs. In addition to language acquisition, English-language learners are asked to merge their cultures, backgrounds, and experiences with those of their new environment in order to achieve academic success.

In order to correctly target instruction and expectations, it is important to recognize the different levels of language acquisition.

  1. Students in the preproduction, or beginning, stage of English-language development respond nonverbally and display limited comprehension of the new language when spoken. They observe the language of their peers and rely heavily on pictures and objects to comprehend and to communicate.
  2. In the early production stage of language development, students express some needs using basic words and simple phrases. They continue to manipulate objects in order to communicate, but they begin to understand some words and phrases in the new language, especially if there is pantomiming, role-playing, and/or picture support.
  3. The third stage of language acquisition is speech emergence, in which students begin to participate in everyday conversations about familiar topics. Although their language production may not be grammatically correct, they begin to produce longer and more complete phrases using known, high-frequency words. The errors that they make, both receptive and productive, often interfere with comprehension.
  4. In the fourth stage, intermediate fluency, the student engages in ordinary conversations and uses more complex phrases and sentences. Most of the errors that are made do not hinder comprehension. Students begin to participate in literacy activities in the classroom, and use strategies to construct meaning from the printed page.
  5. In the final stage, advanced fluency, students produce language that is comparable to that of a native speaker. They are able to actively participate in all areas of instruction and to use academic language to negotiate meaning. They are also able to use multiple strategies to construct meaning from print.

Why Do We Use the Term “English-Language Learners”?

There are many different labels and terms that have been used to identify a student who is in the process of learning to listen, speak, read, and write in English. Some of the terms, such as LEP (Limited English Proficiency), focus on the negative and point to what a student cannot do. Other terms, such as ESL (English as a Second Language), assume that the student is learning a second language, when, in fact, it could be the student’s third, fourth, or even fifth language. We have chosen, therefore, to refer to these students as ELL, because the mastery of the English language is the objective for these students. However, we must understand the true meaning of language mastery. As students learn the English language, they must also be able to assimilate the culture, traditions, values and attitudes that are associated with English speakers.

Why Do ELL Students Have Such Diverse Literacy Needs?

ELL students live in two separate worlds, at home and at school. Although many students move easily between them, other students find that their worlds are frequently in conflict with each other (Freeman and Freeman, 2001). In their homes, ELL students are surrounded by their native culture, language, and traditions, and often the atmosphere that they encounter in school is completely alien to them. They are unprepared for what they experience there, and they are often confused about activities and routines that are new to them — routines that we, as educators, might take for granted. We must be extremely observant, as each ELL student’s success or failure in the “new world” of school depends on several variables:

  1. Does the student have teachers and other staff members in the school who are sensitive and supportive?
  2. Does the teacher work with the ELL student instead of doing the task for him?
  3. Are the other students taught to be accepting of the ELL student?
  4. Do the staff and students at school value the culture(s) of the ELL student?
  5. Do the parents of the ELL student support the education that is being offered to their child?
  6. Are the parents literate in their native language?
  7. How is the English language and culture valued at home?
  8. Does the ELL student feel safe enough to take language and cultural risks at school?
  9. When the ELL student does take a risk in the classroom, is the effort validated and applauded?
  10. Is the teacher using a model of comprehensive literacy in the classroom for all students?
  11. Does the teacher have high, but realistic, expectations of the ELL student?
  12. Do authentic assessment measures truly pinpoint the growth of the ELL student as well as the areas of great need?

As educators, we must reflect on these questions and decide on the steps that we must take to help the English-language learner experience academic success. In addition, we must realize that simply learning to speak the language is not sufficient for the student. We must also instill the confidence and the pride that when combined, make a lifelong learner.

How Can I Target the English-Language Learner During Literacy Instruction?

There is no “magic potion” to distribute to our students to help them understand the complexities of our language and culture. In order to address the needs of English-language learners, as well as all students, it is vital that we implement a quality comprehensive literacy program in every classroom.

We sometimes hear the statement, “I am the math (or science, or art) teacher. I don’t teach reading and writing.” Every teacher must be a teacher of literacy. The following list contains some of the strategies that should be used within a comprehensive literacy program to more effectively target the needs of the ELL student:

Oral Language Development

  • Utilizing explicit teacher talk
  • Thinking aloud during instructional activities
  • Modeling; utilizing peer models
  • Retelling
  • Dramatizing, pantomiming
  • Providing books on tape
  • Sharing poetry
  • Singing
  • Encouraging peer discussions, such as sharing stories and experiences


  • Carefully selecting quality books in a variety of genres
  • Encouraging students to interact and respond to texts
  • Modeling phrasing
  • Modeling that reading is fun

Shared Reading

  • Carefully selecting or preparing enlarged texts
  • Demonstrating key concepts
  • Following up with books made by students

Small-Group Reading Instruction

  • Carefully selecting texts to target students’ vocabulary development
  • Assessing authentically and frequently

Independent Reading

  • Allowing student to explore and self-select books at her independent reading levels
  • Helping student understand what makes a book “easy” or “hard”


  • Carefully planning lessons and marking spots where think-alouds will be beneficial
  • Modeling reading and writing strategies
  • Modeling problem-solving strategies with new vocabulary

Shared Writing

  • Teaching explicit writing strategies
  • Demonstrating revision, editing, elaboration, and conventions
  • Creating text for students to read independently

Process Writing (Writers’ Workshop)

  • Conferencing with students individually
  • Allowing writers to self-select topics
  • Collecting individual assessment information in portfolios

Independent Writing

  • Providing time for practice, response, and reflection

Phonemic Awareness/Phonics

  • Providing instructional opportunities throughout all literacy practices
  • Introducing spelling patterns
  • Studying high-frequency words in context

What Are Some Specific Instructional Practices that Support and Scaffold English-Language Learners?

  1. Instead of just giving directions to students, specifically model what you expect them to do. In other words, show them how to accomplish the task and give an example of exactly how the final product should look.
  2. Provide sufficient response time for ELL students. They are hearing what you say in English, and they may need to think of the words in their native language to truly process what has been said. Then they will decide on a response in their native language, adapt that response to English, think about the response to make sure that it makes sense, and finally respond. It often takes years of exposure to the English language before a student can bypass the translation steps and truly “think in English.”
  3. Be conscientious about explaining and/or pantomiming synonyms, idioms, and figures of speech. All languages contain these puzzlements, and they need to be explicitly taught, not avoided, if students are going to acquire the English language.
    “Imagine not providing students with idioms. In terms of language acquisition, we might really upset students’ applecart, put them behind the eight ball, and keep them in the dark ‘til the cows come home. They could find themselves up a creek without a paddle and paying through the nose because we didn’t want to talk straight from the hip and give them language that was the real McCoy, language that could help them go the distance and bring home the bacon through thick and thin.” (Cary, 1997)
  4. Observe your students carefully. If you are not sure whether they understand, it is a good idea to paraphrase, summarize, or use synonyms to aid their comprehension. You can also check for comprehension by asking students to turn to a partner and explain or retell, to respond in a journal, or to give you a signal to let you know if they understand.
  5. Use a variety of concrete items, drawings, or photographs to teach all content area concepts. Abstract ideas are very difficult for ELL students, who need to be thoughtfully supported as they move from the concrete to the abstract.
  6. Make sure that assessments actually provide information to ascertain strengths and weaknesses and target areas of instructional need. The best way to do this might not be traditional paper and pencil assessments, but oral assessments and other more informal, authentic measures to actually show what students have learned. We must also keep in mind that what we hear and see from students is not necessarily a true indication of what they know.
  7. Keep expectations high, but reasonable. ELL students should not be considered “slow learners.” Typical ELL students make frequent spurts of extremely rapid growth, as their English oral language, literacy skills, and strategies progress. The experts tell us, however, that it may take several years of instruction in English for language learners to arrive at the same level of language acquisition as native English speakers.
  8. Integrate ELL students’ cultural experiences and background knowledge into the learning environment. They can be an excellent source for information about their home country, and it is important to celebrate diversity.
  9. Allow ELL students to work in small groups, some of which are homogeneously grouped, while others are heterogeneous and contain students that can model for their peers. Interaction and discussion should be permitted in both groups.
  10. Choose vocabulary words carefully and provide explicit instruction, allowing opportunities for students to practice the use of these words.
  11. Pair these students with a “reading buddy,” a “writing buddy,” and/or a “language buddy,” a supportive partner who can model language and literacy. The ELL student can also be a literacy buddy for a younger student as they both begin to step into English literacy.
  12. Find a way to communicate with parents. Perhaps there is someone who can translate notes into the native language or someone who can translate at parent/teacher conferences. Some parents may resist interacting with the school for a variety of personal reasons, but most have immigrated to a new country to give their children a better chance at success than they had.

The following chart demonstrates disabling elements, as well as ways to empower ELL students on a daily basis:

Empowering Elements Disabling Elements
First language and home culture are recognized as strengths. First language and home culture are seen as handicaps.
Bilingual education, primary language support, or English-language support are offered. Sink-or-swim instruction is emphasized.
There is a true emphasis on the multicultural. The primary emphasis is on the culture of the majority.
Interactive and experiential methods expand the literacy spectrum, such as gradual release of responsibility, integrated studies, and process writing. Teachers rely on the transmission mode – “talk teaching.”
Students’ prior knowledge and experiences are incorporated into the instruction. Students’ experiences are ignored or excluded.
Students help determine learning goals. Teachers set all learning goals.
Family and school are active partners. Family participation is not valued.
Authentic assessment is used to determine appropriate instruction. Formal paper and pencil testing determine students’ success and failure.

Cary, S. Second Language Learners.