3 Ways ESL/ELD Teachers Can Improve Literacy for English Learners

An administrator recently asked me about how to maximize the effectiveness of ESL teaching (also called English language development, or ELD) because he is committed to advancing English learners’ language proficiency and literacy. Before I get to what I recommended, let me set the context.


First, ESL/ELD teaching is an important part of an English learner’s instructional day. Research indicates that students benefit from having dedicated time every day that gives English learners the opportunity to use language in authentic ways and that focuses on learning how English works. So, if that dedicated time is important for English learners to gain language proficiency, what should happen when they are in their ESL/ELD group?

The content and focus of ESL/ELD varies tremendously across the U.S. Some teachers pull together their own materials and develop a curriculum for their students, usually based on state ESL/ELD standards (e.g., California and Texas) or national standards such as WIDA, TESOL, or ELPA2 standards. Others use a commercial curriculum designed for ESL/ELD teaching, typically designed to meet standards. Some teachers use the time to assist English learners in completing assignments or preparing for an upcoming test. Other teachers do a combination of drawing on a curriculum for instruction but also use the time to “tutor” students when they have an assignment due or a test.

So, what did I recommend?

#1. Consider ESL/ELD its own subject area so that it is given the attention it deserves. When teachers — with the best of intentions — use the time to assist students with completing work for their other classes, it may help English learners in the short run but not over time. ESL/ELD teachers tend to be advocates for their English learners so naturally they want to support them in doing well in their classes and receiving passing grades. However, they are helping their students even more by consistently and systematically teaching to ESL/ELD standards, providing ample opportunity to read, write, listen to and speak English. Grouping students by proficiency level in small groups creates a comfortable learning environment and, in particular, gives learners a chance to develop speaking and listening skills in a low-risk setting. The focus of instruction should be on helping each student acquire the language she needs so that she can participate more fully in instruction in general education classes.

#2. Align teaching with core literacy instruction (ELA). When students struggle with literacy, they have difficulty accessing the core curriculum. In fact, more than 80% of academic difficulties are due to low literacy levels. So, developing literacy – which involves language development — is critical for English learners to be successful in school. It makes sense, therefore, for ESL/ELD teachers to spend their time supporting the content that is taught during ELA. Fortunately, there is significant informational text covered in ELA so students are exposed to a variety of texts, including those whose language and content are associated with science and social studies as well as literature. What would ESL/ELD time that is aligned with ELA look like?

  • Students study an interesting and engaging topic in ELA such as, How People Respond to Natural Disasters, using grade-level text. During ESL/ELD, the teacher reinforces the concepts and language, including vocabulary (see below), by having students discuss the topic, participate in interactive activities around text, and practice using academic language in groups configured by English proficiency level. Also, students might develop further the skills that are the focus of the ELA lessons such as writing to sources or making inferences. In this way, the ESL/ELD teacher is maximizing the opportunity to advance English learners’ literacy skills by equipping them with the language they need to better understand instruction during ELA time, time explicitly dedicated to teaching literacy. The language and literacy skills EL students acquire during ELA are essential skills for learning in every subject area.

Too often, instruction isn’t aligned in the way described. Based on language     learning research, it seems counterproductive to introduce completely unrelated, new material during ESL/ELD, however interesting the materials may be. Picture an English learner who is beginning to understand the How People Respond to Natural Disasters text, its vocabulary, concepts and meaning. Then, during ESL/ELD time, the lesson is about, let’s say, the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Wouldn’t it be more strategic to provide the repetition and multiple exposures to material that English learners need? Aligning ELA with ESL/ELD teaching would give English learners the most bang for the buck.

#3. Study a set of vocabulary words intensively for several days. Explicit vocabulary instruction is beneficial for English learners but it’s important to select only a small number of words and teach them intensively. By the way, if the words are the same as or related to those covered in ELA, students would have additional opportunities during ESL/ELD to use the words in a variety of ways and learn them more deeply. Some of the ideas we recommend for helping students deepen their knowledge of key vocabulary include:

  • Using semantic mapping, word sorts, and concept definition maps.
  • Encouraging students to use personal dictionaries that contain key words with student-friendly definitions.
  • Providing multiple exposures to words in a variety of contexts and drawing on various sources.
  • Posting word-walls with relevant words and phrases as a reference during a unit of study.
  • Using examples, non-examples, photos, realia, multimedia, and the like to explicitly teach and clarify definitions.

The time designated for ESL/ELD should be used purposefully and be relevant to the rest of the instructional day. In the past, instruction has often been disconnected from the core, or the time was used to help students “get through” their other classes. We need to respect the time that is specifically designed to advance English learners’ language proficiency and make sure that it is time well spent.

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