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Effective Instructional Strategies for English Language Learners in Mainstream Classrooms by Susan Wallace

Research on effective education for ELLs clearly indicates that instruction in a student's first language provides the most positive student outcomes (Thomas and Collier; see Bibliography, below.) However, this article is addressed to teachers and administrators in schools without bilingual or dual language programs. It describes an instructional framework that helps teachers scaffold content and language learning for ELLs, suggests possible first steps in implementing some components of this framework, and directs teachers to additional resources.

Sheltered Instruction - The SIOP Model The term "sheltered instruction" is used to describe those instructional practices that help teachers make content more accessible and comprehensible for ELLs. One model of sheltered instruction is the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP). The SIOP is research-based and field-tested. Teachers who used the SIOP checklist for lesson planning became more proficient in linking language and content in their instruction, felt more in control of their professional development, and increased their ability to accommodate different levels of proficiency in their classrooms (Echevarria, Vogt, and Short).

The thirty components of the SIOP lesson-planning checklist can be used with any curriculum or program, for students at any age or level of English proficiency. Experienced teachers recognize the SIOP components as effective teaching strategies for all students. However, it is the systematic use of all components to scaffold content and language instruction that provides the support that ELLs, even those who have "exited" from a special program or service, need to succeed in mainstream classrooms.

In this article I have highlighted several components of SIOP that have been of general interest to mainstream teachers. For a full description of SIOP and further examples of the components discussed below, read Making Content Comprehensible for English Learners: The SIOP Model by Echevarria, Vogt, and Short.

Selected components of the SIOP lesson-planning checklist

Write clearly defined language objectives (SIOP component #2)

The goal of creating language objectives and sharing them with students is to provide a focus for purposeful teaching and learning. * Teachers who are not accustomed to thinking intentionally about language development may struggle with this critical component. They understand that language objectives include vocabulary but it is not always easy for them to identify language structures, forms or functions that they may need to teach and model or to set realistic expectations for their ELL students. However, mainstream teachers who have used language objectives have commented that this intentional focus on language has helped native English-speaking students who also struggle with academic language demands.

*(Also true for the more familiar teaching activity, "write clearly defined content objectives", SIOP component #1.)

Try this: Understand and connect language proficiency standards to your instruction. Read the new Washington ELD (English Language Development) proficiency level descriptors and standards. Focus on one EALR and one standard. What level of proficiency do your ELL students have on this standard: beginning, advanced beginning, intermediate, advanced, or transitional? What does this level of proficiency imply for your instruction? Do the standards suggest language objectives for these students? What else can you learn about your ELLs from examining the standards?

Resources/further information: Washington ELD standards Gibbons, Learning to Learn in a Second Language (see Bibliography, below)

Explicitly link concepts to students' backgrounds and experiences (SIOP # 7) All teachers are aware of the need to " explicitly link past learning and new concepts" (SIOP #8) but some teachers fail to consider students' backgrounds and experiences when planning lessons. One way to avoid making unwarranted assumptions about our students' past learning, background or experiences is to create a common classroom experience as the basis for instruction. Another strategy is to help students make conscious links between their experiences and the text as described in the sample lesson below.

Try this: Literature Logs and Instructional Conversations

Summary: Before and after reading, students respond to prompts that help them link their experiences to those of the main character or main theme. The instructional conversations that follow these prompts provide oral language practice for ELLs, and help deepen students' conceptual frameworks for comprehension. Researchers found that using either the literature log or the instructional conversation increased comprehension for ELLs but using both produced deeper understanding (Saunders and Goldenberg).

Step 1 Create pre-reading and post-reading questions or prompts Pre-reading question or prompt: a generic probe about students' experiences that might be similar to those of the main character/s.

Example for Little Red Riding Hood: (more concrete) Name someone you visit alone (friend, family member.) Are you scared when you visit alone? Why? Why not? (more abstract) Have you ever done anything that you were warned not to do? What was the result? Post-reading question or probe: a more specific probe asking how students' experiences were the same as or different from the experiences of the character/s. (Some teachers create the post-reading prompt after the first instructional conversation.) Present the first prompt; model a response. Students respond in individual, partner or group logs or orally using the teacher or more proficient students as scribes. Facilitate an instructional conversation in which students discover and record (T-charts, Venn diagrams.) similarities and differences among their experiences.

Step 2: Briefly review the story again building on student responses in a think-aloud format. Review the procedure for tracking story events and noting when these events are similar to or different from experiences discussed by the class. Examples: two-column notes, post its, adapted story sequence chart . Students read or listen to the text: pairs, small groups, tape, buddy reading.

Step #3: Present the second literature log question or prompt; model a response. Allow time for students to write about or discuss the prompt. Facilitate the second instructional conversation in which students discuss similarities and differences between and among their experiences and those of the characters.

Variations: Use picture books with limited text for non-readers or beginning ELLs of any age. Allow students to respond in their first language. Older or more proficient students can respond to prompts that focus on the setting instead of, or in addition to, events, characters and theme or compare experiences across texts.

Resources/further information: Goldenberg; Rueda and Goldenberg; Saunders and Goldenberg

Emphasize key vocabulary (SIOP component #9) Lack of adequate vocabulary is one barrier to reading for ELLs. Research on vocabulary acquisition indicates that a successful vocabulary development program should have at least the following five components: intentional word selection (words that represent new concepts, are important outside of the specific activity, or cross content areas), direct instruction in word meaning and in strategies used to learn new words, modeling of strategies and processes for learning new words , multiple exposures to new words and opportunities to use new words (wide reading, intentional wordfocused activities, and ongoing review), a system to help students track new vocabulary. (Beck, McKeown and Kucan; Hu and Nation; Nation)

Try this: Five step vocabulary activity 1. Teacher provides a definition (tell, read, demonstrate.).

2. Teacher creates a non-linguistic representation of the word while engaging in a "think-aloud" that helps students identify key components of the visual and their relationship to the new word.

3. Students write or say their own definition of the word.

4. Students create their own non-linguistic representation of the word. (Key step. May be done in pairs or small groups.)

5. Return to visual to add or revise elements as students deepen their understanding of the concept. (Adapted from Marzano, Pickering and Pollock.)

Resources/further information: Beck, McKeown, and Kucan

Use speech appropriate for students' level of proficiency (SIOP component # 10) Modifying your language does not mean avoiding age appropriate language or specific content area terminology. It does mean that your students will benefit if you take the time examine your "teacher talk," to enunciate clearly and avoid jargon, slang, run on sentences, lengthy monologues or side comments. Intentionally teaching the language that you use for standard classroom routines will also help provide "comprehensible input." "Provide adequate wait time for student responses" (SIOP component #18), i.e., more time than for native English speakers, is related modification of teacher talk that will help ELL students become active participants in learning.

Try this: Analyze the quality and quantity of your "teacher talk" Have someone videotape or script your class focusing on "teacher talk". Examine your language for words, structures or verbal habits that might be confusing to ELLs. Ask for assistance from an ELL specialist or refer to one of the articles listed below. Set a goal to make your language more comprehensible. Compare the amount of teacher talk in your classroom to the amount of "accountable" student talk. Set a goal to increase the amount of accountable student talk. (Related to " provide multiple

opportunities for interaction and discussion"- SIOP component 16, and "student engagement 90 to 100%" - SIOP component 25.)

Resources/further information: Simich-Dudgeon in Richard-Amato and Snow Gibbons, "Classroom Talk" in, Scaffolding Language, Scaffolding Learning Richards and Lokhart Goldenberg; Rueda and Goldberg; Saunders and Goldenberg

Important Note: If you have ELLs in your classroom (and you probably do even if they are not formally identified) learning about the process of second language learning and factors that influence the cognitive and academic development of second language learners will help you make better instructional decisions. The references for Helmer and Eddy, Peregoy and Boyle, and Richard-Amato and Snow provide information on these critical topics.


Beck, I., McKeown, M. & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. Guilford Press.

Echevarria, J., Vogt, M., & Short, D. (2004). Making Content Comprehensible for English Learners: The SIOP Model (Second Edition). Needham Hts., MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Gibbons, P. (1993). Learning to learn in a second language. Retrieved from:

Gibbons, P. (2002) Scaffolding Language, Scaffolding Learning. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Goldenberg, C. (1991) Instructional Conversations and Their Classroom Application

Helmer, S. & Eddy, C. (1996) Look at Me When I Talk to You: ESL Learners in Non-ESL Classrooms. Toronto, Ontario: Pippin Publishing.

Hu, M. & Nation, P. (2002) Unknown Vocabulary Density and Reading Comprehension. Victoria, New Zealand: LALS, University of Wellington.

Marzano, R., Pickering, D. J., & Pollock, J. E. (2001) Classroom Instruction that Works. Alexandria, VA: MCREL, ASCD.

Nation, P. (2001) Learning Vocabulary in Another Language. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Peregoy, S.F. & Boyle, O.F. (2001) Reading, Writing, & Learning in ESL: A Resource Book for K-12 Teachers. New York, NY: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc.

Richard-Amato, P.A. & Snow, M.A. (1992) The Multicultural Classroom: Readings for Content-Area Teachers. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Richards, J.C. & Lockhart, C. (1996) "Interaction in the second language classroom", and "Language use in the classroom" in Reflective Teaching in Second Language Classrooms. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Rueda, R. and Goldenberg, C. (1992) Rating Instructional Conversations, A Guide.

Saunders, W. and Goldenberg, C. (1999) The Effects of Instructional Conversations and Literature Logs on the Story Comprehension and Thematic Understanding of English Proficient and Limited English Proficient Students.

Thomas, W. & Collier, V. (2002) A National Study of School Effectiveness for Language Minority Students Long-Term Academic Achievement.

About the author

Susan Wallace started her career in education in 1965 as a high school Spanish teacher. Since that time she has taught Spanish, English, ESL and EFL in grades 3 through the university, in the former Soviet Union, England and the USA. From 1985 to 2002 she was Coordinator of ELL and, at various times, Title I, LAP, Indian Education and Language Arts, for Highline School District where she currently works part time as a staff development consultant. In the last four years she has focused on the issues faced by mainstream teachers working with ELLs and other struggling students in their classes. Much of the material in the article is the result of a project on sheltered instruction developed for Washington Alliance for Better Schools by Sue and her colleague Ellen Kaje. You can reach her at