Thursday, June 28, 2018

What Modifications Would You Make for ELLs in Mainstream Classes? – Part 2

Tamara Jones is an ESL Instructor at Howard Community College, Columbia, Maryland

In my last blog post, I told you that one of my best friends asked me for some advice about supporting English Language learners (ELLs) in her mainstream primary school class. In addition to working as an adult ESL administrator and instructor, one night a week I teach in a local MATESOL program. So, I got pretty excited when she asked about this topic.

Her question was: What modifications and adaptations would you make for ELLs in your classroom?

In Part 1 of this blog post, I shared my thoughts on teaching vocabulary. I had two other pieces of advice for her. Here is one of them:

Know your Learners

Educators who are unfamiliar with ELLs might often think that they are one fairly homogeneous group. Even though they might speak different L1s, they all are English learners, right? ESOL professionals, however, know differently. In fact, there are many different kinds of ELLs with many different kinds of needs (Freeman, Freeman & Mercuri, 2002). It should be said here that although I am specifically speaking about public schools in the USA, I suspect that the situation in many other countries is similar.

Educated ELLs

Some students may come from countries with solid, reliable education systems. This was certainly the situation for me when I taught middle school English as an Additional Language (EAL) at the British School of Brussels in Belgium several years ago. My ELLs generally came from well-off families, and their parents were not only literate in their L1, but also often proficient English speakers. In many instances, the topics my students were learning about in their content classes, they had already learned about in school in Japan or Korea or France. So, they could concentrate on learning the English for the topic. They were usually well-supported by their parents at home, too. One of my students’ fathers told me that he had sat with his daughter every night and brushed up on electricity or animal adaptation or the water cycle in Japanese just so he could help his daughter learn the content in English. While the path toward English proficiency is never easy, these particular ELLs have an obvious advantage over their peers; they have established content hooks from which they can hang English. In other words, their knowledge in their L1 will support them as they learn in the new language (Cummins, 1992). Or, as Peregoy and Boyle (2017) put it, “The stronger the first language, the richer the resource it provides” (75-76).


However, for many students, academic success does not come in such a straightforward fashion. So many of the ELLs we see now have experienced limited or interrupted education in their L1. These students are commonly referred to as SIFE or SLIFE (Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education).

They often have limited literacy in their L1 and, since they have suffered a lack of easy or consistent access to education due to violence, migration, poverty or gender bias, they often experience academic difficulties in mainstream classes. These students have very different needs from the ELLs described above. I mean, imagine the challenges of learning the vocabulary to pass a geography test in a different language when you are familiar with the content.  Now imagine trying to take the same test when you had to learn the geography content at the same time as you were learning the language to communicate about the topic. The road to English proficiency and academic success is often discouragingly long and hard for these students. “A SIFE may be very excited to finally attend school regularly, and may have high hopes for his ability to work and support his family; however, the discovery that he is in fact far behind his peers can be a source of great frustration. Even as he makes great academic progress throughout the year, he is still chasing a moving target because English-speaking, grade-level peers are continuing to learn as well, and the realization that meeting his goals will be harder than expected may be devastating” (Robertson & Lafond, n.d.).


There is also another group of ELLs that are tragically often virtually invisible (Menken, Kleyn & Chae, 2012). They are the Long-Term English Learners, or LTELs. I was shocked when doing research to prepare for my MATESOL lectures to learn just how many LTELs are hiding in plain sight in US public schools.  According to Olsen (2012), between 25% and 50% of all ELLs who enter U.S. schools in primary grades become LTELs. They might be transnational students who have spent their lives moving back and forth between the United States and their family’s country of origin and attending school in both countries, or they might be students who have received inconsistent ESOL schooling in the United States, moving in and out of bilingual education, English as a second language, and mainstream programs in which they received no language support services (Menken & Kleyn, 2009). These students are not always easily identifiable as ELLs because they often speak everyday English with a high degree of accuracy and fluency. In fact, they were most likely exited from any ESOL support they received at one time and may have gotten by for years on their general ability to communicate. However, while ESOL classes would feel babyish to them (Menken & Kleyn, 2009), they tend to lack the academic proficiency they need to be successful in school. “For the most part, these students had long ago given up the idea that they could be successful in school and in their lives” (Freeman, Freeman & Mercuri, 2002, 10).

What can Teachers do?

It’s really not hard to see how being armed with information about who my students are, whether they are literate in their L1, and how involved their parents can be in their education, would help me to make better pedagogical decisions. If I had a lot of SLIFE or LTELs in my mainstream classroom, I would take several steps to help them.

a) I would provide literacy support for any ELL who struggled with reading in English. I would remember that SLIFE take a longer time to learn to read, especially if they were not literate in their L1. I would work on phonemic awareness and phonics with emergent readers of any age. However, I would make sure that all the literacy support was content-rich. “Instead of giving a 2nd-grade book to a 17-year-old immigrant from Ghana who reads at a 2nd-grade level, a teacher might work, for example, with the social studies instructor and provide the student with ESL materials on U.S. history” (Office of English Language Learning & Migrant Education: Indiana Department of Education, 2008).

b) I would provide modified versions of content texts for any struggling ELLs (even if I had to rewrite the texts myself) so that all students could access the content regardless of their reading levels. To do this, I could use a website, such as Lextutor to help me identify the words in a given text that might prove challenging for my ELLs. This is especially important in content area texts, like science readings because, according to Anderson (1996), “students have an 80% chance of guessing the meaning of new words in fiction, but in academic science texts, the chance is near 0%.”

c) I would show videos with subtitles and provide as many hands-on activities as possible. When science, history and math are “done” as opposed to “read about and listened about” then ELLs have a better chance of accessing the curriculum successfully. Also, having students do experiments or activities and then read about them will result in higher levels of success than reading first and then doing an activity. After all, “[i]f students cannot understand the language of the textbook and have little or no opportunity to interact with others to gain meaning, their second language proficiency will not improve” (Kessler & Quinn, 1990, 57).

d) Finally, I would advocate for a specific class (or program) for the LTELs in my school. Experts believe that LTELs have distinct needs. In fact, they often bristle at being identified as ELLs. So, we need to acknowledge that their needs cannot adequately be addressed within a “struggling reader” paradigm or a generic “English Language Learner” approach, but require an explicit LTEL approach (Olsen, 2012). This might take a lot of advocacy, but we’d do almost anything for our students, right?

Our ELLs simply don’t have the luxury of focusing on developing English proficiency before they have to learn the content of the mainstream public school curriculum. Often, they have to learn both the language and the content simultaneously. This is an incredibly daunting task; however, by knowing more about our students, we are much better equipped to meet their individual needs.

Stay tuned for the last pieces of advice I shared with my friend in response to her question in a future blog post.

Anderson, R. C. (1996). Research foundations to support wide reading. In V. Greaney (Ed.) Promoting Reading in Developing Countries. Newark, DE: International Reading Association, 55-77.
Cummins, J. (1992). Language proficiency, bilingualism, and academic achievement. In P. A. Richard-Amato & M.A. Snow (Eds.) The Multicultural Classroom. New York, NY: Longman, 16-26.
Freeman, Y.S. Freeman, D. & Mercuri, S.P. (2002). Closing the Achievement Gap: How to Reading Limited-Formal-Schooling and Long-Term English Learners. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Kessler, C. & Quinn, M.E. (1990). ESL and Science Learning. In J. Crandall (Ed.) ESL Through Content-Area Instruction. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Regents, 55-88.
Menken, L. & Kleyn, T. (2009). The Difficult Road for Long-Term English Learners. Educational Leadership, 66(7). Retrieved from
Menken, K., Kleyn, T & Chae, N. (2012). Spotlights on “Long-Term English Language Learners”: Characteristics and prior schooling experiences of an invisible population. International Multilingual Research Journal, 6, 121-142.
Office of English Language Learning & Migrant Education: Indiana Department of Education. (2008). Effective Programs for English Language Learners (ELL) with Interrupted Formal Education. Retrieved from
Olsen, L. (2012). Meeting the Unique Needs of Long Terms English Language Learners. Washington, DC: National Education Association.
Peregoy, S.F. & Boyle, O.F. (2017). Reading, Writing and Learning in ESL, 7th Edition. New York, NY: Pearson Education.
Robertson, K. & Lafond, S. (n.d.). How to ELL Students with Interrupted Formal Education. Retrieved from


Comment from Diggle
July 7, 2018 at 6:00 am

For LTEL students that don’t seem to struggle, do you have any suggestions on how we can identify them? If they have a sufficient level of English, would it be suitable to place them in a basic English class that native speakers would attend?

Comment from Tamara Jones
July 9, 2018 at 7:54 am

That’s a good question. I’m not an expert on LTELs, but I would suggest monitoring the student(s) in question carefully. If they truly are doing well academically and don’t seem to be struggling, they will probably do well in a class for native and proficient English speakers. Certainly, there are many students whose first language is not English, and who go on to become very successful in school. The trick is to be able to identify the students whose L1 is not English and who seem to have trouble keeping up academically. Sometimes these students get by on their strong oral skills and their charm, but they have weak reading and writing and that will cause problems for them as they progress through the school system. That’s my two cents.

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