Effective Practices for Differentiating for ELLs in the Classroom

All teachers are teachers of language. In fact, English language acquisition happens best when the language has context and purpose.  So for classroom teachers working with ELLs, there is a tremendous opportunity to improve both English language development and content mastery. Collaborating with your ELL specialist will allow you to take students’ language instruction from an isolated part of the day to an embedded component of content and classroom teaching. Larry Ferlazzo’s article has some great tips that inspired me to share a powerful structure for lesson planning, delivery and assessment.

Know your learners: Each ELL student brings a unique language background to the classroom. Thankfully, a rich set of ELP assessment data can explain where they are in their language development and what they need in order to make progress. The ELL specialist should be able to provide you with the overall language level as well as domain-specific breakdowns in reading, writing, listening and speaking. I find WIDA’s Can-Do Descriptors incredibly helpful as an at-a-glance summary of what each student should be expected to do on their own.

Teach with clear objectives: Once you know what your students can do and where they should develop next, you can start planning impactful lessons. It’s vital to start with a clear teaching point, otherwise known as a learning objective or target. Take a look at the language needed to achieve the next learning target and practice backwards planning. Tricky vocabulary is a great place to start, but don’t forget about more ambiguous language like transition/signal words and figurative language. Check out my effective lesson planning worksheet to get started.

Get grouping: Student grouping is your next powerful tool in differentiating for your ELLs. During your class, how will students work collaboratively? Grouping students by similar language levels can be very helpful as it allows you to provide supports (graphic organizers, sentence stems, visuals, adapted texts, first language support) all in one place. Additionally, grouping students by varied language levels allows ELLs to have strong native English language models and encourages students to take on leadership roles among their peers. Most importantly, mix up the grouping methods to allow for a broad range of learning.

Check for understanding: Provide ways for all students to display what they have learned either through simple “thumbs up” activities or more complex written responses scaffolded with sentence starters and word banks. Make sure that a content test doesn’t become a language test for your ELLs and consider modifying the questions down to their simplest linguistic form, allowing new ELLs to use a word bank or have the test read aloud to them.

While ELL instruction might require a little more time and effort, don’t let that stop you from trying new techniques.  As many educators have discovered, what works with ELLs often works for other learners in your room! Discuss your planning and assessments with your ELL specialist for feedback and differentiation strategies.

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