Seven Strategies for Differentiating Instruction for English Learners


Here are seven key strategies that my co-author Debbie Zacarian and I believe should be used by classroom and subject area teachers to differentiate content area information for beginning level English learners (ELs). 

1. Provide information that the beginning EL can understand. Language is not “soaked up.”  A beginning level English learner must understand the message that is conveyed. In schools where there are no bilingual programs, ELs are assigned to a general education classroom and spend most of their day in this environment. It is especially critical for them to receive comprehensible input from their teachers and classmates. If possible bilingual aides should be employed to help translate key concepts and vocabulary.  Materials should be available in the native language. Teachers need to speak more slowly,  use gestures and body language to get across the meaning to English learners.

Content area information can be used to teach a language. However, educators need to differentiate the language used for instruction.  All teachers need to become language teachers.

Let’s look at  Mr. Hurley’s 6th-grade science class where students are studying volcanoes.  The English learners in his class can study diagrams of the parts of the volcanoes and the different types of volcanoes through online resources. The EL beginners can read information on three different types of volcanoes online at Windows to the Universe.  Mr. Hurley has set the site at the “beginner level” in English and his Spanish speaking students read the material on the website in native language first.  Some of his Chinese and Indian students are reading material in native language on Wikipedia.  As they read, they label the different types of volcanoes. They watch the eruption of a volcano on Teacher Tube.  Mr. Hurley’s beginning ELs are responsible for 6 concrete vocabulary words.

2. Make lessons visual.

Use visual representations of new vocabulary and concepts for beginners include graphs, maps, photographs, drawings,  charts, and videos. Tell a story about information in the textbook using visuals.  Mr. Hurley uses graphic organizers on  Webspiration.  to help students organize information.   He provides websites from Thinkfinity to provide simple drawings for his beginners.

3. Link new information to prior knowledge. Teachers need to consider what schema English learners bring to the classroom and to link instruction to the students’ personal, cultural, and world experiences.  They must understand how culture impacts learning in their classroom.  Mr. Hurley asks bilingual aides to write messages to the parent of beginners so that students can talk to them about volcanoes in their country and stories about people they know that might have had experience with a volcano.  Same language buddies explain the assignment to beginners.

4. Determine key concepts for the unit and define language and content objectives for each lesson.

Teachers write the key concept for a unit of study in very simple English or in the native languages of their beginning ELs.  During the lesson, teachers need to tie this new learning to the key concept. Additionally, teachers should begin each lesson by writing a content objective in very simple language on the board. At the end of the lesson, students should be asked if the objective was met. This activity should be translated for beginners by same language buddies or classroom aides..  Language objectives for ELs that are suitable for their level of English language acquisition also need to be set.   Mr. Hurley’s language objective for a lesson in the volcanoes unit is for his beginners is to learn the names of the different types of volcanoes and label a diagram of each type.  If all content area teachers set objectives that they share with students and have them translated for beginning level ELs, they will include their beginners in the content lesson as their vocabulary and listening comprehension start to build.

5. Modify vocabulary instruction for ELs.

English language learners require direct instruction of new vocabulary.  Content area teachers need to go beyond the concrete nouns that are needed for the lesson. Function words, adjectives, adverbs, and conjunctions also need to be taught.  Beginners should also have multiple opportunities to practice the pronunciation and learn the meaning of new words.  Beginning ELs need much more exposure to new words and phrases than their English fluent peers. Teachers need to tie new vocabulary to prior learning and use visual to reinforce meaning.  Beginners need to learn concrete nouns and simple verbs first.

6. Use cooperative learning strategies.

Lecture style teaching excludes beginning ELs from the learning in a content area classroom. We don’t want to relegate ELs to the fringes of the classroom doing a separate lesson with a classroom aide or ESL teacher. Working in small groups is especially beneficial to beginning ELs who have an authentic reason to learn key concepts and use academic vocabulary. Beginning Els should be grouped with same language peers when possible.   Jobs in a cooperative learning group can be modified for them.  Beginning ELs can gather supplies,  draw pictures,  and look for illustrations online.  In Mr. Hurley’s class cooperative groups concluded the unit on Volcanoes by designing a poster using Glogster.

7. Modify testing and homework for ELs. Content area homework and assessments need to be differentiated for ELs. Teachers should allow alternative types of assessment: oral, drawings, physical response (e.g., act-it-out), and manipulatives as well as modification to the test. Homework and assessment should be directly linked to classroom instruction and students should be provided with study guides so that they know what to study. Remember that the ELs in your class may not be able to take notes.

From Haynes J & Zacarian, D. Teaching English Language Learners Across the Content Areas, (ASCD, 2010)