Differentiate instruction for English Language Learners

Continuing from Part 1 of our article, students with limited English proficiency benefit from differentiated instruction. Consider the following strategies to take your teaching up a level in reaching students with English learning needs.

Encourage Students to Work in Groups and Pairs

shutterstock_139406252_800x533The need to communicate with each other will reinforce communication skills. If your ELL students are new to the school, you may want to assign classmates as buddies for different parts of the day. Have students help with issues like finding the right bus and how to buy lunch. Talk to your class about the difficulties that English learners face and the emotions that accompany a dramatic change of country and school. Create a community of acceptance and caring.

Incorporate multiple modes of authentic assessment

Use a variety of measures that identify what the student knows and does not know. Authentic assessments incorporate a variety of measures into the evaluation process and focus on formative assessment. Types of authentic assessment include rubrics, exit cards, curriculum-based measurement, student self-evaluation, and documented observations.  When assessing with a variety of measures, teachers build a portfolio of data that provides a more accurate picture of the student as a learner. With this authentic, data-driven student portrait, teachers have the necessary information to do the problem-solving and detective work required to determine appropriate strategies.

Minimize teacher talk and encourage student talk

Encourage and enable your ELL/ESL students to speak English as much of the time as possible. Get them talking through activities and games that require every student to speak. In lecture-based or whole class instruction, ELL students may find it easy to simply stay quiet and out of the way. Don’t let them fall through the cracks.

Read aloud to your class

Reading aloud to English language learners is one of the most effective ways to build and expand vocabulary, improve comprehension, and cement curriculum concepts (Kindle, 2009). Choose books that truly interest your student(s) with strong visual cues such as photos, illustrations, maps, or diagrams. This is also a great job to give to a student buddy, who could spend time reading with an ELL student during a small group work period.

Speak slowly and Articulate

When speaking to ELL students, slow down your rate of speech and repeat directions several times, checking periodically for understanding. Whenever possible, use simple, subject-verb-noun sentences, visual references (words written on the board, pictures, photos, maps, diagrams, charts, and so on), and physical gestures or pantomime as you speak. Be aware of how local colloquialisms might impact understanding.

Figurative language can be especially challenging

It seems that one of the most significant reading challenges for students at the secondary level, especially ELL students, is figurative language. Idioms, in particular, are exceptionally problematic. Reciprocal teaching and Think-Alouds help students master and grasp the concepts of figurative language. Think-Alouds involve verbalizing the mental processes that readers use to construct meaning from written materials (Burns et al., 2009).

Used correctly, Think-Alouds follow a format where teachers tell their students what the strategy is, why it is important and helpful, and when to use it. According to Burns et al., instructors can apply this process either explicitly or implicitly. The use of visual aids and graphic organizers all contribute to Think-Aloud strategies. They can help students master figurative language literacy and comprehension.

Have ELL/ESL students read figurative language in their native language or in a text related to their native culture. Students that are not from the mainstream culture can struggle with metaphors and idioms more than other students. Introduce similes first and then move to more complex types of figurative language. Utilize pictures and cartoons to describe figurative language.

Use movement strategies

Many students are bodily-kinesthetic learners. They learn through their bodies and they need to move. They fidget and squirm. Help make movement into a positive learning force in your classroom.

Demonstrate, pantomime, dramatize, and model. Connect physical activity and interaction to what you are teaching! It can be as simple as placing a chair at the front of the class and repeating “stand up” while standing up and “sit down” while sitting down. Repeat the action and ask students individually to repeat after you. Once they understand the instruction or phrase, allow them to demonstrate. Other movement strategies to differentiate in the classroom include:

  1. Physically act out vocabulary words. This will give students a visual-kinesthetic picture to remember their words. (Bell, 2005).
  2. Have students clap out the syllables in the names of their classmates or their vocabulary words. This is a great strategy for helping kids remember long, multisyllabic words. (Bell, 2005).
  3. Use an object such as a pencil and hold it in, under, over, next to, beside, or above the desk to act out prepositions.
  4. Form pictures to connect to vocabulary for visual vocabulary review cards. Makebeliefscomix.com is a website with wonderful tools for teachers and students alike.
  5.  Color-code to distinguish one thought or concept from another.  When writing a sentence, assign different colors to nouns and verbs to help students make the distinction. Incorporate hands-on activities to demonstrate concepts.
  6. Record students speaking so they can hear themselves and self-correct. Tape dialogs between you and them or between student partners.
  7. Play music and review lyrics so students connect the words to the music. Help them to write and record their own songs or poetry.
  8. Paraphrase what has just been taught. Paraphrasing enhances short-term memory so information is not forgotten as quickly (Furukawa, 1978). For example, after you teach something important, ask a volunteer to paraphrase the information for the class. Most likely, your students will not repeat the information in the same words you used, so the student’s rendition will be novel to the brain. This strategy only takes seconds to do, yet it lets your students hear the information repeated, in a different way, with a different voice.

Sign language creates a bridge to connect language understanding

Research has shown signing vocabulary to be an effective learning tool. Sign language helps students learn vocabulary and improve their spelling skills. Utilizing sign language in the classroom allows students to process spelling from their orthographic processors and their autonomous memories, creating more internal repetition to help them learn more. Incorporating sign language into a lesson will help students master vocabulary concepts faster, which ultimately improves overall literacy and comprehension (Daniels, 2001).

Depending on the student’s native language, there may be many English words that have no comparable word in the learner’s language. American Sign Language (ASL) provides a picture for these nonnative words in the student’s mind. They make the connection between the sign and the English word (Daniels, 2001). The purpose for using ASL with English Language Learner (ELL) students is to provide kinesthetic and visual associations for specific words. Teach ASL along with English to ELL students to enhance understanding of specific vocabulary words as appropriate. Or simply, fingerspell vocabulary and spelling words. (Koehler & Lloyd, 1986).

Utilize a multi-media approach!

Allow students to listen to an audio rendition of text they are reading. After listening to the story, the students answer a question, which assesses their reading comprehension and critical thinking abilities.  Read a story and then watch the movie. Encourage students to discuss what is alike and what is different between the written version and the movie version. Use poetry, lyrics, limericks, cartoons, newspapers, magazines, videos, flashcards, etc. – anything that will engage the leaner and allow you to help them connect with the English language.

Picture books aren’t just for little kids

For the ELL student, picture books provide a nonthreatening tool with visual cues to support English language acquisition. In a research study focused on using picture books and literature-based instruction with high school ESL students, Nancy L. Hadaway and JaNae Mundy found that using picture books engaged students in the language learning process. Vocabulary increased, and reading comprehension skills were evident through class discussion and through writing about their reading experience through journaling, poetry, and research presentations (Hadaway & Mundy, 1999).

Use picture books to:

  1. Improve reading comprehension.
  2. Support and increase understanding of a thematic unit. For example, you may be doing a unit on “Tough Times.” Each student can choose a different picture book that pertains to the topic. This is such a general topic that students may interpret it as war, poverty, death, or some other theme.
  3. Read picture books in students’ native language and complete a summary of what they have read. Then have them read a similar English story with an English speaking peer to make connections.

VIDEO: Example of differentiating with picture books

Found on YouTube, this is the second part of a book club presentation for EDUC601, Summer Session, of Hill and Flynn’s 2006 book, Classroom Instruction that Works with English Language Learners. It is a demonstration of differentiated instruction for English language learners.

Use storyboards for understanding and formative assessment

Teach students how to create a storyboard.

  1. Students fold a piece of paper into squares by folding it in half vertically down the middle, then in half again and again. When opened, the paper should have 8 creased squares.
  2. Draw simple line drawings to illustrate the reading.

They might do this while they read a story for the first time, as a review with a partner, or for homework after a reading assignment. The process of turning verbal information into a visual format reinforces the learning and keeps the information in working memory longer (Fitzell & Fitzell, 2006).


Supporting students who are English Language Learners is challenging. However, it is also quite possible when teachers combine differentiated strategies with an understanding of the emotional and cultural needs of students and their families.  The good news is that everyone benefits when using strategies that support English Language Learners. Given the additional challenge of meeting the requirements of Common Core State Standards, the academic strategies that support English Language Learners also strengthen the academic approach to meet the CCSS. Everyone wins!


August, D. & Estrada, J. et al, (Dec. 2012). Supporting English language learners; A pocket guide for state and district leaders, American Institute for Research. Retrieved September 23, 2013, from http://www.air.org/files/ELL_Pocket_Guide1.pdf

Beare, K. (2013.English dictations, writing practice in EnglishAbout.com Guide. Retrieved September 29, 2013, from http://esl.about.com/od/listening/a/b_diclist.htm

Beare, K. (2013). Teaching English as a second languageAbout.com Guide. Retrieved September 29, 2013, from http://esl.about.com/od/teachingenglish/u/teach.htm

Best practices in supporting English-language learners in reading and writing(n.d.). Benchmark Education: Sept. 25, 2013, http://benchmarkeducation.com/educational-leader/learning-environment/supporting-english-language-learners-in-reading-and-writing.html

Cooper, A. (January 25, 2012).10 Tips for teaching English-language learners, Edutopia, The George Lucas Educational Foundation. Retrieved September 30, 2013, from http://www.edutopia.org/blog/teaching-english-language-learners-ayanna-cooper

English language learners  (June 16, 2011), Education Week.The growing number of English learner students, 1998/99-2008/09, (Feb. 2011).NCELA. Retrieved October 5, 2013, from http://www.edweek.org/ew/issues/english-language-learners/

Hill, J. & Flynn, K., (2006). Classroom instruction that works with English-language learners, ASCD

Hirschler, J. (2000). Supporting the home language and promoting English acquisition within migrant and seasonal Head Start, Migrant & Seasonal Head Start Quality Improvement Centers, Academy for

Educational Development 2002. Retrieved September 29, 2013, from http://ece.aed.org/publications/mshs/secondlanguage/secondlang.pdf

Kindle, K. (2009). Vocabulary Development During Read-Alouds: Primary Practices, Reading Rockets, WETA, Retrieved October 1, 2013, from http://www.readingrockets.org/article/39979/

Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock (2001). Dimensions of learning, Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development, Retrieved October 1, 2013, fromhttp://www.ascd.org/ASCD/pdf/siteASCD/publications/books/Dimensions-of-Learning-Trainers-Manual-2nd-edition.pdf

Maurer, A. (2012).Strategies for teaching English language learners, Scholastic, Retrieved September 30, 2013, from http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/article/strategies-teaching-english-language-learners

Miller, P. & Endo, H. (June 2004). Understanding and meeting the needs of English language learners, Phi Delta Kappan, Retrieved September 30, 2013, from http://wed.siu.edu/faculty/CSims/585a/Understanding%20and%20Meeting%20the%20Needs%20of%20ESL%20Students.pdf

Yandian, S. & Jones, J. (2002). Supporting the home language and promoting English Acquisitions within Migrant and Seasonal Head Start, Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Quality ImprovementWashington, D.C.: Academy for Educational Development. Retrieved October 1, 2013, from  http://ece.aed.org/publications/mshs/secondlanguage/secondlang.pdf

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