The Teaching Imperative for English Language Learners – by Nancy Heuer-Evans, Curriculum Coordinator

Hello! I’m Nancy Heuer-Evans, Curriculum Coordinator at i-Pathways. Bonjour– je m’appelle Nancy Heuer-Evans, coordonnateur du programme d’enseignement. I switched over to my admittedly limited French to jostle you a bit, make you feel like you needed to attend a little more closely. There is a tsunami headed your way if you’re an instructor who has English Language Learners in your classroom, and you need to prick up your ears and get your boat ready.

40% of students served by adult education programs are English Language Learners

Right now, it is estimated that over 40% of students served by adult education programs are English Language Learners, also known as ELLs, and traditionally referred to as ESL (English as a second Language) students. So nearly half of your students, in some areas of the country, not only lack the scaffold of basic English, they do not have the infrastructure in place to learn the content of the curriculum, either.  If you pause for a moment to head on over to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and find the position English Language Learning Instruction, you’ll see that the majority of adult education instructors who are teaching English Language Learners have NO official training whatsoever in helping these students build their English language skills.

This will not suffice. We must address these teachers’ needs in order to further address the students’ needs. I have been marinating in articles about this situation for a couple weeks now and feel like the most useful thing to do is boil down the subject into some instantly applicable tactics for you teachers. Much of what the “experts” have diagnosed as successful teaching of these learners is what you’re doing anyway.

All successful communication scenarios begin with asking: what is the purpose and who is my audience?

Your purpose as the instructor of an English Language Learner is two-fold:

  1. familiarize and build the language scaffold for practical AND academic English;
  2. teach the content of the various areas of study—math, science, social studies, etc…. In order to accomplish this daunting task, find out who your students are

“Who is my Audience?”

  • Learn Their Name: What is their name? How is it pronounced? RESIST the urge to Americanize it unless invited to do so by the student.
  • Country of birth
  • Family Background
  • Home Language
  • Educational Experiences
  • Reading and Writing Skills in Home Language
  • English Language Proficiency (ELP) Level /ELP Scores
  • Student Interests
  • Plans or Goals

To build up your empathy skills, try going online and watching a video in that student’s language—not to learn the language, but to feel what it’s like to have the world carrying on in a code you haven’t cracked.

Keep in the forefront of your mind how incredibly courageous students are who come to a country where they don’t speak the language and who try to rise up through learning. Could you do it? Move somewhere else where your language is not the dominant one, go to school, try to maximize your potential with such a monumental challenge to overcome? As often as I’ve thought about moving to the south of France and living there, the idea of not having full language literacy has deterred me thus far.

And that brings me to one of the big points I’d like to make: Lack of language does not equal lack of intelligence.

Once upon a time, ELLs were called ESL students, which stood for English as a Second Language student. Whole departments at colleges and universities were dedicated to it—here at WIU, it was called WESL, and the program was renowned for its cutting-edge philosophy in teaching and supporting the non-native English speaker. What has emerged, though, over the decades is the fact that most of these students were not learning English as a second language—often it was their fifth or sixth, so the academics set about renaming the discipline to English Language Learner.

What do we know about English Language Learners? Having a flexible profile in mind as you’re creating your lesson plans may help with your instruction. These are the attributes, both positive and challenging, that we can attribute to ELLs:


  • Strong literacy skills in the native language
  • Academic skills and content area knowledge developed in the native language
  • Strong family support and commitment to children’s future
  • Strong interest in education
  • High levels of personal responsibility, resilience, resourcefulness, and commitment to success


  • Little or no formal schooling
  • High levels of mobility in moving between schools/areas
  • Lack of access to effective, consistent language instruction, as in the case of students who have experienced bilingual education during one year and then English immersion in another
  • Limited practice developing and using academic language
  • Personal responsibilities that occupy hours during or outside of school, such as caring for siblings, working one or more jobs, and translating for families

As I look at these lists, what I see are the skills and challenges we often associate with our adult education students, whether they are monolingual or polylingual.

Some of the following practices will benefit your ELLs, but because they are best practice in teaching, everyone in the classroom will enjoy improved outcomes.

  1. cultivate relationships and be culturally responsive
  2. incorporate learning language skills across the curriculum
  3. emphasize productive skills (speaking and writing) first and foremost, even though hardest
  4. resist the tendency of learners to be passive or receptive –they will want to focus on listening and reading
  5. SWIRL – Speak, Write, Interact, Read, Listen—EVERY DAY
  6. speak slowly, increase the wait time for answers to questions
  7. go Multi-modal – use visual elements to support vocabulary, concept, and content concepts
  8. QSSSA – Question, Signal, Stem, Share, AssessAsk open-ended questions to discourage one-word responsesGive students a “signal” that they can give you when they’re ready to respond—avoid just calling on ELLS because if they become frustrated or embarrassed, they will disengage.
    Offer students a stem or branch of a sentence so they can repeat constructs and begin to understand and duplicate them—for instance, “If I want to  __________to college, I must __________________. This can be less intimidating than having to come up with the whole sentence. It builds confidence and allows you to model correct verb conjugations and syntax.

Share your own experiences with language learning, or allow students to share their culture’s differences so they can connect new knowledge with existing knowledge.

Assess how your teaching is going on an ongoing basis so you can adjust if necessary. Ask your students to assess how effective the lessons are, too. Because you are dealing with adults, they will want to weigh in on what’s working

Here’s a checklist to improve access to English Language Learners:

  • Speak slowly, distinctly
  • Use closed captioning on videos
  • Emphasize visual literacy (music and math are universal—graphs, diagrams, etc…)
  • Incorporate group projects and cooperative learning
  • Partner English learners with strong English speakers
  • Think about native culture—does it encourage students to share? How do you encourage participation?
  • Engage in consistent routines – patterns help alleviate anxiety, which improves the brain’s receptivity to new information
  • Develop a road map to the curriculum so students can picture where they are
  • Provide advance outlines of lectures/discussion materials—this helps EVERYone in your class, not just ELLs
  • Relate to prior knowledge – -be sure you identify what they already know; the brain works by looking at new information in terms of how it hooks into existing knowledge. The more we use this in our teaching, the better outcomes we’ll have for our students.
  • Fold in some hands-on activities, like Science Bingo, or Social Studies Pictionary
  • Teach the root words when learning vocabulary
  • Make a word wall—post new vocabulary terms here, grouped by unit/lesson

While there is no way to give you all the tools you need to be an effective ELL instructor in this short video, my wish is to inspire you on your journey. Empathy has been my guiding teaching force, and I encourage you to tap into yours. How frightening to be living in and trying to educate one’s self to achieve the American dream in a culture that speaks a language that is unfamiliar. How brave are those who try? I am in awe of someone who leaves everything familiar, sets goals, and hinges their wagon to the stars. These are our English Language Learners. They deserve the best we have to offer.

To aid you in your journey toward becoming an ELL teaching superstar, I have included resources at the end of this article.

Bonne chance. Eduquez et inspirez! (Educate and Inspire!)

Additional Resources:

American Immigration Council. 2014. “Refugees: A Fact Sheet.”

Baird, Ashley Simpson. “Dual Language Learners Reader Post #2: Who Are Dual Language Learners?” EdCentral.  May 18, 2015.

Batalova, Jeanne and Margie McHugh. 2010a.  Number and Growth of Students in U.S. Schools in Need of English Instruction. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute.

Batalova, Jeanne and Margie McHugh. 2010b.  Top Languages Spoken by English Language Learners Nationally and by State. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute.

Ferlazzo, Larry and Katie Hull Sypnieski. (2012).The ESL/ELL Teacher’s Survival Guide: Ready-to-Use Strategies, Tools, and Activities for Teaching All Levels. John Wiley And Sons Inc; 1st edition.

Grantmakers for Education. 2013. Educating English Language Learners: Grantmaking Strategies for Closing America’s Other Achievement Gap.

Rix, Kat. ELL in the Heartland. Scholastic.

Roseberry-McKibbin, Celeste, and Brice, Alejandro. “Acquiring English as a Second Language: What’s Normal, What’s Not.” American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

Ruiz Soto, Ariel G., Sarah Hooker, and Jeanne Batalova. 2015.  States and Districts with the Highest Number and Share of English Language Learners. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute.

Walker, A., Shafer, J., & Iiams, M. (2004). “Not in my classroom”: Teacher attitudes towards English language learners in the mainstream classroomNABE Journal of Research and Practice2(1), 130-160.

White House Task Force on New Americans. 2015. Strengthening Communities by Welcoming All Residents.

Yigzaw, A. (2012). Impact of L1 use in L2 English writing classesEthiopian Journal of Education and Sciences, 8(1), 11-27.

Zong, Jie, and Batalova, Jeanne.  2015. “The Limited English Proficient Population in the United States.” Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute.,%20Race,%20and%20Ethnicity,school%20students%20will%20be%20ELLs