The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

English Language Learners in Regular Classrooms

on October 29, 2015

A few days ago a piece I wrote on teaching English language learners (ELLs) was posted in “Classroom Q and A with Larry Ferlazzo,” an on line feature sponsored by Education Week. I had dashed it off at the last minute after reading responses from other contributors that I found disappointing.  Almost all of them focused on teaching high schoolers and suggested strategies that seemed inadequate to me.

In my submission I wrote about what I had observed in high poverty elementary schools in Oregon where there were large numbers of ELLs.  In the early grade classrooms I visited many of those kids appeared to have had very little experience with reading or writing in English.  It was also clear that a few of them had arrived in this country recently and could not communicate in English at all. I felt that those realities should be recognized in any posted essay along with the strategies the teachers I observed used to work with such children. 

As a result of my haste in getting my piece off to Ferlazzo, there were several typos in it that embarrassed me, and I did not say anything about my qualifications to write about my topic.  So now, to make up for my haste, errors, and omissions I present you with a newer, more complete version of my essay on teaching ELLs in regular classrooms.


Helping ELLS who enter high school knowing little or no English is very difficult; not only because they tend to use their native language socially outside of school and stay silent in classrooms, but also because high school curricula demand more competence in English than they can reach in so short a time. Having a specialized class for English learning, in addition to regular classes, does help students somewhat, but it is rarely enough for the fast transition they need to be successful in high school.

On the other hand, helping ELLS learn English at elementary level is doable when teachers have the right training. Over five years I visited classrooms in four high poverty elementary schools in rural Oregon with large numbers of English language learners. Because those schools had students who came with many different native languages, it was not possible to have special introductory English classes for each language.  Therefore, regular classroom teachers were charged with doing the full job of teaching English to their ELLs while teaching the regular school curriculum in reading, writing, math, etc. to everyone.

Early on, I found out that elementary teachers in this school district were required to take a weeklong course called Project GLAD (Guided Literacy Acquisition Design), so I decided to take the course myself. It was excellent, and it helped me to appreciate what the teachers I was observing were doing.  My own background in applied linguistics also supported me. I had written my doctoral thesis on the teaching of English in Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands where I visited classrooms in 30 schools. After receiving a Ph.D. I taught English to foreign graduate students at the University of Wisconsin.

In those Oregon classrooms I visited it was common for a trickle of new ELLs to arrive throughout the school year, many of them with no English or even no schooling at all.  When a student arrived, the teacher’s first job was to pair him or her with an English speaking partner who would help the newcomer with the basic routines, such as finding materials in the classroom, standing in line in the lunchroom, and using essential language such as “Where is the …?”

From the beginning and throughout the year, what teachers did was to present new material visually and orally, as well as in written form.  For example, a chart of common forest animals posted on a classroom wall would include animals’ names under their pictures, and might also have some body parts labeled.  Most of the work that the students did, including their tests, involved their own drawing and labeling.

As students grew more competent, they might be asked to draw a series of pictures illustrating the important parts of books they had read with a sentence or two under each picture. Teachers also read aloud frequently, choosing books with illustrations, and stopping from time to time to let students comment or ask questions.

Another frequent practice was to create verses or songs that contained the basic information of a unit taught.  For example, students who studied the lives of native American tribes might be led to put the tribe names, the names of their dwellings, and where they lived into a familiar song pattern that they would sing every day during the unit.

Another basic component of teaching ELLs in those schools was consistency: using similar formats and language to present new material and assign student work, modifying them somewhat as students become more familiar with them.  When unfamiliar words appeared in the material, teachers might draw a quick sketch of a noun on the chalkboard or act out a verb.  I remember seeing two students in one classroom illustrating the word “prey” by one chasing the other around the classroom and catching him.

Over the course of my observations the most amazing thing I saw was a 5th grade class, with about a third of it ELLs, perform a modified version of the play, Macbeth, for a parent audience at the end of the school year.  The boy who played the title character was an ELL, very bright and advanced in his use of English.  The narrators also seemed very much in control of the difficult language.  Other actors had much less to say, but they all did a good job.  The teacher played music and sound effects on the classroom piano while the class performed.  It was clear to everyone that those kids were ready for middle school.

As a frequent observer in a few classrooms where the teachers were especially skilled, I was able to write two books about what I had learned: “English Only Teachers in Mixed Language Classrooms: A Survival Guide” and “Teaching writing in Mixed Language Classrooms.”

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