Adaptations for English Learners


A)    After choosing a standard from the California academic content standards and turning that standard into a learning goal, the teacher chooses the appropriate instructional strategy.

     Only after this process is complete does the teacher choose an appropriate adaptation of the instructional strategy for English learners.

B)     Instead of looking at adaptations for ELs in the mainstream classes as a separate strategy, mainstream teachers must plan an integrated instructional system that truly includes the EL in the total learning process. Instructional adaptations must eventually bring the ELs to actively engage in negotiating meaning of the learning context and monitoring their progress.

     That can be done by amplifying and enriching the language of the classroom, using new words in a context and paraphrasing it, instructional scaffolding and schema building, and using assessments that inform student progress. Such accommodations would provide rich learning opportunities that allow the ELs to weave new information presented in the class into structures of meaning or schema that exist in their learning system. (See TPE 7)


The Teacher’s Use of Language

*provide additional “wait time” for student responses to questions

 When asked a question, EL students typically translate it into their first language, formulate an answer in their first language, and translate an approximation of the answer into English, before giving their response. They accordingly need more time to respond than do students whose first language is English.

*be conscious of the vocabulary you use

 In English, everyday words of Anglo-Saxon origin are generally the easiest for EL students to comprehend, because they hear and read these words frequently. However, speakers of Romance languages (Spanish, Italian, etc.) comprehend many of our Latinate words more readily because their own languages have the same etymological roots. For example, most EL students won’t understand “comprehend,” but Spanish speakers will understand that word sooner than “understand.”


Modeling as an adaptation is an excellent instructional tool providing an opportunity for the ELs to visualize what needs to be learned and how it could be accomplished. Modeling as an instructional technique allows the teacher to become an active role model to explicitly demonstrate to students how to learn something or what needs to be learned. It is also a useful strategy in guiding students in reading of a text and comprehending it while rehearsing the mental operations involved in comprehending a selected text.

*teach the language of the subject

 In some subjects students not only encounter specialized vocabulary (e.g., photosynthesis in biology), but also language structures that occur with high frequency in that subject. For example, passive construction, though not frequently used in everyday discourse, is extensively used to describe processes in subjects such as Science and history (e.g., the experiment was carried out, the logs are felled and floated downstream, the ballots are counted).

 Subject-specific vocabulary also includes many words that have different meanings in specific contexts (e.g., mass has more than one meaning, including its very specific and precise meaning in physics). EL students need to have these words explained in context, as the dictionary generally lists common meanings of words first, which tends to increase the learners’ confusion. Cloze exercises based on lesson content (i.e., passages with important key words omitted for students to fill in) are a good way to reinforce EL students’ grasp of content and new vocabulary.

*simplify sentence structures and repeat sentences verbatim before trying to rephrase

 Short, affirmative sentences (no negatives) are easiest for new learners of English to understand. Complex sentences and passive verb constructions pose a greater challenge and should be used judiciously. EL students will gradually become familiar with these more challenging constructions, if they are given help processing them.

Explanations can be useful, but it is often a good idea to repeat verbatim difficult sentences containing important information and ideas. This gives students a second chance to process the same structure --- something they don’t get if they are presented too quickly with a rephrased version that may be just as challenging as the original sentence.

*rephrase idioms or teach their meaning

EL students often translate idiomatic expressions literally. For example, a teacher might say “Take a stab at it,” to encourage a student; the EL students would be very confused by their literal interpretation of this. If someone uses an expression like this, rephrase it so that EL students can attach meaning to it. Post a list of the week’s idioms for students to see.

*clearly mark transitions during classroom activities

To avoid confusing EL students when changing topic or focus, explicitly signal the changes (e.g., “first we will...”, “now it’s time for...”)

*periodically check to ensure EL students are understanding

EL students may be reluctant to ask for clarification or to admit that they don’t understand something, if asked directly (some may feel that it is disrespectful or an affront to the teacher to admit that they don’t understand). To check for understanding, focus on students’ body language, watching for active listening behaviors or for expressions or posture that indicate confusion or frustration. Bear in mind, however, that sometimes only later performance provides an accurate indication of the extent of students’ understanding


Contextual Supports for Linguistic Development

*write key words on the board and use visual and other non-verbal cues, wherever possible, to present key ideas

 Concrete objects, charts, maps, pictures, photos, gestures, facial expressions, etc. form an important complement to oral explanations for EL students. Advance organizers are sometimes useful cues for upcoming activities.

*provide written notes, summaries, instructions, and pre-reading 

EL students may not be able to process oral information quickly enough to understand fully or to make their own meaningful notes; your notes can highlight key ideas, new words, etc.; written instructions are particularly useful to students when homework or major projects are assigned.

*use the students’ native languages to check comprehension and clarify problems 

If you or some of your students speak some of the native languages of your EL students, use the first language to clarify instructions, provide translations of key words that are difficult to explain in English, and find out what the students know but cannot express in English. Most EL students will only need this additional support for a limited time or in rare situations.

Research indicates that the more highly developed a student’s first language, the more successful they will be in acquiring a second. In fact, bilingual learners who continue to develop their first language have more success than those who focus entirely on acquiring English; there are also many benefits for students’ self-esteem when they know that their primary language is valued.

*communicate interest in students’ linguistic development and set expectations

 Recognizing that all students use language to both grasp and formulate ideas, let EL students know that their progress in learning the language is important to you. Give feedback and evaluation on this as well as on the other aspects of their learning related to particular subjects.

*respond to students’ language errors

When students produce incorrect grammar or pronunciation, rephrase their responses so as to provide feedback on the content of what they say as well as a model of correct usage, without drawing specific attention to the error (e.g., “California have many natural resource.” “Yes, California has many natural resources. Can you name some of them?” or “Whose own pen is this?” “I’m afraid I don’t know whose pen this is.”).

In responding to students’ written errors, try to focus on consistent errors of a specific type (e.g., lack of plural endings) and concentrate on modeling or correcting only that error. If you target each and every error, the student cannot easily see the logical rule that must be applied in particular situations and may become confused and overwhelmed. Always remember to focus on content first, however.

*use directed reading activities

 Many students hope careful reading of the textbook will make up for what they failed to understand in class. Guided or directed reading assignments will help them read purposefully and to better effect than if they simply attempt to wade through a chapter with the help of a dictionary. With EL students it is often better to discuss before they read, rather than the reverse. Consider:

     previewing the text (focusing on chapter headings, illustrations, glossaries, etc. so that students have a sense of the organization and content before they begin to read)

     providing a pre-reading question about the main idea(s) in the text as a focus for reading

     having students locate key words (e.g., technical terms) in the passage and use contextual clues to explain their meaning

     having students keep vocabulary notebooks to record subject-related words and explanations along with contextualized usage examples (these can be checked and evaluated two or three times during the year)

     providing follow up questions that refer students back to the text to find details that support an argument or to draw inferences from their reading

*use audio taped texts to combine aural and visual cues

 Some teachers have created audiotapes of their own selected texts.

*establish a supportive environment for language learning

 Talk to the whole class about the need for language learners to feel comfortable speaking English without fear of ridicule. 

*use cooperative learning strategies 

Some EL students may be unfamiliar with cooperative learning strategies or even culturally predisposed to reject them. The rationale for cooperative learning may consequently need to be explained, and the related strategies may need to be explicitly taught.

Cooperative learning groups provide opportunities for EL students to interact orally with their peers in a small, non-judgmental forum. EL students are able to hear others use the language of the subject to review key points. They are also able to ask questions they might be reluctant to pose in front of the whole class. Research studies show that the use of carefully structured learning groups has many positive outcomes in terms of academic achievement, communication skills, race relations, the development of socially responsible and cooperative behavior and attitudes, and self-esteem.

*encourage students to rehearse information or instructions orally

Students can work in pairs or small groups to explain or reinterpret instructions to each other. In this way, peers help ensure that everyone in the group understands. 

*use peer tutoring or working with a bilingual aide

Use of peer tutors is especially helpful for integrating new arrivals and helping orient them to school and classroom routines. The approach works best if the students being paired are compatible, if specific responsibilities are assigned, and if some training and recognition are provided for those who undertake the tutoring. For example, a supportive student (perhaps a well integrated EL student whose language skills are already quite developed) can be assigned to work with an EL peer on a set of math problems, verbalizing each step of the process aloud. If the EL student can verbalize the process at the end of a specified period, both students receive recognition.

(These adaptations certainly have their benefits because EL students in the mainstream classrooms mostly come with certain level of competency in conversational abilities.

(Working with someone would certainly provide interpersonal and contextual cues to make the cognitive demands easier. Although it is an effective strategy, it cannot fully provide all the elements needed for high level of cognitive involvement and processing required for learning.

(Delegating the EL to a student or a professional would certainly help the mainstream teacher manage the difficulty he/she would face in dealing with the learning needs of EL students but these adaptations would not replace instruction that is structured to meaningfully engage the ELs with the content.)

*establish a homework club 

A homework club is usually a safe, quiet environment for students to complete homework assignments.