This was written by Larry Ferlazzo and Katie Hull Sypnieski, who teach at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California. They are co-authors of the new book, “The ESL/ELL Teacher’s Survival Guide: Ready-to-Use Strategies, Tools, and Activities for Teaching English Language Learners of All Levels.”

By Larry Ferlazzo and Katie Hull Sypnieski

It’s hard to find a school or district in this country that doesn’t have an English learner population. For teachers in states like California, Texas, Florida, and New York it is sometimes hard to find a classroom without any English Language Learners (ELL). In fact, the U.S. Department of Education estimates that approximately 4.5 million English Learners are enrolled in public schools across the country, roughly 10% of all students enrolled in K-12 schools in the United States. The number of English Learners has increased by over 50% in the last decade, with some states, like South Carolina and Indiana, experiencing extremely rapid growth of English Learner populations (400-800% increases). Some demographers predict that in 20 years the ratio of ELL students to English-only students could be one in four.

In light of these numbers, we’d like to suggest a few “Do’s” and “Don’ts” — first for teachers with ELLs in their classrooms, and then for non-teacher policymakers who have substantial power over the resources and policies that affect those of us in the classroom.


Do model for students what they are expected to do or produce, and don’t just tell students what to do and expect them to do it.

Do speak clearly and slowly and provide students with enough time to formulate their responses in speaking or writing, and don’t speak too fast or repeat something back to students in a louder voice!

Do use visuals, sketches, gestures, intonation, and other nonverbal cues to make both language and content more accessible to students, and don’t stand in front of the class and lecture, or rely on a textbook as your only “visual aid.”

Do give verbal and written instructions — this practice can help all learners, especially ELLs, and don’t act surprised if students are lost when you haven’t clearly written and explained step-by-step directions.

Do regularly check that students are understanding the lesson by having all students respond with “thumbs up or down” or writing their responses on a sticky note or individual whiteboard, and don’t simply ask, “Are there any questions?”

Do encourage students to continue building their literacy skills in their L1 as research shows learning to read in their L1 promotes reading achievement in L2 as “transfer” occurs, and don’t “ban” students from using their native language in the classroom.



Do use student pre- and post-tests designed by teachers and schools, portfolios, and performance-based assessments to evaluate student progress. These types of formative assessment practices allow teachers and students to continually evaluate assessment evidence in order to make adjustments to their teaching and learning. Only use results of standardized tests for ELLs as a way to be data -informed, not data-driven (just use it as one more piece of information to consider and not attach high-stakes to it).

Don’t require English Language Learner students who enter school at the Beginning Level to take standardized tests — in their present form --for at least three years after they first arrive to this country (see the “Attitude Towards Research” section for how long it takes for students to gain fluency). Taking a test that you do not understand is not likely going to enhance student motivation.

Next Generation of Standardized Tests :

Do put words (read more about what the developers of these upcoming tests have said here) into action and create standardized tests which are more connected to performance-based assessment, which offer translations in multiple languages, and that adhere to the concept of “universal design” by simplifying language demands that aren’t relevant to content being measured.

Don’t just give lip service; make it happen!

Financial Resources:

Do have states support “weighted formula” proposals like the one Governor Jerry Brown is trying to implement in California, where schools that have large numbers of students living in poverty or who are English Language Learners receive more state funding. Do increase federal funding for English Language Learner Acquisition State Grants which support local school efforts to expand and enhance learning opportunities for ELLs.

Don’t have states and local governments continue to cut into the “bone” of our schools and, instead, make equitable school funding a priority. Don’t continue to reduce federal funding for English Language Learner Acquisition State Grants, as the Obama Administration has done since 2010.

Professional Development:

Do support teacher collaboration time and offer professional development based on what teachers want and need. Do advocate for excellent instruction for ELLs at all levels and provide adequate resources and training for teachers and administrators to ensure this happens. Do listen to the recommendations on professional development from researchers and advocates for ELLs.

Don’t allow top-down consultants to parachute in and provide training that teachers have not requested or do not need. Don’t ignore teacher requests for professional development that they need to develop their practice and better support their students.

Teacher Evaluation:

Do use forms of teacher evaluation designed to support and improve teacher quality, not punish educators, and which have been discussed at length in previous posts here.

Don’t use standardized test scores to evaluate any teachers, and especially teachers of ELLs. Research has demonstrated the shortcomings of value-added measures as an accurate tool for teacher evaluation. Further research has shown that it is even less accurate for ELL teachers.


Do provide adequate technology resources (including equipment and training) to ELL teachers and students. Research shows that technology -- audio and visual support for text, immediate and private feedback on errors, among other features — can provide extraordinary benefits to English Language Learners and support (not replace) classroom instruction. Do encourage schools to take advantage of almost countless high-quality free or very, very low-cost resources on the Web that can benefit ELLs. Do provide support for ELL family literacy activities, many which can take advantage of technology.

Don’t get seduced by many for-profit companies who might say their proprietary software is “The Answer” to English Language Learner instruction, or who claim that using it can let schools increase the teacher/student ratio.

Attitude Towards Research :

Do respect language acquisition research which has found that ELLs progress through several stages of language acquisition. Generally students progress much more quickly from the beginning to intermediate level (often taking two-three years) than from intermediate to advanced proficiency (often taking four or more years).

Don’t buy the argument that students who are immersed in all-English instruction will quickly become fluent, and don’t support the policies proposed and implemented in some states requiring ELLs to move into mainstream classes after just one year of school.

In the Aesop’s fable, “The Tortoise and the Hare,” the hare demonstrates arrogant self-confidence over the tortoise. We can only hope for the sake of our English Language Learner students that policymakers who promote the “Don’ts” on our list do make the same mistake that the hare did, so that the promoters of the “Do’s” can end up winning the race.


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