Abel, Nov 2004
updated 4-2008
revised 11-2009

Revised 11-14-12

Revised 1-26-14

What's new in Texas?

ells in classroom

Since 2002, there has been a dramatic rise in ESL students in the classroom.

READ “A Language Explosion for English Language Learners”



Tips for working with Spanish-speakers
and English Language Learners:

You often hear people arguing over how best to teach ESL students.
(English is their Second Language) Many now say ELL (English Language Learners).

Who is right?

Let's suppose:
you have a 4th grade English Language Learner (ELL) student placed in the classroom.
That student probably already knows how to read.  His only problem would be learning English.  Once he learns the new language, then he can transfer his PK (knowing how to read in Spanish) to simply reading in his new language, English.  This may not be so easy, but at least it is do-able.

NOW Let's suppose:
you have a kindergarten ELL student entering your classroom.  This child does NOT know how to read.  This child may not have even developed print concepts. This child may not even know any letters of the alphabet.  THIS child has two jobs ahead.  He must learn to read  AND  he must learn to speak English.  PLUS, this child is even younger than the first.  What do you suppose would work best here?

When the 1st child (4th grader) comes to your classroom,
he can pick up an English book and read some of it.   Of course, he won't know what he is reading because he doesn't know English.  You could pick up a Spanish text and read some of it, too.  Example:  ola (hi)   mi casa (my house)   mi gato (my cat)
But you wouldn't know what you read and, of course you would mispronounce some words.    IF you look at the components at the top of this page, you will see that your main barrier to successful reading is going to be the 'vocabulary' component, even though we realize you will need some basic phonics instruction, too.


Our 2nd 'non-reader'
will have to face both of those components in order to learn to read.  He will have to learn "how to read" and he will have to learn the "language / vocabulary" as well.   Both components must be mastered for this child before he sees success.

I suppose if our schools offered a risk-free setting in which our 2nd 'non-reader' had time to make the many necessary adjustments of acquiring the language plus learning how people read, we might find our student doing just fine.  But, until that happens, we stand the chance of frustrating these students and turning them off to learning entirely.

Working with ESL students:

Let's look at two ESL students:

Danny has a family who is well educated and has been reading to him in Spanish almost from the moment he was born.  They have been doing just about everything they could be doing to support him in his early years--they have surrounded him with love and support, interacted with him daily as he acquired impressive facility with the language, modeled for him the importance and excitement of reading, and gave him many concrete experiences to lay a strong foundation for learning once he enters kindergarten.  Danny is REALLY ready to read on his first day of school.  His only problem seems to be that he finds himself in a school where no one speaks Spanish!

Maria, on the other hand, has had a troublesome experience almost from the moment she was born.  Her family has traveled from town to town in search of employment and there have been many times food did not get on the table.  Meeting Maria's basic needs has been the primary challenge and focus for this family, with little time or interest directed toward much else.  Maria's parents are not educated enough to realize how important even simply reading a story to her at night (even in Spanish) could be helping set Maria in a better position for reading success once she enters kindergarten.  Maria arrives on her first day of school with no preparation and PK for reading success in place and she also has the same problem Danny has--no one speaks her language at school! To compound things, Maria's Spanish is not developed at the high level of Danny's.

As with all children in the classroom, these two children are as different as night and day.

It is important to consider what the child can do in his first language.
(We look at PK in regular students; these ESL students all have different PK, as well.)
It is important to find out if his family supports learning the new language--even learning, in general.
It is important to continue the development of the first language (L1); it will help provide the foundation to support learning in the 2nd one (L2).  If that first language is weak, it must be improved or there is nothing for the new language to cling to.  IF you decide to teach a brand new language, then recognize that that is what you are doing, but it is a lot easier to build onto an existing strong first one.  Minimally, mom and dad can be reading in Spanish to these children at home to continue language progress and to lay a foundation for print concepts to be built, to possibly even begin reading!  Connections can easily be made between "reading" in one language to "reading" in another.  Reading is reading!  The language issue basically makes it take a little longer.  This, in no way, is saying that learning English in America is not a primary goal.  In order to participate fully in this country, and in fact the world, we must learn to use the English language.  We do not want any child to be prevented from accessing the system.   We are just trying to figure out how best to do this.  Just as we wait to make an issue about “academic” grammar (CALP) and correct spelling for English speaking children in our classroom, so we can wait until the children have learned to read in Spanish before we provide them with incentive and purpose to learn to read in English.  The debate continues regarding which approach is most effective and certainly the unique context in which it occurs plays an important role.

What can be helpful:
For the ESL students in your classroom; try some of these ideas:


When teaching ELLs

Their speaking (expressive) may be low but ‘understanding’ (receptive) can be high.

Find ways to help child express what s/he knows through graphs, demonstrations, buddy support.

Challenge the child’s thinking—just because he can’t speak the language doesn’t mean he can’t think higher thoughts; must continue learning

Find ways to teach your subject when child can’t read text (videos, hands-on experiences, cooperative groups sharing, high interest/low level texts, technology, read more expository books that help build content and vocabulary for future academic areas)

Encourage ELLs to “want’ to learn and USE English (make it risk free)

“Wait” for ELLs to speak and respond, use visuals when teaching, speak slowly and enunciate clearly (not loudly)

Repetition helps, survival words help, labeling can help

Keep first language growing / transfer can occur from one language to the other

Teach and post survival words / permit to use glossary and refer to word walls

It is natural for ELLs to code-switch as they learn a new language (mix the languages, using one when don’t know same in other lang)

Speak clearly and slowly so they can hear the specific sounds in the words you say and so they can keep up as they transfer from one lang to other

You may teach the young ones phonemic awareness even before they know the English language and this can be particularly helpful in prep for reading

Theories for working with ESL students


Behaviorist view – forming habits from imitation and practice

Innatist view – Chomsky – born with ability to discover language

Natural Order view – Krashen – predictable way to learn language

(4 predictable levels, must be comprehensible input, reduce affective filter, monitor learning)

Long’s Interaction view – social interaction helps develop lang.

Schmidt’s Noticing view – must notice gaps /need to begin learning

Socio-Cultural view – social interaction facilitates (best in Vygotsky’s zone)

Swain’s Output view – must use language to improve it

Information Processing – like everything else, becomes better with practice (fluency)




What does the Research say?

Free online reading from your government:
Beginning on page ll / You will probably find pages 22-32 most helpful.


Handout of Strategiesmake a copy


Language Development:
1st  listening (understands but does not speak the language well)
2.  early production (begins talking)
3.  speech emergence (gets point across)
4.  intermediate fluency (becoming fluent)Focus is on "meaning" [BICS]
5.  native fluency [CALPS]


During the pre-production stage, children enter a “quiet” period in which they don't speak at all, except to speakers of their native language. This period can last up to several months. This is a time when they are listening actively and gathering information about the new language. Although they are silent, children may use non-verbal forms of communication, such as pointing, pantomiming, and gesturing. When children have become somewhat proficient at understanding the second language as it is spoken to them, they enter a stage of early production in which they use telegraphic speech. Telegraphic speech refers to the use of one- or two-word phrases to communicate much longer ideas. For example, a child at this level may point and simply say “ball.” They may really mean: “Please give me the ball.” Then, most children enter the speech emergence stage. At this stage, children use new vocabulary and their growing knowledge of English grammar to build sentences. They understand more than they can produce orally. Throughout this process, the focus is on meaningful communication rather than on linguistic accuracy. When children enter the final stage, intermediate and advanced fluency, they are able to speak using grammar and vocabulary comparable to their English-speaking peers. (Searchlight)

Children's native languages are the foundation for their future language and literacy growth. The stronger that foundation, the greater the likelihood that children will be successful English readers later on. Children are still learning a great deal about their native languages when they enter kindergarten. According to Snow, Burns, and Griffin, excellent literacy instruction in multilingual settings may be possible “if children's home languages are taken into account in designing instruction.” When possible, provide some instruction in a child's native language. Children who are literate in their native language can apply their knowledge to the second language that they are learning to read. Knowledge can transfer from one language to another. Literacy skills that can transfer include phonemic awareness, alphabetic knowledge, and decoding.

Keep in mind,  most people can LISTEN at a level ABOVE their speaking and, in the early grades, above their reading level.  People who are learning to speak a new language, can also listen ABOVE the level they speak and, when learning to read, ABOVE the level they read, too.


Bilingual children often pronounce words differently because of the way they are used to hearing them.  Although children are born "international" and capable of learning ANY language, when certain language sounds are NOT used or heard, people become deaf to those phonemes (Newsweek, 2005). This explains why Japanese may not hear the difference when saying "fried rice," mispronouncing it "flied rice."  Many people still carry an accent from their first language even though they changed to speaking fluent English long ago.

Some differences
you may hear:
sh = ch
y = j  (yard = jard  and vv.)
B, V = v/b
th =  t or  d 

For instance, they may say, "I want dat" instead of "I want that" because the "th" doesn't exist in Spanish so they may not be able to make that sound.

i = e  (trip = treep)  Short   i   is the most difficult since there are NONE in Spanish.
z = s (no hard Z sound in Spanish)

Little or no pronunciation of single final consonant sounds
becaue most spanish words do not usually end with these:
t, m, n, d, k, b
(Most words in spanish end in vowels.)

Final consonant clusters in English (-st, -mp, -rt) are often difficult
because these clusters do not occur in Spanish.

Sometimes the /s/  is left off of the word  (walks = walk)
Past tense -ed may not be heard.
-ingmay be left off of progressive forms of verbs.

Verb confusions are common.  (have = has;  went = goes; men = mans; children = childrens)


The syntactic system is different.
Young spanish-speaking students will have to learn to say: "This is my red sweater"
When, in their own language, it would sound like this: "This is my sweater red."

These seemingly small differences add up and can cause quite a bit of confusion for the ELL.

The same also holds true to some degree for the dialect speaker
Where in the first language (and many linguists insist it is indeed a "language"),
The child may be used to saying: "I ain't got none"
He now must learn to say: " I don't have any"
Another example:  "He be eating rice."
Now he must learn to say: "He is eating rice."


Literacy skills that transfer include phonemic awareness,  alphabetic knowledge, and decoding


ELLs NEED and ‘can learn’ phonological awareness (and phonemic awareness) in ENGLISH
In fact, P.Awareness practice is helpful for ELLs and children at risk for dyslexia. 
It is best taught by integrating these activities into the classroom day (bus line, lunch line, etc) .
Also helpful - working in small groups where children have more opportunities for practice.

ELLs have a hard time with "rimes"  (not rhymes) because  there are very few single syllable words to work with.
Where we teach many one-syllable words when learning to read, Spanish has mostly
multisyllable words.
Example: house (casa)  cat (gato)  how (como) green (verde)

Spanish is more aligned with letter-sound matches (more transparent) so it is easier to use the alphabetic principle in Spanish than in English with its many irregular words (considered an opaque language).

In Spanish, children just need to learn the vowels and letters and they’re off and ‘reading.’

Both languages are alphabetic, so it is important to teach the letter-sounds and to show how the alphabetic principle works and to provide them with practice “using” it (decodable text) until they have mastered this concept and have become automatic (automaticity / fluent).

An explicit systematic and multisensory approach works best for strugglers and ELLs / as we all know, some children learn to read no matter what approach we use.



Bottom Line - We are not changing the language being used in the home.
Our goal is to teach “academic” English, or CALPS (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency Skills) so that all Americans can communicate with each other on a sophisticated level. The TEKS says that all students must learn the conventions of our English language. Teachers must do their best to find a way to help their students master the English language.  There is more than one way to do this effectively.

Learn more about different Languages.

What's New - ELPS !
Read Abel's, "ELPS on a Page" . . . a  simple summary

You will be expected to write the ELPS (LO TEKS) on your lesson plans.


What's New – TELPAS!
Read about it here:


Speaking Levels:

BEGINNING = little or no English ability

INTERMEDIATE = limited ability, simple lang structures, high frequency vocab, routine contexts

ADVANCED= grade appropriate, w second language acquisition support

ADVANCE HIGH = grade appropriate w minimal second lang acquisition support



Teacher Training and ESL Resources: http://www.tea.state.tx.us/student.assessment/ell/  and http://www.tea.state.tx.us/student.assessment/ell/telpas/

Using SPEAK strategies with English Language Learners http://www.education.sfasu.edu/ele/classes/abel/language/OvercomingPovertyAERA2013.ppt

Special Paths to Literacy http://www.education.sfasu.edu/ele/classes/abel/318spec_ed.pdf

"Working with Second Language Learners: Answers to Teachers' Top Ten Questions" by Stephen Cary
2000 / Heinemann ISBN:  0-325-00250-0  p. 6

"Phonics Research and Instruction"  Logan, Rupley, Erickson  1995 / Kendall/Hunt Publishers
ISBN:  0-7872-1499-x  p. 72-3

Govt. web addresses:
"Bilingualism and Second-Language Learning" Begins on page ll / pp. 22-32 most helpful.
"Educating Language Minority Children" (l998)
National Academy Press