TESOL Connections

Quick Tip: Individualized Spelling Lists for ELLs

by Alma L. Contreras-Vanegas

Though it may seem like a time consuming or difficult task, preparing individualized spelling lists for your English language learners is actually not all that hard—and these lists help your students acquire vocabulary at their own pace and learning levels. Learn how to provide individualized spelling lists to your students here. 

Audience: Elementary through secondary, beginner to advanced

Individualized spelling lists greatly help all students, especially English language learners (ELLs). ELLs learn at their own pace and learning level, which in turn builds their vocabulary. Teachers of ELLs have many ways to scaffold their students’ vocabulary learning by prioritizing which spelling words to teach first. It may sound difficult and time consuming, but providing each ELL with an individualized spelling list is more feasible than it sounds.

1. How to Choose Words

Teachers may choose spelling words students misspell in their journals (e.g., math, science, social studies, and language arts). This process can be facilitated by carrying a clipboard to take quick notes on what words students misspell. Another way to choose words for the spelling lists is to use those words they do not know while reading or words that will appear during the week’s reading story. If students misspell words in the previous week’s spelling list, they can use the same words until they master them. At the beginning of the school year, teachers may provide a general spelling list in order to assess their students’ levels.

2. Different Spelling List Options

Not all students need to have 15 to 20 spelling words. Some students will benefit from shorter spelling lists in order to focus on learning both meaning and spelling (Petrón & Contreras-Vanegas, 2014). Some ELLs may need to focus on sight words longer than others. Therefore, some students may need half of their spelling list to be sight words while others may have only a few sight words.

3. When to Assign Spelling Words

Teachers decide when it is best to provide new spelling words to students, whether that be at the beginning or end of the week. Teachers collect words to include on the individual spelling lists throughout the week, but not all need to be given at once. As teachers collect spelling words, they will prioritize which are most relevant or important for the following week.

4. Setting Student Expectations

As all students have individualized spelling lists, it may be difficult for the teacher to provide a spelling test to every student. Therefore, students may quiz each other. Teachers should have clear guidelines regarding how these quizzes should take place.

The teacher can begin by creating an “Honesty Contract.” This may include the teacher talking to the class as to what it is to be honest. Once the Honesty Contract is written and agreed upon, the teacher may move onto modeling how students can quiz each other.

5. Assessment

The teacher will pair up students according to their English proficiency levels. Pairing up ELLs according to their proficiency is important to scaffold them to the next level. For example, a beginner may be paired up with an intermediate student as they may learn from one another. If a beginner is paired up with an advanced ELL, then the beginner will have a difficult time with the pronunciation of his or her partner’s vocabulary words, and this may affect his or her self-esteem. After students are paired up according to their English proficiency levels, they quiz each other. Students may grade the quizzes themselves or the teacher can grade them at a later time.


Petrón, M., & Contreras-Vanegas, A. L. (2014). Let common sense prevail: Differentiating spelling lists for English language learners in the early grades. Advocate: A Journal for Education of and Advocacy for Young Children, 33(1), 26–31. Retrived from http://www.haaeyc.org/docs/Advocate_Spring2014.pdf


Alma L. Contreras-Vanegas, PhD, is an assistant professor at Sam Houston State University teaching in the department of Language, Literacy, and Special Populations. Her research interests include bilingual/dual language education and ELL writing development.


Free TESOL Journal Article: "Taking Digital Stories to Another Level: Making Documentaries"

by Gilda Martinez-Alba

Digital stories can allow students to share information about themselves and their culture, facilitate students learning about one another, and increase student motivation. Take digital stories one step further: Author Gilda Martinez-Alba discusses the steps and structure involved with making a short documentary with your English language students, which can teach about course content, history, science, and so much more. 

This article first appeared in TESOL Journal, Volume 5, Number 4, pgs. 743–749. TESOL members can access all issues for free here. To become a member of TESOL, please click here, and to purchase articles, please visit Wiley-Blackwell. © TESOL International Association.

Using digital stories to have students tell about themselves, share their culture with the class, and learn from each other can help with establishing rapport, shows respect for different cultures, and can be motivating for students and their language teachers. However, what happens after that? After making their first video, students have some basic background knowledge about making a video; therefore, it would be advantageous to use this new knowledge and build on it by taking video making to the next step to make documentaries. Teachers and students could use the structure of a documentary to build language skills while improving their video editing skills to create interesting short documentaries, which can teach about the course content, history, science, health, citizenship, and so on. This article will cover the steps and structure involved in making a documentary, tips for making it look and sound good, and ideas for free editing software for the computer as well as the phone and iPad.
doi: 10.1002/tesj.169

A digital story is usually provided by a first person and the focus is on the process of making it rather than on the product or the film itself. It can be thought of as an emerging documentary form, because it provides facts and perhaps even wants to make people think differently about a topic, whereas, in a documentary, multiple viewpoints bring together a topic, and the product is as important as the process of making it (Sanchez-Laws, 2010). Documentaries are also more structured than digital stories. Renov (1993) stated that there are four aspects to a documentary: to uncover, influence, examine, and explain. Digital stories may include some or all of these areas, but tend to be more personal in nature and are not bound to including these.

Fehn and Schul (2011) researched what aspects of documentaries students submitting to the National History Day contest had, and they found that students found images and made video recordings, edited their films, narrated them, included a soundtrack such as music and sound effects, interviewed experts, and provided citations. They concluded that “new technologies can work powerfully to engage the cognitive and affective skills of teachers and students” (p. 40). They can also be used to develop the language domains of reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Another study conducted in an eighth grade history class of students making documentaries showed that students were interested in the process, were motivated, and demonstrated creativity in making the films (Swan & Hofer, 2013). It appears that making documentaries can be a useful method to get students actively learning, and future research will hopefully provide more insight into its uses in the classroom (Fehn & Schul, 2011).

Step One: The Topic

The story is the number one thing to keep in mind when making a documentary. What is the story going to be about? Is it compelling? It has to be something that would be of interest to a certain audience (West, 2010), and that the student making it is passionate about in order for it to unfold into an interesting film. Brainstorming potential topics in class to get students thinking about different ideas would help to get the process started.


Download the full article and references for free  (PDF)


This article first appeared in TESOL Journal, 5, 743–749. For permission to use text from this article, please go to Wiley-Blackwell and click on "Permissions" under "About This Journal."
doi: 10.1002/tesj.169

Tech Gems for Writing: 5 Ideas for Your Teaching Toolbox

by Lea Sobočan
How do you make writing relevant for your connected ELs? Try these easy and motivating tasks, useful for both low- and high-tech contexts. 

I live and work in a country, Slovenia, where we have a very interesting situation—my students are able to speak quite well; I frequently hear fluent English in my classroom; and the students can often use idioms and slang, and make elaborate English jokes. Where it all goes a bit pear-shaped is writing. Spelling is a constant act of warfare, and some students approach writing along the lines of “Let’s throw these letters together and hope for the best!”

The reasons for this situation are plentiful and complex, but I suspect the main reason is the students’ exposure to the spoken word from films, music, and TV. Whatever the reasons may be, I do try and deal with the situations that arise.

So how do I make writing relevant for my increasingly more connected students? I try to introduce writing exercises as much as possible, and technology often comes to the rescue. I try not to use complex apps or online tools too much, as I only have one computer in class, but instead try to find motivating tasks and, above all, to take the principles underlying the tools and make sure we can use it either in a low- or high-tech environment.

So here are a few writing exercises that work in a wide variety of contexts and are adaptable to several topics and levels. I will start with writing very short texts and progress to ideas for writing longer texts. The links below are free to use, bar one, and are my personal preferences.

Task 1: Writing and Snapchat

Snapchat often gets a bad rap because of its association with “sexting,” but the possibilities that the principle of Snapchat offers are endless.

Simply ask the students to take a picture of something connected to your lesson and write a caption. For the topic of living abroad, I asked my students to take a photo of a scene or an object that people moving to our country might find surprising and write a caption for it. You can make the exercise more challenging by giving the students a word they are required to use meaningfully in their caption. Similarly, you can have students show their photos to their classmates and have the classmates come up with a caption for it.

Snapchat offers its users the option to caption their photos, limiting the space to 34 characters. The character limitation can be viewed from two aspects: either you can see the opportunity as very limiting and therefore challenging, as the students need to compress their thoughts as much as possible, or a very liberating experience—after all, anyone can write 34 characters.

Task 2 : Short Bursts of Creativity With Twitter

Twitter is another principle that can be adapted to various levels and activities. You can ask your students to summarise your coursebook or ESP texts in 140 characters or fewer, or you can find a short Twitter story and have them write a full-length story based on the tweet, if they are advanced enough. You can give them some hashtags connected to your topic (like #pollution, #oceans) and ask them to come up with a tweet from a character in a story you are reading, or about the topic you are currently discussing. Don’t be afraid to go a bit out on a limb! For example, ask them to come up with a tweet Abraham Lincoln would post about #elections2014 or #SATresults.

Task 3: Leaning on the Already Written

Tackling a longer, more connected text is the first hurdle to my students’ path to success. I won’t pretend these next tips are foolproof, but I generally find that leaning on an established text prompt makes it much easier for the students to go about producing something of their own. But instead of a model, I try to urge students to creatively explore texts.

Text generators are quite well suited for this purpose for two reasons—first, you can use them again and again with different results, because the text they will generate will always be different, and, second, they are sometimes nonsensical or silly, which makes my students giggle. If they’re finding the text amusing, they will remember it better.

Generally, I use two different text generators: Movie Plot Generator delivers cookie-cutter movie blurbs and demands very low preparation time, whereas Plot Generator is extremely adaptable, as it allows you to set parameters and is therefore very useful if you want to practice specific vocabulary.

Here are some examples of adaptable exercises leaning on the text produced by the generators:

  • Write a dialogue or a scene where the two main characters first meet.
  • Write a flashback scene just before the big climax.
  • Write a passage in the novel the main character is reading right now.
  • Write the passage where the hero realizes he has been betrayed.
  • Write the opening/closing scene of the movie or paragraph of the novel.

There are many more that you are sure to come up with, and the students might enjoy suggesting their own tasks.

Task 4: Guiding You Through the Process

If your students enjoy exploring on their own, they might want to check the website The Amazing Word Tamer. An animated adventure in story writing, perhaps more suited for younger students, will take them from character portrayal through genres and plot points. If you have only one computer in class, it is still doable—create a collaborative effort where students can vote on which of their ideas will be finally typed into the computer.

Task 5: Writing Prompts

Teenagers make up the most inventive stories. If you doubt, take a look at any site that publishes “fanfiction” (fiction based on existing literature, television, movies, etc.). For inspiration on prompts that will interest your learners, might I suggest browsing through the following sites:

Reddit Writing Prompts: Take a look at the Writing Prompts, Constrained Writing, and Picture prompts. Reddit is populated mainly by young people, so you’re bound to find a prompt that will interest your students.

Writing Exercises and Write About  will give you random subjects to write about, random characters, random first lines, random dialogues to incorporate into your story…basically, a wealth of ideas you can use with little to no preparation in your classes. Writing Exercises is a free-for-all, however if you want your students actually publishing to Write About, you will need to pay a monthly fee. If you’re only looking for ideas, though, or would like to contribute to the website yourself, it is free of charge.

Of course, all this writing might lead to a pile of papers you might feel obliged to grade. Let them grade themselves, let them come up with their own grading rubric, let them take charge of their own learning. The purpose of the exercise is not to burden the teacher with editing texts, but to lead students onto a path of self-regulated learning and responsibilities.

The basic idea behind this article is that the best ideas for writing seem to be coming from the global community of young and old alike. So embrace this wonderful opportunity that is given to us and allow yourself to be inspired and use this wonderful source of writing ideas that is the Internet.


Lea Sobočan tries to divide her time between teaching in the Upper Secondary School of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Technical Gymnasium Ljubljana and volunteering for IATEFL Slovenia. Her special interests are ESP and teaching technologies and her goal in life is to write as few reports as she can get away with and spend as much time teaching as she can without being labeled a workaholic.


Teaching Talk: The Essence of Lesson Prep

by Christina Michaud and Marnie Reed
Learn to bridge the gap between student error and appropriate, learner-friendly lessons that will help your students build their linguistic knowledge. 

As fluent speakers of English, we know an example of tangled syntax, faulty diction, or (in the words of a colleague) plain old "infelicitous prose" when we see one. Our students typically do not (yet) have these same instincts about language, though, which is of course the reason they produce these errors in the first place. One of our most important jobs as ESL teachers is to bridge that gap: to channel our intuitions about language into succinct, learner-friendly chunks that we can use to help students build up their own linguistic knowledge.

Consider the following e-mail:

Dear professor,

I need your advise. I worried about my grade in your class. My first essay grade was disappointed, even I read many researches on the subject. Please correct up my second essay and give me some feedbacks!


Preparing an appropriate, useful, and efficient lesson to address the errors in this e-mail takes several steps.

Teacher Talk Lesson Prep Steps

Step 1: Identify the Errors

Set aside for the moment the obvious pragmatic gaffe: the (hypothetical) student who e-mailed this appeal for help (most likely mere hours before the essay in question was due) doesn't know that this missive is unlikely to be successful, and may in fact be seen as inappropriate or even rude. Still, it’s easy enough for us to notice the syntactic blunders here, and we could quickly correct them if we so chose. Our intuitive knowledge of English has gotten us this far, but simply being able to correct a learner’s error doesn’t yet help us teach the student how to correct this error on his or her own.

Step 2: Analyze the Source of the Errors

Moving beyond instinct, we can use our metalinguistic knowledge of English to analyze these errors. We can then say that the student writer of this e-mail does not yet know (among other things) that

  1. advice (letter C, sound /s/) is a noun, but advise (letter S, sound /z/) is a verb;
  2. worried can be a past-tense form of a verb, but in this context seems meant as a participial adjective, which requires the copula (verb to be);
  3. disappointed is the wrong participial adjective here—the student is disappointed, but her essay grade was disappointing;
  4. even, on its own, may be an adjective or an adverb but is not a subordinating conjunction such as even if or even though (the latter likely the best choice here);
  5. research (like feedback) is an uncountable noun, and so can't be pluralized; and
  6. correct is a transitive verb, not a phrasal one.

But now what? Lump all these errors into one “lesson,” and throw term after term at students? Clearly not. This analysis is necessary for our own understanding of students’ errors: now we may notice patterns (points 1, 2, and 4 all have to do with parts of speech; points 2 and 3 both relate to participles; etc.), perform triage, and compare this single student’s errors to those of the entire class.

Step 3: Develop “Teaching Talk” About Selected Errors

Given other high-frequency errors with participles (“Teacher, I am always so boring in my math class!”), we may decide to teach a minilesson on point 3, above. While prepping for the minilesson, we will set specific objectives for learners; plan how to introduce the topic; choose contexts for learners to practice these structures; and also practice our “teaching talk”—the boiled-down, clearest, and most succinct reminder for students about the source of the target error.

We can develop teaching talk for any topic in the language classroom and for any level of learners: pronunciation topics (e.g., word-level stress, as in economics vs. economist), vocabulary (say vs. tell, above, or uncountable nouns, or close synonyms with different connotations), writing (e.g., topic sentences), and grammar (missing copula, participle errors, etc.) all lend themselves well to this approach.

Examples of Teaching Talk

Teaching talk can take different forms. Sometimes, it is simply a short, clear definition of a key term, and sometimes a reminder of the source of an error, an analogy to a similar error learners have already mastered, or even a mnemonic device. Still other times, teaching talk may be in the form of a question.


Teaching Talk 

participle errors (bored vs. boring The “-ed” is for me. 
confusion of say vs. tell  Same meaning, different grammar. 
mispronunciation of regular past-tense
verb endings 
Is the final sound of the verb /t/ or /d/? If so, add an extra syllable. 
plurals on an uncountable noun like research or feedback  It’s like “money” and “luggage.” 

Advantages of Teaching Talk

  • Consistency across class days, sections, and semesters for teachers
  • Transparency for learners, who will encounter the same language repeated in class, reproduced in their class notes, and anticipated on quizzes (where applicable)
  • Increased metacognition for learners, who use it as prompts to recall lessons that had previously been taught, mentally run through certain checklists or strategy, and take responsibility for supplying the target form

Developing Teaching Talk

To organize the metalinguistic part of lesson prep, draw a big circle divided equally into thirds. Start at the bottom third of the circle: Recall the error that prompted this lesson, and with that in mind, write a language-based objective for the minilesson. Then, script what learners will be able to say after instruction in and practice with the target structure or pattern.

Step 1: Learners will be able to use past and present participial adjectives correctly:

That movie was really boring.
I’m always bored in my math class.
My essay grade was disappointing.
I’m disappointed in my grades this semester.

Move clockwise around the circle: In the next third of the circle, analyze the source of the error, and plan what to say when introducing this topic to learners and how to organize the blackboard (if applicable).

Step 2: We might say to students: “The ‘-ed’ is for me,” stressing (with diagrams, board work, cartoons, etc.) that bored/disappointed/thrilled/excited all point to the person experiencing the feeling (often the student speaker herself), while boring/disappointing/thrilling/exciting all point to the external thing or experience or person that provoked the emotion. After co-constructing a list of adjectives (contextualized, ideally), our board may look something like this:

Participial Adjectives 

Past Participle

Present Participle

-ed for me (speaker) -ing for things (experiences, other people) 
bored boring 
disappointed disappointing 
(etc.) (etc.)

Continue clockwise again, to the final third of the circle: By now, we’ve moved past our initial, simplistic correction of the error, thoroughly analyzed it, considered how to break it down for learners, and arrived at our teaching talk.

Step 3: “The ‘-ed’ is for me,” we’d like learners to say, if they’re stuck trying to think which participial adjective to use in a given sentence.

Draw a smaller circle in the center of the big circle, overlapping each segment, and recopy the teaching talk into the center circle, because the teaching talk is the essence of this entire minilesson. To see templates and other content to help with lesson planning, please refer to Goal-Driven Lesson Planning, listed below under Resources. 

Of course, our work as teachers doesn’t end here: We still have to come up with contexts for meaningful practice with the target structure, strategies for recycling last week’s vocabulary into the practice, plans for homework, and all of this with the daily, weekly, and unit objectives for our students in mind. Oh, and we also have to respond to that poor student, confused about her essay and desperately e-mailing us at 2 am—but this is a great start.


Reed, M., & Michaud, C. (2010). Goal-driven lesson planning for teaching English to speakers of other languages. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press.

Download this article (PDF)


Christina Michaud is a senior lecturer and ESL coordinator in the Writing Program at Boston University, teaching college-level academic writing to international students and mentoring new faculty. With Marnie Reed, she has coauthored Goal-Driven Lesson Planning for Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (University of Michigan Press, 2010).

Marnie Reed is associate professor of education and affiliated faculty in the Program in Applied Linguistics at Boston University. Her coauthored text, Goal-Driven Lesson Planning for Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, is drawn from her work as director of the graduate TESOL program and field supervisor for preservice English language teachers.

Academic Writing: Scaffolding for Beginning ELLs

by Allison Balter and Lindsey Mayer
With the CCSS, demands on ELs to acquire academic language are higher than ever. Use these methods to help your students make significant linguistic gains. 

As a result of the U.S. Common Core State Standards (CCSS), teachers must think more strategically than ever before about academic language, particularly for English language learners (ELLs). Across all disciplines, the CCSS emphasize academic language and vocabulary, increased text complexity, a focus on multiple genres of text, and writing using textual evidence (Gottlieb & Ernst-Slavit, 2014). Similarly, states that use the WIDA Standards for ELLs have seen a shift in the theory of language instruction—from a focus on language development in isolation to learning language through academic content.

Academic language is “the set of all words and phrases that (1) describe content area knowledge and procedures, (2) express complex thinking processes and abstract concepts, and (3) create cohesion and clarity in written and oral discourse” (Zweirs, 2005, p. 60). It is the key to success in today’s classrooms, and, in order to master it, students need explicit instruction at the word, sentence, and discourse levels (Gottlieb & Ernst-Slavit, 2014). According to most scales of English language development, ELLs begin to develop proficiency with academic language when they reach an intermediate level (Hong Xu, 2010). However, with new demands to develop academic language for all students, teachers are feeling more urgency around helping newcomers acquire these skills from the moment they enter our classrooms.

Based on our experiences teaching ESL in Grades 5–8 in Massachusetts, we argue that with the proper scaffolds, newcomers are capable of extended academic writing. Our method systematically scaffolds language, starting at the conceptual level and moving on to the word, sentence, and, finally, discourse level. This framework extends Zweirs’ (2008) bricks and mortar analogy of academic vocabulary, which defines content-specific vocabulary as “bricks,” and the general-utility words and phrases as the “mortar” that holds content-specific terms together (p. 22). By situating text structures in the context of thematic units, we help students understand the five commonly recognized expository text structures (Akhondi, Aziz Malayeri, & Abd Samad, 2011). The thematic vocabulary provides the bricks of language. Then, teachers develop students’ conceptual understanding, or “blueprint,” of a given text structure. Teachers support this blueprint with signal words (mortar) associated with the text structure. Together, the bricks and mortar create sentences, which act as “walls” that, when put together, form a “house,” or an extended, organized discourse in a specific text structure. The case studies below demonstrate an application of this framework to develop sequencing and compare-contrast texts.

When applied to two distinct middle school settings in urban Massachusetts districts, this approach led to significant academic and linguistic gains for newcomers, as evidenced by improved scores on standardized assessments of language development, increased quantity and quality of writing across multiple genres, and improved performance in content classes. Notably, all students in these classes had arrived in the country within the last year, many within only a few months.

Case Study #1: Sequence

In the first case study, the teacher introduced sequencing during a thematic unit on morning routines, which naturally lends itself to describing steps in a process. Once students had developed the foundational vocabulary (the bricks) and could use it in simple sentences (e.g., “The woman takes a shower.”), the teacher introduced the text structure of sequencing.

The teacher took several steps to lead students toward this text structure.

  1. First, she used picture supports to develop the conceptual blueprint of sequencing. She used pictures to show different phases of a plane trip— a process with clear steps, void of any linguistic barrier.
  2. Then, teacher introduced sequencing signal words (mortar)—first, next, then, and finally—attaching them to steps in a process.
  3. Next, students applied this concept to morning routines vocabulary. Using picture supports, bricks, and mortar, students constructed the walls—complete sentences describing each picture (e.g., “First, the man wakes up.”).
  4. After students had written sentences for each routine, the teacher modeled putting these sentences together to form a well-constructed house—a cohesive paragraph.

With repeated practice throughout the unit, beginner ELLs were able to write extended academic sequencing texts and apply this structure to other topics.

See the handout (docx), with student examples, on using sequence scaffolding.

Case Study #2: Compare & Contrast

In a different classroom, the teacher introduced the compare-contrast text structure using the same framework in a thematic unit on physical traits, a topic that easily demonstrates similarities and differences. After students learned foundational vocabulary (the bricks) for body parts—adjectives describing physical traits (tall, short, bald, etc.)—and practiced writing descriptive sentences about people and monsters, the teacher began introducing the compare-contrast text structure.

1. To establish the blueprint, the teacher activated background knowledge around the concepts of “same” and “different,” connecting this to the academic terms “compare” and “contrast.” Students looked at pictures of monsters and utilized a graphic organizer to identify similarities and differences in physical traits using familiar vocabulary and short phrases (green skin, three teeth, tall, no hair, etc.). This visual concept map supported the organizational structure of compare-contrast writing.

2. Next, the teacher introduced compare-contrast signal words within sentence frames:

• “________. However, ______.”
• “Both have _____.”

These sentence frames helped students situate the signal words in their correct syntactical context, thereby allowing students to combine descriptions of monsters’ physical traits (bricks) with compare-contrast signal words (mortar) to build sentences comparing and contrasting their monsters (walls).

3. Using a t-chart, they categorized “sentences that compare” and “sentences that contrast.” The teacher modeled how to use this organizer to construct the final product (house): a two-paragraph text comparing and contrasting their monsters.

Even students with limited formal education and L1 literacy skills were able to write these paragraphs using an extra scaffold of color-coded paragraph templates. Students continued practicing and applying this text structure throughout the thematic unit and again in subsequent units, each time relying on fewer scaffolds.

See the handout (docx), with student examples, on compare-contrast scaffolding.


These case studies demonstrate that, through strategic planning within the curriculum, teachers can systematically scaffold beginning ELLs’ academic language development. Starting at the conceptual level, then moving to the word, sentence, and, finally, the discourse level, even students with limited formal education and L1 literacy were able to “build the house” of an academic text.

While these cases reflect sequencing and compare-contrast, this same framework can be applied to other text structures (e.g., description, cause and effect, or problem and solution; for your reference and to see what these different approaches might look like, see this handout on text structures). Teachers should consider presenting the structures in a logical sequence, as they do increase in conceptual rigor. For example, sequencing is more straightforward and accessible than cause and effect. Further, they should consider which text structures are compatible with which thematic units.

Introducing these text structures within the ESL classroom, using familiar vocabulary, allows beginners to eventually apply them across the content areas, particularly in history, science, math, and language arts. Without an understanding of these text structures and the thought processes they represent, students will not be able to access important ideas, concepts, and relationships in the content—content to which they are held accountable. Whether or not newcomers feel ready for these academic demands, they are held accountable to them. However, as demonstrated through the case studies above, they are ready. They can do it. They have to. As teachers of ELLs, it is our responsibility to get them there, one brick at a time.


Akhondi, M., Aziz Malayeri, F., & Abd Samad, A. (2011). How to teach expository text structure to facilitate reading comprehension. The Reading Teacher, 64(5), 368–372.

Gottlieb, M., & Ernst-Slavit, G. (2014). Academic language in diverse classrooms: Definitions and contexts. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Hong Xu, S. (2010). Teaching English language learners: Literacy strategies & resources for K-6. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Zweirs, J. (2005). The third language of academic English. Educational Leadership, 62(4), 60–63. Retrieved from http://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ745443

Zweirs, J. (2008). Building academic language: Essential practices for content classrooms. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 

Download this article (PDF)
with handout 1 (docx) and handout 2 (docx)


Allison Balter is currently the director of English language learning for UP Education Network, a nonprofit school management organization in Massachusetts whose mission is to rapidly transform chronically underperforming schools in urban districts. She has taught ESL at the elementary and middle school levels in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and holds a Masters of Education from Boston University, where she also teaches courses in sheltered English instruction to new teachers.

Lindsey Mayer is currently in her sixth year teaching English as a second language at the Garfield Middle School in Revere, Massachusetts. A Teach For America alumna (Massachusetts, ‘09), she earned her BA in political science and global studies from Arizona State University, and holds a Masters of Education from Boston University.