Action 3

Plan differentiated language instruction around the conceptual knowledge and language development of ELLs. 

Every student has a distinct personality, life history, and educational background. Influenced by these experiences and opportunities, every language learner, at any given time, has a unique language learning portrait with varying levels of proficiency in each of the domains of listening, speaking, reading, and writing. By understanding students’ strengths and current levels of language proficiency, educators can plan for and monitor their progress along the language development continuum.


The complexity of vocabulary and linguistic patterns increases as language develops from a beginning stage of the language to native-like language proficiency (Goldenberg, 2008). Empirical research indicates that progress from beginning to mid levels of English language proficiency is relatively rapid in comparison with middle to upper levels of proficiency (Hakuta et al., 2000; Howard et al., 2003; Lindholm-Leary, 2001; Thomas & Collier, 2002). Different amounts of time are necessary to reach proficiency depending on where a student begins on the scale (Cook & Zhao, 2011).
Once students’ level of language proficiency is known, scaffolding may be used to help the learner “move toward new skills, concepts, or levels of understanding” (Gibbons, 2002, p. 10). In his work on the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), Vygotsky (1978) described learning opportunities as interactions that are challenging but also within reach for the learner. Information about the backgrounds of the students, including their linguistic and content abilities, is key to plan and deliver differentiated instruction to optimize opportunities for learning (Tomlinson, 2003; Fairbairn & Jones-Vo, 2010).


The Performance Definitions are central to understanding and implementing language standards as they describe the milestones of language development, from level 1, Entering, through level 5, Bridging. In essence, the Definitions holistically illustrate what constitutes each level of language proficiency according to three criteria: 1. Linguistic Complexity, 2. Language Forms and Conventions, and 3. Vocabulary Usage. These criteria delineate the expectations of receptive language (listening and reading) and productive language (speaking and writing) across the language development continuum, always within a sociocultural context.
Information about student background, including linguistic and content abilities, is key to plan and deliver instruction to optimize opportunities for learning (Tomlinson, 2003; Fairbairn & Jones-Vo, 2010).
The Performance Definitions apply to all ELLs from Kindergarten through Grade 12; therefore, educators need to ensure that their interpretation is developmentally appropriate for their students’ ages. For example, producing “organized, cohesive, and coherent expression of ideas,” which typifies level 5, Bridging, looks much different for a 7-year-old than a 17-year-old. Additionally, the youngest ELLs in Kindergarten and grade 1, like their peers, are just beginning the road to literacy; therefore, the language expectations for these students must take into account their early stage of literacy development.


By José Reyes, Gadsden, NM 
Schools throughout New Mexico are challenged to meet the needs of ELLs as well as those of students who are fluent in English. New Mexico classrooms serve the highest percentage of Hispanic students in the nation and a high percentage of Native American students, second only to Alaska. In addition to Spanish, there are eight different indigenous languages spoken in New Mexico, some of which are traditional oral languages that have existed for hundreds of years and are not written. Many students bring to their school classrooms cultures and linguistic structures that are fundamentally different from a “standard” English-speaking tradition. The diversity that students bring to school must be highly valued as resource to build upon.
Our district is located in southernmost part of the state, bordering with Mexico. In fact, the language minority (Spanish) is the majority in this region of the state. Our kindergarten teachers make a home visit at the beginning of each school year to make observations of home life and home language to inform instruction. Our district policies ensure that teachers have information about students’ language use to make appropriate program and school placement appropriate to their language goals and language proficiency in their various languages. This practice allows educators to broaden their view of the language portrait of students to include all of the languages in their lives.
By Martha Mason Miller, Roseville, MN
Many ELLs who enter American secondary schools for the first time do so with limited formal education, but also rich experiences, often beyond our imaginations. When I plan content instruction, I strive to connect it to their lives and to honor their experiences. Building the academic background that is assumed in American high schools is a great challenge for educators. The key to ELLs’ learning is to differentiate using language that is appropriate to their language proficiency levels.
In order to introduce basic science vocabulary and the concept and procedures of scientific investigation illustrative of scientific discourse to students at the entering or emerging levels, our class engages in hands-on real life science. Students practice new skills in a cooperative environment. They also engage in critical thinking as they question their results and participate in intense discussions in their first languages, and later explain their outcomes to me in English. In their science notebooks, they draw and label diagrams and write simple hypotheses, materials, procedure, and results. The group works together with the stronger students clarifying complex ideas in their L1 to other students.
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