Zaiba Beg standing in classroom next to window and plants
Photo by Christine Cousins

Supporting the Success of English Language Learners in Every Classroom

Zaiba Beg

Working now as an instructional coordinator for ESL/ELD programs in Canada’s second largest school board, I realize it was as a classroom teacher that I learned most about teaching English language learners. Ten years ago, I taught the most multilingual class of my career at a school in central Mississauga. An urban centre, sprawling with skyscraper condominiums, Mississauga is a favourite for newcomer families from a myriad of cultures, religions, family situations and life experiences. Children and parents in my school spoke 50 different languages; students in my class spoke 15. Ten of my students were early, beginner English language learners (ELLs). One of them was born during a war that impacted her prenatal and postnatal development; at nine years old, she was still facing a multitude of complexities as a learner including what was suspected to be PTSD. An additional six students were supported through IEPs (one was a student with ASD and three were gifted learners). The rest of my class consisted of Canadian born students whose parents immigrated to Canada in recent years. Such varied class composition was typical in my school. Each day, we, the teaching team, found ourselves as curious about our students as they were about learning.

In my current role as an instructional coordinator for ESL/ELD programs, I cherish the moments when I can co-learn with collaborative educator teams in different schools. So many interesting teacher inquiry questions emerge from professional conversations about multilingual learners:

  • How can we document the learning of our students who are not comfortable writing in English yet?
  • How can we access the deep learning happening in a class using students’ first languages, while also encouraging them to take risks in their new language?
  • How can we use culturally responsive texts and themes so learners will be authentically immersed in their own learning, bringing their own lives and experiences into our next unit of study?
  • What types of tasks can we co-design as a grade level team so that even the ELLs who need 1:1 support can produce something complex and new for others to learn from in the class?
  • How might we strategically embed some direct teaching while we continue with a constructivist approach in order to better support newcomer ELLs who may not have yet engaged in multi-step problems and investigations?
  • Who inside and outside of the school can partner with us in supporting the students in our next learning journey?
  • What are we valuing about the learning in the classroom and how do ELLs and their parents know that?

Classroom teachers know this heterogeneous group of students as so much more than their level of proficiency in the language of instruction. Our mandate is, and always has been, to understand and support the whole learner. Increasing numbers of students are coming into the education system needing some ESL/ELD support. Funding and resources are scarcer than ever. Now is the time to consider adding and refining pedagogies that will enhance our ability to reach multilingual learners.

Culturally Responsive Practice

Mary Samuel, former staff Development Officer for Equity in the Peel Board, defined culturally responsive practice as including instructional practices that reflect the language, vocabulary, lived experiences, and learning styles of as many students as possible. A powerful illustration can be seen when ELLs and other students co-create  identity texts . This strategy provides a space and an authentic platform for students to incorporate their lived experiences, voices and unique narratives into the classroom and the world beyond the classroom. Identity texts, whether expressed through digital tools, the arts or other modes, can redefine the power relationships among learners and teacher because students are supported to be the creators of knowledge shared in the learning community. Students’ backpacks are viewed as fulsome, packed with rich and varied prior experiences.

Culturally responsive practice can play out in the day-to-day choices we make to ensure equity in the classroom. Adapting learning resources, assessment strategies and instructional supports for ELLs shifts the experience for these learners. This practice is foundational to the other practices described here because it facilitates the ongoing success of ELLs in our classrooms and in the school at large.

Assessment for Learning

Assessment for learning supports all learners and is critical in supporting the success of ELLs. It is described in Growing Success  (2010) as the ongoing process of gathering and interpreting evidence about student learning for the purpose of determining where students are in their learning, where they need to go and how best to get there. The information gathered is used by teachers to provide feedback and adjust instruction and by students to focus their learning. We should use this type of assessment most of the time for ELLs. When we provide ELLs with descriptive feedback based on learning goals and success criteria they developed with us, they can be owners of their learning, even if they are still acquiring language. During a writing or reading conference, while ELLs are engaged in sharing their latest responses, educators can constructively pinpoint one or two critical areas for them to improve. When we take time to observe students during the design of a fair test in science, we can honour the process of their learning as well as the final report, which alone may not reflect all they know about the experimental process. Assessment for learning works especially well as we assess students’ language proficiency using the Steps to English Proficiency (STEP) framework. STEP clearly describes incremental gains English language learners make as they move from beginning levels using everyday English to intermediate and advanced levels of academic language proficiency. The framework is criterion-based so student assessment is based on the individual’s language journey, while students are also meeting curriculum expectations. Assessment  for learning makes progress transparent for ELLs, parents/guardians and teachers so everyone knows what comes next. This approach helps us be present for our students and see them for who and where they are now. More powerfully, we understand and they recognize how far they have come.

Pedagogical Documentation

Pedagogical documentation can take assessment  for and as learning to a new level by positioning us as responsive researchers about ELLs in our very own classrooms. ESL and classroom teachers can examine and describe photos of students working through a design process over several weeks, analyze written-down conversations between two ELLs at a learning centre as they experiment with new language structures and notice trends in collections of student-created representations of mathematical reasoning over time. Teachers might listen to students’ interview questions during a podcast where they pose as settlers of early Canada or even narrate observations over a video segment of ELLs engaged in literature circles for the first time. Pedagogical documentation assists us as we listen to and observe learning closely while it is happening so that student thinking is visible. By capturing learning in a variety of ways it can be examined and interpreted in collaboration with other educators to understand ELLs’ learning and how to move our practice forward. Although pedagogical documentation has roots in internationally recognized early years pedagogy, it is being embraced in Ontario beyond the early years because of its depth of focus on learning and listening as opposed to teaching and telling. This approach can be extremely beneficial for our day-to-day work with ELLs because it is asset-oriented. Through pedagogical documentation we are observing and describing what students are doing, saying and representing – we learn more about what ELLs already know. We honour receptive language, gestures and approximations of language as valid expressions of learning. It helps us answer critical questions many early years practitioners are accustomed to asking “Why this learning for this learner at this time, in this way?”


The benefit of ‘strategic’ use and ongoing development of the first language in learning a new language is well known in education. Yet, recent international research is highlighting how we might revolutionize the concept of incorporating ELLs’ linguistic strengths in the regular classroom through translanguaging. Dr. Ofelia Garcia (2012) defines translanguaging as the language practices of bilingual people. She explains that bilingual people naturally have flexible use of their linguistic resources to make meaning of their lives. Translanguaging includes speaking languages interchangeably to support understanding and to make sense of the world. Providing a space for students to actively compare their own languages with the languages of peers during learning, inviting ELLs to use any of their languages to make meaning of a new concept and supporting students to create class charts and materials that incorporate multilingual texts can all pave the way for a meta-awareness of students’ languages in your classroom. This approach is helpful to ELLs because it supports ELLs to develop all of their linguistic resources, all of the time. Dr. Roma Chumak Horbatsch provides a term, linguistically appropriate practice (LAP) to help us understand what is possible in our classrooms when we keep an open mind and realize that we ourselves need not be experts in all of the languages spoken in the classroom. Translanguaging offers ELLs so many more entry points to meet curriculum expectations while making sense of their new language in


Tree branch covered in monarch butterflies

In July of 2007, my life changed forever – by attending a workshop. I remember reading the flyer. “Best workshop I’ve ever taken,” raved one teacher. Really? I wondered how they could spend three days talking about one thing – the monarch butterfly.