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 the process. While it supports ELLs to access resources they already bring into our classrooms, it may even counteract the societal stigma still associated with holding on to home languages in a dominant monolingual English culture.

Desiging Rich Tasks Across the Curriculum

On average, ELLs take five to seven years to develop the academic language essential for success in school. Counter-intuitively, research about Canadian-born ELLs indicates they may need even more time for this development! We will go off course in our programming if we understand ESL support to be remedial in nature. We have already established that ELLs in Ontario schools spend most of their time in the regular classroom. It is then in this learning environment that we are tasked to provide students with rich learning opportunities within their zone of proximal development so they may acquire the language they need for academic purposes. Just as with other students in our class, tasks and assessments should require ELLs to apply knowledge, think critically and analyze and synthesize in new situations and contexts. Creative and critical thinking actively involves ELLs in process, planning and sharing, along with providing opportunities for reflection and time to think and rethink through actions. Our goal is to ensure everyone in the class is essentially immersed in learning the same big ideas and essential understandings. Classroom teachers of ELLs do this through problem-based learning such as open math tasks, design projects in science where children are testing and improving structures of floating devices, a timed marble run or model vehicles. Inquiry-based learning in social studies where students are challenged to understand real world phenomena like animal migration patterns, irrigation innovations or population trends motivate ELLs to learn and use vocabulary in context. It is within these learning contexts that we work hard to provide maximum scaffolding and new challenges. Technology is just one of many tools to facilitate rich learning. Finding ‘just right’ resources and appropriate entry points for ELLs can be complex. Hence the next key practice involves finding allies in your school to do this work with you.

Collaborative Practice

ELLs’ success is surely a shared responsibility. We cannot do this alone, nor should we. Collaborative practice is a lifeline for us as classroom teachers with linguistically diverse students. It can unfold in so many ways. In schools I have had the pleasure of working in, it has sometimes been two teachers of the same grade level sharing wonderings about one or two ELLs. Or sometimes collaboration can be initiated by using a new sentence frame, an adapted assignment or vocabulary strategy and then debriefing how it went with the colleague across the hall. It is worth advocating for professional learning time to do this work in structures that are readily available at your school (e.g. team meetings, staff meetings and onsite PD opportunities) because we all need time to adapt programming (accommodations and/or modifications), co-plan appropriate scaffolds and understand ELLs’ learning. Together, when we can deconstruct the language demands in our math and science curriculum we position ELLs to access more rigorous expectations. When we collaborate, we also co-assess. Together, we understand how students progress from one level/step of English language proficiency to another. This collaboration can go beyond teamwork at a grade level or between classroom teachers to include support teachers, ESL/ELD teachers, instructional coaches, teacher-librarians, administrators and even district curriculum support leaders. A collaborative approach to planning can lead to seamless coordinated support and responsive models of delivery. Homework tasks from the ESL teacher or classroom teacher can be better connected to English language learners’ daily learning. We can design schedules and timetables that are responsive to ELLs as their learning needs change. These types of partnerships allow us to build new knowledge about teaching and learning. Where this becomes the culture to support ELLs, these relationships can nudge us into further inquiry, ultimately providing a richer program for ELLs while also making teaching more enjoyable!

Reflecting back on interactions with ELLs in my years in the classroom, I learned to be cautious about making assumptions about the new learners I met. In hindsight, it was the ELLs who puzzled me the most that helped me make the program I delivered responsive for all students. I can look back now knowing that if the learning environment was richer, it was undoubtedly a tribute to them. Investing energy to develop even one of these six practices with ELLs in mind can truly transform how learning happens. There is an undeniable hopefulness in this work. It is reassuring to know that a hub of possibilities and innovative practice does indeed reside in each of our classrooms.

Zaiba Beg has been teaching for twenty years and is a member of the Peel Teacher Local. Currently, she is the Instructional Coordinator of ESL/ELD Programs of the Peel District School Board and chairs the ETFO ESL Standing Committee.