chunking instruction support ELsIf I was given only 10 minutes to offer EL-best practices, I would share strategies that:

  1. require no additional prep time
  2. can be used across content areas

Chunking instruction, the act of intentionally pacing instruction to deliver one idea at a time or one step at a time, is a strategy that fulfills these two requirements while significantly improving learning for ELs.

A Metaphor for Chunking Instruction

To explain leading with a metaphor to my fellow teachers, first, I project a picture of a pizza and ask them, “How is a pizza like teaching ELs?”  

Chunking instruction for

Then, I ask the teachers to discuss the metaphor at their tables.  Here, I’m modeling the intentional use of small groups to increase engagement and foster critical thinking.

After a few minutes of talking, I have the small groups share their responses. Some of the responses that I’ve received before include:

  1. Every slice is different from the other
  2. There’s a diversity of flavors that work together to produce one product
  3. Teachers get a warm feeling when they work with ELs

Many times, teachers become overwhelmed thinking of all of the ways they need to differentiate learning for ELs, when some of the best things they can do are also the simplest, like leading with a visual metaphor.

Chunk Instruction

In addition to the thoughtful comparisons the teachers supplied above, I add that when we order a pizza, it comes with pre-cut slices.  Humans, no matter how hungry, cannot cram an entire pizza pie into their mouths.  Instead, we enjoy the pleasure of eating a pizza one slice at a time.

Similarly, ELs struggle with processing instruction that is unchunked – meaning when learning is presented in one way for the entire lesson. Examples of this include when a teacher lectures the entire period or when students must do one task for the whole class.  Instead, ELs strive when instruction is designed with various activities that help them access content.

Here are some ways to chunk your instruction so it’s easier for ELs to digest:

1. Add Images

Adding an image to represent an idea is the simplest way to scaffold instruction.  For example, when Mr. Arno teaches the concept of “precise” and “accurate”, he always uses the image below. As he shows each image, he describes the concept.  The image facilitates students’ ability to understand this highly abstract concept.  

Using images to teach ELs

2. Encourage Student Interaction

Design opportunities for students to talk about ideas and process information, such as small group or paired discussions.  Their answers probably won’t be correct, but the process is a much more active way of allowing them to learn the content by attempting to talk about it.

Instead of describing each image himself when he uses target graphic above, Mr. Arno ask students to discuss at their tables what each image means.  Again, he is not asking them to discuss all four diagrams at once – just one at a time.  After the students talk, he allows them to share their ideas.  Then, students debate back and forth.  This negotiating of meaning helps develop critical thinking and communication skills.  If the class cannot provide a correct answer through their collaboration, Mr. Arno then explains the correct answer.

Another way of thinking about student interactions is such: To cover content, the teacher talks at students. To learn content, students talk to each other.

3. Incorporate Technology

Students interacting with each other is not the only way that students can interact with the content.  Teachers can chunk instruction using technology.  After teaching a series of related concepts, Mr. Arno can use technology to have students process the information instead of just going onto the next concept.

Technology aids ELs in engaging with content.  I am thinking of apps and platforms such as:

  • Socrative: provides teachers with formative data by having students answer multiple-choice or true/false questions
  • Padlet: students produce quick, written responses
  • Buncee: students design engaging presentations
  • Adobe Spark: students create animated videos to communicate ideas
  • Google Draw: students draft an image that represents a concept
  • Google Translate: students translate keywords to increase comprehension of the topic or task.
  • Quizlet: students remember vocabulary from content classes by playing different games. Below is an image from a Quizlet I co-created for Mr. Arno’s class.

How to chunk instruction for ELs

All of these apps and platforms invite ELs to actively engage with the content.  Teachers can use technology to chunk information by providing ELs with opportunities to synthesize information with tech before going on to the next concept.

I have an entire series of articles related to meaningfully integrated technology with ELs if you want to inquire more into this topic.

4. Structure the Lesson with Intervals

Teaching with intervals is the concept of designing different learning experiences per lesson so that the content is, by its very delivery, chunked into different segments.  Instead of talking at students to deliver content, we can design different experiences for students to process the information.

Some examples include:

  • Introductions: The teacher presents a problem for students to think about to contextualize the content prior to teaching new information.
  • Small group talk: Students talk in small groups to process content.
  • Paired discussions: Students talk in pairs to process content.
  • Stations: Students rotate between learning stations.  Each station provides more information about an aspect of a particular topic.
  • Quick Write: Students produce a quick written response to process the content.
  • Reflection: Done at the end of the lesson.  Students synthesize what was learned by talking or writing. Students can also reflect on the process of learning, which develops a growth mindset.

What’s important is not the activities teachers use to chunk the content, it’s the practice of designing a lesson to include multiple opportunities for students to process the content that is most significant.


A teacher doesn’t have to be an EL specialist to create instruction that is EL-friendly. Leading with a visual metaphor and using the four simple, easily implementable strategies would significantly increase an EL’s likelihood of understanding the content.

These strategies may seem like they take up valuable class time, but we’re trying to go slow to go fast.  What they really do is divert class time from teacher talk to student engagement.  

As ELs engage with content, they internalize it.  As a height of a tall building is dependent on its foundation, learning more advanced content and skills is dependent on the foundational knowledge and skills and the strategies they use to develop them.