We often hear the statement, “All teachers are teachers of language,” but how exactly do we do that when many of us went through teacher preparation programs to learn how to teach content-specific topics, not the language elements of our content?

Whether it’s vocabulary, transitions and phrases, or the organization of sentences, this may look like a language arts teacher’s job. But as one widely respected language educator told me recently, using some straight-forward strategies can help us teach content and language skills side by side.

Beth Skelton is a Colorado-based consultant and educator with more than 30 years of experience in the field of international education. Today her work focuses on elevating Language Learners through professional development, coaching, and consulting in schools around the world. Beth and her colleague Denise Milligan developed the first TPRS Curriculum for adult and secondary English Language Learners, shared in their book Putting It Together (2003).

This article grows out of my podcast conversation with Beth earlier this year and outlines her steps to teaching content-specific language skills. You can follow Beth on Twitter here.

how to teach content and language to language learners

Step 1: Create an exit ticket prompt

Think about what you want your students to demonstrate or communicate about your content by the end of the period. Let’s pretend that a teacher wants her students to describe how water can erode the landscape. The exit ticket could be Describe how water can erode land formations.

Teaching language means guiding students to use language like an expert in a particular field

Step 2: Write a model response

Teachers can now respond to the prompt as if they were a student in their class. The goal is to produce a response that the teacher would expect of their students. Make sure to include the content-specific vocabulary words, use transitions to increase clarity, and sequence the sentences to effectively communicate the ideas.

Step 3: Analyze the language

With the model response, analyze it for:

  • the vocabulary
  • the transitions and phrases used
  • the organization of the sentences (discourse)

The vocabulary, the sentence structure, and the sequence of the sentences are all features of academic language (Gottlieb, 2013). When we can identify these components, we know the content-specific language we expect students to understand and use.

Step 4: Teaching content-specific language

Now that you have identified these features of academic language, you can plan to teach them. When considering what words to teach, there are two types: Tier 2 and Tier 3.

Tier 3 words are the content-specific words. These are taught through experiences, texts, videos, and demonstrations. Tier 2 words are the transferable vocabulary words that are highly abstract and are often command terms, such as evaluate, analyze, infer, impact, or affect. You can teach Tier 2 words in the context of the Tier 3 words.

At the sentence level, educators can teach the most appropriate tense. They can also teach what phrases and transitions to use, such as:

  • When [ ] occurred, this caused [ ]
  • In addition to [ ], another significant factor that influences [ ] is [ ].

To teach the discourse, educators can identify the sequences of the sentences. For example, the first few sentences might describe the problem, and the following sentences might describe the consequences. The last sentence might identify the commonality between all of the consequences or the cause of all the problems.

An example 
This following example was shared by Beth.  The example was created by a teacher at an international school in Europe. After attending a school-based workshop, a high school geography teacher created this document for students to show them what the language they have to produce by the end of the lesson. Notice the content specific words students must use to the left and the key sentence structures to the right. Also look at the diagram as it shows students the form they have to write their response, which to add annotations to a diagram.

how to teach language learners in content classes

“Like an expert in a particular field”

You don’t have to be an English teacher to teach the academic language of your content area. Teaching language means guiding students to use language like an expert in a particular field would use it. With Beth’s process, anyone can be a teacher of language because all disciplines have specific vocabulary words, use transitions, and sequence ideas in a particular order.


Gottlieb, M. (2013). Essential Actions: A Handbook for Implementing WIDA’s Framework for English Language Development Standards. Madison: Board of Regents of the U of Wisconsin System.