Principles can be applied universally, while strategies are context-dependent.  These seven core principles form the framework for effective instruction with English learners (ELs) in whatever context you find yourself.  They have been validated by research and proven to work in classrooms.  Because these are principles, they can be embedded into any content area and with various age groups.  Every instructional process or structure I teach has elements of each of these core principles.  I use the acronym “empower” to help remember these principles.

7 Principles of EAL instruction that empower ELs.

7 Principles of EAL instruction that empower ELs.

Every EL can learn

Regardless of an EL’s current language status, they can still learn content and engage with tasks (Himmele & Himmele, 2009; Hill, 2016).  We must see ELs through a lens that focuses only on what they can do.  This asset-based approach directs our teaching so that we keep the highest expectations of ELs because ELs will rise or fall based on teachers’ beliefs about ELsTwitter . ELs who are developing their English skills might already possess advanced thinking skills in their native language. Don’t rely on an EL’s English proficiency to determine their intelligence.Twitter

Meta-cognitive learning

English language acquisition (EAL) teachers can enable ELs to adopt the habit of reflecting on the process of acquiring language.  Having students think about how they gain language skills makes them active learners of English and fosters their ability to apply strategies more independently (Hattie, 2012).  Teachers can build this reflection into any activity.

  • Reading: What strategies did you use to comprehend the text?
  • Writing: How did you communicate your ideas?
  • Speaking: What did you do to help others understand you?
  • Listening: What can you do to understand what others are saying?

Independence for ELs means depending on strategies rather than their teachers.Twitter These two in-depth articles provide further research that suggests planning metacognitive reflection into instruction.  One is from Teaching Excellence in Adult literacy, and the other is from Prof. Bill Jenkins from the Keck Center for Integrative Neurosciences at the University of California

Process-based instruction

Processes help students to become independent learners because students need to internalize the steps into their “mental muscle memory.”  For example, when students encounter a challenging section of text, they can transfer the skill of annotating that they learned previously to construct meaning of an unfamiliar text.  ELs learn to depend less on the teacher and rely more on the process to help them achieve academically.

What I call process-based instruction is also known as constructivist learning because the educator facilitates learning by allowing the process to be the teacher.  

Offer scaffolding

Scaffolding helps ELs access content because it breaks down processes into steps, makes concepts more concrete, and turns complicated assignments into manageable mini-tasks.  

Scaffolding ensures that ELs are able to access the same content and perform the same tasks as proficient English users (Walqui, 2003; Gibbons, 2008).

Here’s an article from Edutopia that provides six strategies to help scaffold instruction for all students, not just ELs.  This article by TESOL provides four scaffolding strategies specifically for ELs.  Additionally, this article by We Are Teachers provides a process of scaffolding writing for ELs.

Work collaboratively

Social interaction fosters language development, communication skills, and analytical thinking.  When ELs are interacting in pairs or small groups, the social experience requires them to use language authentically.

Educators can structure interactions in ways that have ELs share their ideas, defend their opinions, ask for clarifying questions, and make connections between ideas. With my youngest students who are still developing their communication and social skills, I rely on Kagan structures that are highly organized forms of social interaction. This site provides a list of the five essential Kagan cooperative structures.

For older students who need less structure to collaborate effectively, I often use the Harkness Table Discussion Method, which is a student-led discussion of a text.  

Students are not the only ones that benefit from collaboration. Content and EAL educators must also work collaboratively to support ELs’ academic achievement.  The content teachers have the subject-matter expertise while the EAL teacher understands the language needed to perform academically.

When students work together, they create a meaningful context for both to be learned and for academic language to be developed (Yore & Treagust, 2006; Yore, 2000; Gottlieb, 2013).  

Read this article by Lisa L. Colangelo from NY Daily News about how a science and EAL teacher teamed up to teach math and language in context.  Additionally, Prof. Honigsfeld and Prof. Dove have devoted a website specifically to co-teaching for ELs that you might find helpful.

Prof. Friend, from the University of Virginia, is the foremost expert in co-teaching.  Read her resource that breaks down co-teaching into five distinct models.  

Engage in language creation

ELs develop language when they use English for authentic purposes such as solving a problem, collaborating with others, or sharing an experience.  Educators can design learning experiences in ways that promote genuine use of English (Frey, Fisher, & Rothenberg, 2008; Zwiers, 2008).  

Structures include problem-based learning, quick writes, literacy circles, service learning, and many more.

It’s important to emphasize that if an EL is at the entering phase of English development, language creation can also mean that they are comprehending the concept in their native language or producing work in their own language.  

We want students to engage with content because it builds a context for language development (Gottlieb, 2013).  Allow students to create as little or as much in English as they are able.

Read Serena Makofsky’s article to learn more ways to have ELs engage in reading, writing, and speaking.

One of the most authentic ways to have ELs (and all students) learn within context is through service-learning.  This approach sets a purpose and a context in which to learn content.  It requires students to apply what they learned to solve problems a community is experiencing.

To learn more about service-learning, read this article from the foremost expert on service learning, Cathryn Berger Kaye.

Related to content

Research suggests that when ELs are required to engage in grade-level content, their academic language improves as well as their performance on standardized assessments (Short et al., 2011). 

Content and language learning can be integrated, which occurs more readily when there is collaboration among content and EAL teachers (Morita-Mullaney, 2007) and collaborating has been shown to significantly enhance students’ achievement (Hattie, 2015).

This is because the content provides the ELs with a context and a purpose in which to use language.  Therefore, content can be a powerful ally in helping ELs develop their language, and vice versa, academic language development empowers ELs to access the content.

Sheltered instruction is a type of teaching that merges content and language instruction.  This article from Judie Hayne’s EverythingESL website describes the elements of sheltered instruction in detail.  She is an expert in EAL instruction, and her website provides a treasure chest of resources for EAL educators.

Closing Thought:

May these seven principles guide you in planning instruction and facilitating learning.  It would feel inauthentic for me to give you a set of lesson plans, completed units, and fully designed assessments because I do not know your teaching context.  

And these seven principles do not have to be in every lesson or learning experience, but they can be used throughout the unit and the school year.  

Regardless of the experiences your students have, the school environment, or the national policies in which you find yourself, these principles can be shaped to fit your situation and to honor your teaching style.


Fisher, D., Rothenberg, C., & Frey, N.  (2008). Content-area conversations: How to plan discussion-based lessons for diverse language learners. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Gibbons, P. (2009). English learners academic literacy and thinking: Learning in the challenge zone. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

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.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning. London: Routledge.

Hattie, J. (2015). What works best in education: The politics of collaborative expertise. Mountain View, CA: Pearson.

Hill, J. (2016). “Engaging Your Beginners.” Educational Leadership 73.5: 18+. Print.

Himmele, P., & Himmele, W. (2009). The language-rich classroom: A research-based framework for teaching English language learners. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Morita-Mullaney, T. (2007). “Collaboration in assessment: Secondary and ESL teachers teaming together.” In F. Pawan, & G. B. Sietman (Eds.), Helping English language learners succeed in middle and high schools (pp. 85–101). Alexandria, VA: Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

Short, D., Echevarría, J., & Richards-Tutor, C. (2011). “Research on academic literacy development in sheltered instruction classrooms.” Language Teaching Research, 15(3), 363–380.

Walqui, A. (2003). Conceptual framework: Scaffolding for English learners. San Francisco: WestEd.

Yore, L. D. (2000). “Enhancing science literacy for all students with embedded reading instruction and writing-to-learn activities.” Journal of Deaf Studies & Deaf Education, 5(1), 105–122.

Yore, L. D., & Treagust, D. F. (2006). “Current realities and future possibilities: Language and science literacy-empowering research and informing instruction.” International Journal of Science Education. 28(2/3), 291–314.

Zwiers, J. (2008). Building academic language: Essential practices for content classrooms, grades 5–12. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.