This article shares strategies that help content teachers to be teachers of language. It is Part 17 of WIDA’s Essential Actions Series.  Click here to read the first article in the series.

ELL strategies content teachers

I was walking from my classroom to the teachers’ parking lot when I saw a group of elementary students gleefully playing on our school’s soccer field.  They were oblivious to the thunderstorm rumbling above and the lighting snapping through the darkening clouds.  Even though I work in the secondary school, I am still responsible for the safety of all students, so I called for them to come to seek shelter.

How could I not?

But just as we’re responsible for the safety of all students, even the ones we don’t teach, we also have to assume the responsibility to supporting their language development.  But how should content teachers interact with English language learners?

When I talk to content teachers about being a language teacher, they often respond by saying that they are not an English teacher.  Unfortunately, they’re missing the point. Language plays a crucial role in student achievement (Wong Fillmore & Snow, 2002). Now that U.S. schools are experiencing a rise in ELs, language is an even more important topic for all kinds of teachers across all different disciplines (Egbert & Ernst-Slavit, 2010).  

Content teachers have to educate their ELs on how to be literate and communicative in the language of their discipline (Gibbons, 2008).

Action 15 from WIDA’s  Essential Actions: A Handbook for Implementing WIDA’s  Framework for English Language Development Standards (Gottlieb, 2013) encourages content educators to teach the language of their discipline.  If content teachers put the following strategies in place, their students will better access content and experience greater academic achievement.  Luckily, content teachers are not alone on this linguistic journey.  We, the English language teachers (ELTs), are eager to guide our colleagues to adopt language-friendly practices.

Language Strategies for Content Teachers

Content teachers focus primarily on helping students develop critical thinking skills by acquiring, synthesizing, and applying content knowledge. I’ve created the simple framework below to help them think about how to make the language of their disciplines more visible to ELs. These strategies are no by means an exhaustive list.  They’re just specific, concrete ideas to support literacy skills within each discipline.  

Teaching Reading Skills

First things first: Students won’t master discipline-specific skills or fully learn content if vocabulary isn’t explicitly taught.  Should content teachers teach reading? Yes! Vocabulary forms the foundation that supports content knowledge and skill development. Without the ability to use content-specific vocabulary, students will find it hard to switch from social language into an academic register (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2002).  
They’ll be stuck using social language instead, mumbling something like “Columbus is not a good person”, rather than, “Columbus’ expedition significantly impacted native civilizations”.  Moreover, if they don’t understand vocabulary in the content classes, they won’t be able to fully access more complex discipline-specific texts or engage in content-specific activities.

One of the most effective approaches to teaching Tier 3 vocabulary (content-specific vocabulary) is the Frayer model, which teaches a target word 4 different ways: with a definition, illustration, features that describe the vocabulary word, and a non-example. For example, if a science teacher wanted to teach the word “herbivore”, she can give a student-friendly definition written in a complete sentence, provide an image of a rabbit, identify teeth made for grazing as a distinguishing feature, and list an animal that only eats meat like a tiger.

The Frayer model does not guarantee that ELs will fully understand discipline-specific texts -that’s Visible Reading’s responsibility – however, it helps ELs internalize vocabulary words so that they can begin to understand content-specific texts, access oral instructions, and engage in activities.

Teaching Discussion Skills

All content areas require students to think critically and analytically.  For example, Art teachers might want students to explore the influence of art on culture, or Design teachers might want students to inquire into the role of artificial intelligence in engineering a car. Using the Harkness Discussion method when exploring these topics  empowers students to construct a deeper understanding of the them.  

In a Harkness Discussion , students create authentic questions about the topic of study, and then collaboratively discuss the answers using the texts they read or viewed in class to substantiate their claims. Returning to the Design scenario, a student might ask, “Do you agree with Elon Musk’s opinion about the benefits of autonomous cars?”  Then students would discuss this question with the aid of the articles and the videos they’ve processed.

ELs demonstrate the highest quality of critical thinking when they engage in a Harkness Discussion because they’re actively constructing and negotiating meaning with others.  They are doing the work – not me.

Teaching Writing Instruction

An EL’s ability to communicate content knowledge through writing is paramount to academic achievement.  However, many ELs are not yet able to code switch from social language to a formal register.  

Content teachers can help by teaching ELs to analyze a mentor text to identify the features of academic language.  I recommend writing a concise sample paragraph that demonstrates how language is used to communicate content-specific information.  Allow students to study this mentor text for the how the author uses words, phrases, and grammar to communicate these ideas.  I call this the Split-Screen approach.  By making the discipline-specific academic language more visible, ELs can more easily attempt it in their own writing.  

I recommend reading Jess Lif’s article on how to teach students to analyze a mentor text.  She provides a very detailed and helpful account of the process. Alternatively, I sometimes ask my students to collaboratively construct a paragraph on Google Docs.  Then I deconstruct the paragraph for students using the highlighter function.  


In every discipline, there are different ways of thinking and talking, different sets of vocabulary used, and different approaches to communicating ideas in writing.  Content teachers who are versed in that field should share the distinct ways language is used in their disciplines; English language teachers should share ways to make discipline-specific language demands visible to ELs.  

On the same note, I hope this entire WIDA’s Essential Action Series has reinforced your practice, encouraged you to experiment with new approaches, motivated you to modify existing ones, and prompted you to reach out and collaborate with others teachers on behalf of your ELs.  

Veteran teachers tell me that they feel pulled in so many directions: meetings, regulations, paperwork, duties, coaching, emails, assessment and feedback, lesson design – the list is endless.  In the blizzard of these activities, WIDA reminds us of the essential actions that remain at the core of our practice and profession.

Next Post

I’ll be taking a break from posting to share articles from guest bloggers and to share posts that I’ve been a guest blogger on.  Some topics will include strategies that help elementary ELs, meta-cognitive thinking, and writing instruction.

Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York: Guilford.

Egbert, J., & Ernst-Slavit, G. (2010). Access to academics: Planning instruction for K–12 classrooms with ELLs. Boston, MA: Pearson Education.

Gibbons, P. (2008). 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 University of Wisconsin System.

Wong Fillmore, L., & Snow, C. E. (2002). What teachers need to know about language. In C. T. Adger, C. E. Snow, & D. Christian (Eds.), What teachers need to know about language (pp. 7–53). McHenry, IL and Washington, DC: Delta Systems and the Center for Applied Linguistics.