What To Do With Only an Hour and a Half Week? That Depends

By Suzanne Irujo, ELL Outlook™ Contributing Writer

A reader sent in a question that will be familiar to anyone who has ever taught ESL in a pull-out situation (or in a push-in situation if it is not truly an integrated team-teaching model). She taught grades K through 5 in two different schools, and had an average of 45 minutes two times a week to spend with each class. She wanted to know if there was any advice I could give her about the most important things she should be doing with the limited time she had with her students.

Well, as with so many complex issues, the answer to her question is, “That depends.”

What Does It Depend On?

If I were to brainstorm the factors that should be taken into consideration when teachers have to make decisions about what should be the most important aspects of an ELL’s program, I would come up with at least these four main categories of information:

  • the student’s educational history
  • the educational environment of the school
  • the student’s family background
  • the student’s personal characteristics

Each of these main categories has sub-categories:

  • educational history: previous schooling, oral and literacy levels in both the native language and English, general background knowledge, etc.
  • educational environment of school: teachers’ knowledge of ELL strategies, availability of resources, willingness of teachers and administrators to modify programs, etc.
  • family background: parents’ education, oral and literacy levels in both languages, willingness and ability to help child with schoolwork, etc.
  • personal characteristics: motivation, personality, learning styles, interests, etc.

And that’s just a beginning.

What You Need to Do

You can see the impossibility of somebody who doesn’t know your students trying to tell you which are the most important things to do with your limited time. Even if I could do that, I wouldn’t attempt to explain each of the multitude of factors on my list in detail, telling you exactly what you need to know, how to find it out, and what to do with the information you get. That would produce a very boring article, and besides, I don’t think that’s a very good way to convey information.

Neither does a colleague of mine in foreign language teacher education. She understands very well the principle that you can’t give people a whole bunch of detailed information to read and then expect them to do anything with it. She embodies her considerable wisdom about teaching foreign languages to young children in a small number of what she calls “Mother Miriam’s Maxims.” I’m going to take a lesson from her and try “Sister Suzanne’s Sayings.”

Saying #1: Everything is Language, But … One of the wonderful things about teaching ESL is that you are teaching language, and everything human beings do is enveloped in language. You can take a whole class period to talk about what your students did yesterday, and know (as long as you provide plenty of modeling, rephrasing, and other kinds of feedback about correct language use) that you have been helping them learn how to narrate past events. You may have spent half of your weekly time allotment in what would seem to be idle chit-chat in some other class, but it has helped move your students toward achievement of Standard 1 of the TESOL PreK-12 English Language Proficiency Standards: “English language learners communicate for social,intercultural, and instructional purposes within the school setting” (TESOL, 2006, p. 28).

Unfortunately, the reality of public education in the United States in 2006 does not allow us time to develop students’ social language-what Cummins (1984) calls Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS)-before they have to begin learning academic content in English. And in order to learn academic content in English, students have to acquire what Cummins calls Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP). And that takes time and direct instruction. So if you can use the past tense to talk about historical events that students in U.S. schools are expected to know about, instead of talking about what they did yesterday, you will help them develop the ability to understand and use the more decontextualized, cognitively demanding language that makes up CALP. And you will be moving them toward achievement of Standard 5 of the TESOL standards: “English language learners communicate information, ideas, and concepts necessary for academic success in the area of social studies” (TESOL, 2006, p. 28). In other lessons, you will talk, read, and write about topics from the content areas of language arts, mathematics, and science, and thus help them achieve TESOL Standards 2, 3, and 4.

As I said above, it would be impossible for me to try to advise any individual teacher on the best way to utilize limited time with his or her particular students, since the answer to that question depends entirely on the students’ needs. But it might be helpful to look at additional examples of ways in which teachers have used students’ interests to develop learning activities that incorporate academic language into basic ESL instruction. All of these examples come from ESL teachers working in either push-in or pull-out situations where their contact time with their students is limited, and all are based on their knowledge of their students’ backgrounds and needs. They all demonstrate how TESOL’s (1997) ESL standards (see End Note) can be integrated with state content standards to help develop students’ social and academic language at the same time.

  • An ESL teacher in Kentucky felt that her limited time with the students in kindergarten would be best spent working in collaboration with the mainstream teacher in a push-in model. The two teachers decided on the science topic of food groups as a year-long content theme; then together they developed and taught language-rich units for each of the food groups. In the bread unit, for example, students sorted pieces of cereal of different colors, shapes, and sizes and then graphed the results. This is just one example of an activity that developments math and science skills, as well as the language needed to talk about them (James, 2000, pp. 37-39).
  • Two pull-out ESL teachers in New Jersey decided that they could best utilize their limited time with students by teaching in ways that would reflect and reinforce the mainstream classroom instruction and practices, but not necessarily parallel the same content (see “Teach, Don’t Tutor” below). They created their own units, such as one for Grades 1 and 2 on animals that hatch from eggs. The activities in the unit exploit young children’s natural interest in animal babies and build on their enthusiasm. At the same time, they develop academic language through activities such as hypothesizing about the results of experiments, surveying students about their favorite kinds of cooked eggs and graphing the results, and comparing fact and fiction (Haynes & O’Laughlin, 2000, pp. 79-82, 84-88).
  • A pull-out ESL teacher in New York created a unit on the underground railway for Grades 3 and 4 as part of a year-long theme on race relations in America, a theme chosen specifically because of the fear and bias felt by many ESOL families towards their African American neighbors. The culmination of the unit was a board game, created and constructed by the students. This process required that students not only learn about board games but also master a wide variety of both social and academic language as they developed and agreed upon rules and design, and created the questions that players had to answer in order to progress around the board (DeFabbia, 2000, pp. 98-105).
  • A pull-out teacher in Oregon, after volunteering to be the recycling coordinator for her school, decided to give her Grade 5 students the responsibility of ensuring that the program was a success. This turned into a year-long project of planning, organizing, promoting, and implementing a school-wide recycling program. The activities spanned all four major content areas, as students used science language and skills to find out what materials can be recycled, math language and skills to determine what percentage of trash at the school was garbage versus recyclable, social studies and science language and skills to collect information about the need for recycling, and language arts language and skills to create materials and give presentations promoting recycling (Syvanen, 2000, pp. 134-148).

While it is probably true that none of these examples will fit the needs of your own students exactly, they illustrate the wide range of possibilities that exist for turning anything into language, and then ensuring that the language students use is academic as well as social. Of course, decisions about what topics to include in your content-based ESL curriculum, whether you just talk about them or also read and write about them, and the degree of complexity at which you address the topics all depend on the information you have gathered about your students’ academic, personal, and family backgrounds, and on the resources your school can provide. (See Irujo, 2004 for a discussion of how to decide when to begin reading instruction with English language learners [ELLs] who are not literate in their native language.)

Saying #2: Phonics Is Not a Cure-All. Whether it’s because of the influence of Reading First, or because many teachers of ELLs have backgrounds in reading, there seems to be a fairly widespread assumption that if we can just provide ELLs with a good basis in English phonics, everything will be all right. But although a good working knowledge of phonics principles is helpful for most students when they are learning to read in English, and is even essential for some students, it is not at all necessary for others, and in some cases can be harmful for ELLs.

One problem with phonics instruction for ELLs who are preliterate or illiterate in their native language is that when students are taught to decode words that they don’t understand, they begin to see reading as the ability to transform written marks on paper into oral sounds. Because they don’t understand many of the words they “read,” they don’t make the connection between reading and meaning making. Many ELLs may come from families where reading to children is not part of their experience (both parents may be working two jobs, parents may have limited literacy skills themselves, or the “story” tradition of their culture may be oral rather than written). This makes it doubly hard for them to learn that reading is a process of creating meaning, rather than a process of producing sounds.

Another problem, which often occurs in students who read well in their native languages, is that extensive phonics practice can help them become very proficient word callers. And, unlike native speakers of English, they’re just as good at reading nonsense words aloud as they are at reading real words aloud. That’s because many of the words they learn to “read” are nonsense to them. If students don’t know the meanings of the words, the phonics instruction that has enabled them to say the words aloud is of no use at all. It’s as if I asked you to read the sentence This is a very interesting palimpsest. You might have no trouble saying the word palimpsest aloud. You would be using your implicit knowledge of English phonics, even if you weren’t aware of doing so. But would the sentence convey any meaning to you? Not unless you happened to know that a palimpsest is “a manuscript or piece of writing material on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of which traces remain” (New Oxford American Dictionary, 2005).

This kind of fluent word calling can be a problem for ELLs. The reason is that they and their teachers may not realize how little of the text they are really understanding, especially if they are also adept at answering literal comprehension questions by picking out a key word from the question, finding the sentence that contains the word in the text, and reading the sentence aloud as an answer. So phonics instruction with ELLs must always be carefully balanced with development of vocabulary and comprehension.

With students who are already literate in an alphabetic language, you do not need to systematically go through every phonics element of the English language. Find out which elements differ between your students’ native languages and English, and focus your limited teaching time on those. Elements that are the same will transfer.

So whether ELLs are literate in their native language or not, the recommendation that early reading instruction focus on phonemic awareness and phonics, and that fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension be addressed later, is not appropriate. All five elements of reading instruction must be integrated into reading instruction for ELLs from the very beginning.

Saying #3: Teach, Don’t Tutor. All the push-in or pull-out ESL teachers I have ever known have felt an urge to help their students with their classwork and homework. ESL teachers know that classroom teachers expect students to do these assignments, and students usually want to do them but often don’t know enough English to complete them independently. ESL teachers justify providing this kind of help by saying that the students just need a little bit of help, it will only take a few minutes, and everybody will feel better if it’s done.

Resist that urge! If you succumb to it, you will end up spending much of your precious, limited time helping your students play catch-up with the work assigned by the classroom teacher. Many classroom teachers will take advantage of your willingness to do that, and before you know it, your time will be entirely consumed by helping your students complete assignments. Your own teaching plans will be perpetually postponed, and you will find that you are actually teaching very little. And a well-planned, well-implemented content-based academic language curriculum, even if it is severely limited by the inadequacy of the time allotted, will ultimately do much more to move ELLs toward academic success than will completing or not completing a few assignments.

But how can you leave your students to try to do assignments by themselves when you know they have not yet acquired the English skills they need? Get help! Here are some suggestions:

  • High school students are often very willing to do this kind of tutoring, and in some cases they can earn community service credit for doing it. For those who are studying the native language of the students, the tutoring becomes a beneficial two-way partnership.
  • Older people who are retired are often available during the school day to work with students, and many enjoy the challenge of working with ELLs. You can recruit volunteers through a senior center or announcements on a local radio station or in a local newspaper.
  • There may be ways that the administration can provide more support without any effect on the budget. For example, middle and high school study hall monitors could provide assistance to ELLs in their study halls. In elementary schools that have permanent substitutes, any substitutes who do not have a class assignment on a given day could work helping ELLs with class and homework assignments.
  • There may be somebody in the district administration office who can help locate sources of funding and write grant applications that would enable the district to hire paraprofessionals to assist ELLs with assignments.
  • Teachers should use the information gained about their students to help prioritize students’ needs. For example, if you know that there are older siblings, parents, or other relatives at home who can help some students with assignments, use whatever resources you have to provide help to others who don’t have that help outside school.


    I limited my ideas for how to decide what is most important to teach when teaching time is limited to three short “sayings,” in the belief that you will be more likely to remember three simple ideas than a whole long list of recommendations. Here is a summary of the three ideas:

    1. “Everything is language, but …”
      Many ESL teachers are aware of the fact that they should constantly “think language,” but you need to expand that to “think academic language.” Students will not just “pick up” academic language; it must be explicitly taught (even to native speakers).
    2. “Phonics is not a cure-all.”
      Whether students are literate in their native language or not, they will need instruction in reading and writing English. Remember, however, that phonemic awareness and phonics instruction mustbe accompanied by an equal emphasis on fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.
    3. “Teach, don’t tutor.”
      You have to teach general language development, academic language development, and literacy development. When your time is limited, you will not be able to accomplish that if you spend your time helping students with assignments given by their classroom teachers.

    So if you can choose content-area themes according to students’ educational backgrounds and interests, determine what level of reading and writing instruction is appropriate and integrate that with your themes, and use the themes to help students master the academic language of textbooks and tests, you will be using your limited time with your students to best advantage.

    End Note

    The units developed by all of these teachers were based on the original version of the ESL standards, which focused on three goals: “To use English to communicate in social settings,” “To use English to achieve academically in all content areas,” and “To use English in socially and culturally appropriate ways” (TESOL, 1997, p. 9). The newly revised ESL standards (TESOL, 2006) include the first and third goals in a single standard dealing with social, intercultural, and instructional language. The second goal, dealing with academic language, has been expanded to include standards specific to each of the four main content areas: language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies.


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