Colorin Colorado: Helping children read... and succeed!
A bilingual site for families and educators of English language learners
  • small text
  • medium text
  • large text
  • print

Professional Development

Frequent questions

  • Question 1: I have a variety of levels in my ESL class. How do I differentiate instruction?
  • Question 2: What are BICS and CALP?
  • Question 3: How can I encourage effective collaboration between the ELL staff and other professional and paraprofessional staff members?
  • Question 4: What are "newcomer" programs? What are their pros and cons?
  • Question 5: What does an effective language acquisition program look like?
  • Question 6: Can you help me locate resources for teaching Spanish to teachers? We are interested in the basics, but also in building vocabulary and fluency for parent-teacher conferences.
  • Question 7: Where can I find teaching methodologies for ESL? I am in my second year of teaching and haven't had a methods class in four years.

Expert answers


I have a variety of levels in my ESL class. How do I differentiate instruction?


Differentiated instruction refers to the teaching approach in which learners have multiple options for learning. This approach requires a great deal of flexibility when designing the curriculum and presenting information to students. Creating alternative modes of learning represents a challenge for teachers. The three main characteristics of differentiated instruction are: a favorable learning environment, a good plan of instruction, and ongoing assessment of student performance.

Let's start by focusing on the learning environment. The first step is examining the teacher's teaching attitudes. Implementing differentiated teaching means that teachers need to be convinced that ALL students are able to succeed. This attitude will affect the way students feel about their own potential to succeed.

The second step to creating a conducive environment for learning is creating a learning community in the classroom; it is important to make it clear to students that collaboration will be emphasized. To stimulate collaboration among students, it is effective to use flexible grouping. Flexible grouping involves allowing learners to work with a variety of peers based on the nature of the task, interests, needs, readiness, and self-selection. When adopting differentiated instruction, it is counterproductive to use stagnant group work, regardless of the criteria used to form the groups.

Good planning is the second important component of differentiated instruction. Planning instruction in a mixed-ability group means that one single plan will not be able to address the diverse needs of the students. It is common that teachers will need to select content, a teaching approach, and methods of assessment, for different groups of students within the same classroom.

The fundamental thing is to make it clear for students what the major concepts or principles are that they will be able to gain from the lesson. Once they understand what the lesson's "main idea" is, the teacher will then use that as the anchor for the unit or lesson the teacher plans to differentiate. From the anchor, the teacher will be able to diversify the paths through which students will process the information, and eventually they will all end up at the same point as they understand the major concept.

Creating learning centers in the classroom is one way to differentiate instruction for students. Centers would reflect the needs, interests, abilities, and readiness of students in terms of their language command (i.e., beginning, intermediate, and advanced), as well as linguistic abilities in reading, writing, oral, and content area. Lots of information on designing a good plan to differentiate instruction can be found at: Understanding by Design.

Assessment is the third major component of differentiated instruction. Assessment simply means collecting information about the learners. The information does not necessarily need to be graded or evaluated. It can be collected through activities learners engage in during instruction. Pair-work activities, writing samples, reading activities, role plays, etc. can all serve as a way for teachers to examine student progress. Observation of student performance on these various activities should be recorded through rubrics. Practical ideas for the assessment of ESL students can be found at: Kidsource. You can also watch a webcast on the topic.


What are BICS and CALP?


The acronyms BICS and CALP refer to the length of time required by immigrant children to develop conversational skills in the target language and grade appropriate academic proficiency in that language. Understanding the difference between social language and academic language acquisition is an important concept for teachers working with non-native students.


Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) refer to linguistic skills needed in everyday, social face-to-face interactions. For instance, the language used in the playground, on the phone, or to interact socially with other people is part of BICS. The language used in these social interactions is context embedded. That is, it is meaningful, cognitively undemanding, and non-specialized. It takes the learner from six months to two years to develop BICS.


CALP, on the other hand, focuses on proficiency in academic language or language used in the classroom in the various content areas. CALP stands for Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency. Academic language is characterized by being abstract, context reduced, and specialized. In addition to acquiring the language, learners need to develop skills such as comparing, classifying, synthesizing, evaluating, and inferring when developing academic competence. It takes learners at least five years to develop CALP. Research from Collier and Thomas (1995) has shown that it may take children with no prior instruction or no support in native language development at least seven years to develop CALP.

The distinction between BICS and CALP was made by Jim Cummings. You can find his own explanation of the distinction on his website.


How can I encourage effective collaboration between the ELL staff and other professional and paraprofessional staff members?


Because of increased diversity in schools today, teachers can no longer act as independent entities but must collaborate across disciplines to reach all of the students in their classes.

The key to effective collaboration is open communication among partners, flexibility, and resourcefulness. Long lasting, effective partnerships also suggest that the entire school focus on a shared vision. That is, educators need to provide others in the school setting with information about academic goals, effective instructional methods, behavior management, standardized testing, and any issues affecting the teaching and learning of ELLs.

A strong initiative would include:

  • bringing together all teachers, school personnel, and administrators for a couple of hours once a month to discuss effective practices for working with ELL students,
  • allowing time for teachers to sit in each others' classes and observe ELL students in different learning settings
  • offering a series of professional development initiatives that are aligned to academic standards, curriculum, and assessment and that include all partners to discuss issues related to second language development and the acculturation process
  • emphasizing high expectations for all students
  • creating opportunities for native English speakers and ELLs to work together in structured classroom activities and to interact socially outside of the classroom
  • developing an interdisciplinary curriculum to allow for team teaching
  • sponsoring curricular and extracurricular activities that involve ELL students' parents and the non-English speaking community

The sites below provide more information on how to develop and maintain effective collaboration in schools and how to provide educators with the kind of professional development needed to enable effective collaboration:


What are "newcomer" programs? What are their pros and cons?


Newcomer programs are programs designed for recent immigrants at the secondary school level who have little or no English proficiency, and limited or no formal education in their native countries. These programs have been developed to meet newcomers' needs before they enter into general education classrooms. The goals of newcomer programs are mainly to help kids develop linguistic survival skills and start adapting to the new culture.

Establishing newcomer programs is a complex process. Leadership is an important component to clearly outline the vision and structure of the program. The program goals and objectives need to be realistic, and the design must be able to meet the actual needs of the learners. The program should make use of the primary languages used by the group of students to be served. Issues such as: grade levels, course offerings, scheduling, instructional materials, curricular design, assessment should also be carefully considered.

Personnel necessary for newcomer programs include teachers, paraprofessionals, guidance counselors, translators and interpreters, native speakers, family members and parents, and people from the local community.

Although fairly recent in the United States, newcomer programs offer another opportunity for immigrant students to have their linguistic, social, and cultural needs met since in some cases, traditional English as a second language and bilingual programs are not designed to address those particular needs.

The major challenge of newcomer programs is the level of complexity involved in creating and running them. Unless stakeholders have a clear vision of the program mission, design, and needed resources, it may not root and thrive.

The sites below provide additional information on newcomer programs.

Those interested in engaging in a teacher discussion forum about developing newcomer programs, may wish to access the following website for questions related to program design, materials, goals and objectives, and any other issues related to classroom dynamics and resources.


What does an effective language acquisition program look like?


Extensive research in the field of second language acquisition supports bilingual programs as effective models for second language acquisition. Researchers maintain that bilingual education promotes high levels of literacy in both the native and target languages.

In planning instruction that emphasizes biliteracy development, teachers need to:

  • understand the theoretical principles of second language acquisition to implement second language acquisition program models
  • plan instruction around themes to maximize learners' opportunities for language and academic development
  • integrate the language arts skills (speaking, listening, reading, and writing) in every instructional unit
  • follow a progression that moves from a teacher-guided approach to higher levels of independent work
  • stimulate high levels of student involvement and participation in class
  • make use of a variety of teaching strategies to help learners develop concept and critical thinking skills
  • conduct on-going assessment to monitor English language and literacy development
  • engage in collaborative efforts with administrators to ensure that the program is congruent with sound pedagogical principles
  • infuse multicultural literature into the curriculum to promote appreciation of their own and each other's culture
  • engage in continuous professional growth and reflection on their teaching practices
  • advocate for English language learners by being informed about research on programs and modes of delivery of instruction

All models of instruction assume high levels of support from family, school administration, community, and well-trained teachers with background on both first and second language development.


Can you help me locate resources for teaching Spanish to teachers? We are interested in the basics, but also in building vocabulary and fluency for parent-teacher conferences.


There are some excellent resources available today for helping teachers learn to communicate effectively with their Spanish-speaking students and parents. Below is a list that should help you get started. Some of these texts provide a general introduction to basic Spanish vocabulary and expressions on a variety of topics. Others are more specifically geared toward the needs of teachers and other school personnel, often including letters and forms that teachers can use to facilitate communication with parents. All of them are intended for the adult learner who wants to be able to communicate effectively but does not need the type of comprehensive grammar study found in many texts intended for use in college classes.

  • Britt, J. L. (1997). ¡Hola!: Communicating with Spanish-speaking parents. Parsippany, N.J.: Good Apple Inc.
  • Diaz, J. & Nadel, M. F. (2006). McGraw-Hill's Spanish for educators. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Harvey, W. C. (1999). Spanish for educators. Hauppauge, N.Y.: Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
  • Harvey, W. C. (2003). Spanish for gringos. (2003). Hauppauge, N.Y.: Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
  • Harvey, W. C. (2003). Spanish for gringos: Level two. (1998). Hauppauge, N.Y.: Barron's Educational Series, Inc. Read and think Spanish. (2005). New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Thuro, B. Reporting to parents in English and Spanish. (1990). Fallbrook, CA: Ammie Enterprises.
  • Thuro, B. School letters in English and Spanish. (1993). Fallbrook, CA: Ammie Enterprises.

Where can I find teaching methodologies for ESL? I am in my second year of teaching and haven't had a methods class in four years.


Colorín Colorado has a wealth of resources that will help you in planning instruction for your ESL students. The "For Educators" section includes information on many topics, including assessment, literacy instruction, and content area teaching. Be sure to check out our "Web Resources," which will take you to some great articles and online resources.

The Reading Rockets website also has lots of useful information for ESL teachers. In "Articles from A-Z," there is a section on English language learners where you can download a variety of articles. You might also want to explore the TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages website). In the "Emerging Teachers" section, there is a feature called Teaching English as a Foreign Language: Questions and Answers, which uses a question-and-answer format to present information on teaching specific skills, planning lessons, and many other topics of interest to ESL teachers.