Bright Ideas from the Classroom

Essential Actions: 15 Research-based Practices to Increase ELL Student Achievement

Two men and two woman talking to each other at a table with papers in front of them.

In this article written for Colorín Colorado, Bright Ideas author Kristina Robertson offers an overview of WIDA's new Essential Actions handbook and shares a step-by-step process for using this tool as part of a professional learning community focused on meeting ELLs' academic language needs.

In this article written for Colorín Colorado, Bright Ideas author Kristina Robertson offers an overview of WIDA's new Essential Actions handbook and shares a step-by-step process for using this tool as part of a professional learning community focused on meeting ELLs' academic language needs.

Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much. — Helen Keller

The first time I tried to collaborate with a mainstream teacher, I spent my time listening to her read stories to students and helping them with worksheets. It wasn't her fault that it was such a dreadful attempt at collaboration or that there were many problems, which included lack of planning time, lack of understanding of collaboration, and my poor placement in her specialist classroom focused on "character education."

Probably the biggest problem, however, was that we didn't have a way to communicate effectively about English Language Learners (ELLs). She didn't have background knowledge of their language proficiency levels and there were no English Language Development standards at the time, so even if we had wanted to be very intentional about language instruction, we didn't really know where to start.

Thankfully, now there are many more ELL resources readily available, and general knowledge about ELLs' academic language needs have increased. In addition, the WIDA consortia (World-class Instructional Design and Assessment) recently published a very useful collaborative resource for teachers called Essential Actions: A Handbook for Implementing WIDA's Framework for English Language Development Standards by Margo Gottlieb.

This guide is designed to help individual teachers, teaching teams, and district-teams evaluate and improve their EL instructional practices according to research principles that are the underpinnings of WIDA's English Language Development Standards.

I want to give you an overview of the Essential Actions Handbook components and examine it through the lens of how it might be used for collaboration within a Professional Learning Community (PLC) to increase research-based practices for ELLs. I will also provide some possible extension ideas using digital tools to share evidence of the Essential Actions.

Essential Actions Handbook Overview


The Essential Actions Handbook states:

This handbook is designed to be a resource to share among educators who work directly with or are impacted by ELLs. It is a guide that describes and illustrates the standards-referenced components and elements of language learning within WIDA's standards framework.

The overall purpose of this handbook is to promote collaboration, mutual understanding, and use of language development standards among all educators who work with ELLs. The Essential Actions, derived from current theory and research, provide a rationale for each component and element of WIDA's standards framework.

In other words, this handbook is designed to provide research-based rationale for the WIDA English Language Development (ELD) standards framework; however, the components are also broad-based quality indicators for working with ELLs. Therefore, one of the main goals is to use it to increase evidence-based practices collaboration among teachers who work with ELLs.

Organization and content

As you can see in the table below, there are 15 Essential Actions (also available in this PDF online, found on pg. 11 of the handbook). The first 12 Actions are directly related to instruction and Actions 13 — 15 are related to effective teacher collaboration. The Actions are designed to stimulate professional conversation about meeting the academic language needs of ELLs and do not need to be followed in order. There is also a self-assessment tool that can be used to determine the highest priority actions and where to start — more on that later.

Capitalize on the resources
and experiences that ELLs
bring to school to build
and enrich their academic

Analyze the academic
language demands involved
in grade-level teaching and

Apply the background
knowledge of ELLs,
including their language
proficiency profiles, in
planning differentiated
language teaching.

Connect language and
content to make learning
relevant and meaningful for

Focus on the developmental
nature of language
learning within grade-level

Reference content standards
and language development
standards in planning for
language learning.

Design language teaching
and learning with attention
to the sociocultural context.

Provide opportunities for all
ELLs to engage in higher-order

Create language-rich
classroom environments
with ample time for
language practice and use.

Identify the language
needed for functional use in
teaching and learning.

Plan for language teaching
and learning around
discipline-specific topics.

Use instructional supports
to help scaffold language

Integrate language domains
to provide rich, authentic

Coordinate and collaborate
in planning for language
and content teaching and

Share responsibility so that
all teachers are language
teachers and support one
another within communities
of practice.

Each Action is related to the WIDA matrix and is designed to give more detailed information to assist in effectively using the matrix for planning. In the Essential Actions Handbook, each Action has its own section that follows the same format:

  • Explanation of the Essential Action
  • Research to support the Action
  • A description of how it relates to the WIDA standards framework for English language development
  • Examples from the field (written by educators) regarding the Action and guiding questions for discussing locally how to apply the Action to practice in your context

How to Use the Handbook with a PLC

There are many ways to use this Essential Actions Handbook and I have chosen to highlight one use that I believe many of the teachers I have worked with would find effective in working together to meet the needs of ELLs. Many educators are receiving professional development through job-embedded learning opportunities such as Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). They may be called different things – Teacher Learning Communities or Professional Communities, but their purpose is to bring educators together in teams to define their own learning in regards to individual or school goals.

One well-known leader in this area is Richard DuFour and if you'd like more detailed information on PLCs, please view this article, "What is a Professional Learning Community?" DuFour highlights three questions that each PLC team needs to answer as they focus on their work together.

  • What do we want each student to learn?
  • How will we know when each student has learned it?
  • How will we respond when a student experiences difficulty in learning?

PLC work, by it's very nature, is collaborative and constructs the learning based on what teachers experience daily in their classrooms. In the discussion below, I will use the Essential Actions Handbook as a guide for the process of meeting the academic language needs of ELLs.

For the purposes of this article, I'll describe our PLC team as a third-grade teaching team: two classroom teachers, an ESL teacher, and a Title I reading and math support teacher. The ESL and Title I teachers are in the third-grade classrooms and also pull out some students for special support up to an hour each day.

There are approximately 15 ELL students out of 50 third-graders and the majority have composite English Language Proficiency (ELP) levels of 3–5 according to ACCESS for ELLs or another annual assessment; however there are three new students who are at ELP level 1 and one student who is at ELP level 2. (See WIDA's Performance Definitions for reference.)

Individually, each ELL student has unique language domain scores, meaning that they all have unique areas of strength and challenge. For example, some are still in earlier stages of developing reading and writing skills in English, while their oral English skills are more advanced and others have a different mix of skills in the language domains.

Needs assessment

The PLC team has been given the task to align their professional learning with the school goal of "Increasing ELL student state reading scores by 6% by May 2014." The team starts by analyzing the detailed assessment scores of their ELLs in order to get a better sense of what they need instructionally. The PLC team looks at:

  • Students' state reading scores
  • School-wide assessments that provide scores for vocabulary and comprehension
  • English Language Proficiency scores from the ACCESS for ELLs test

They can see a pattern forming: the ELL students are weak and need to expand their comprehension and vocabulary — although in general they read fluently.

Next, the PLC team members individually complete the Needs Assessment, Column A from the Essential Actions Handbook (Gottlieb, pg. 68). Using a scale of 0-5, they rate how important each Action is according to their instructional goal. They may have quite a few that come out as their top priority. On their own they may want to read the Essential Action sections they rated most highly in order to familiarize themselves with the research or they may want to write their thoughts in the "comments" box to facilitate discussion with the group.

When the PLC team meets, they each share their top three Actions they've identified as most important to reaching their ELL reading goal. They will look for overlap in their priorities and select one or two as their instructional focus for their PLC work over the next six–eight weeks.

Create goal

Let's say that our PLC team decides to focus on Essential Action 3: "Apply the background knowledge of ELLs, including their language proficiency profiles, in planning differentiated language teaching." The Essential Action Handbook research states, "Information about the backgrounds of the students, including their linguistic and content abilities, is key to plan and deliver differentiated instruction to optimize opportunities for learning (Tomlinson, 2003;Fairbairn & Jones-Vo, 2010)." (Gottlieb, pg. 20)

The teachers feel that planning targeted instruction based on the students' language proficiency levels will make good use of their ESL and Title I individualized support, in addition to the scaffolded content instruction the classroom teachers will provide. In order to crystalize their background knowledge on Action Three, the teachers read the section and discuss the following reflection questions (Gottlieb, pg. 24)

  • 1. How might you use the Performance Definitions to help formulate instructional strategies (e.g., in grouping students or differentiating language objectives)?
  • 2. How might you use the Performance Definitions to help scaffold content instruction for ELLs?
  • 3. When might educators use a student's overall composite language proficiency level (from ACCESS for ELLs) versus the language proficiency level for each language domain?

The teachers write their collective answers to these reflection questions. It's okay if their answers are tentative at first and begin with, "We're not sure but we think…" They will return to these questions as part of the reflection process in the PLC.

The PLC teams sets their goal to "Increase ELLs reading comprehension by providing differentiated language instruction based on student language proficiency levels."

To begin their work towards their goal, the teachers discuss, "What will success look like?" In other words, how will they know when they are implementing Action Three successfully? They decide on three success indicators:

Teachers will:

  • Know students' language domain proficiency levels
  • Use language domain information to provide differentiated options for classroom and pull-out instruction and tasks
  • Assess reading comprehension using language proficiency accommodated tasks

Implement strategies

Over the next two meetings, the PLC team organizes their work around the three success indicators they identified. They determine they need to continue their learning in a few different ways.

First, they need to know their students' language domain proficiency levels and have them easily available for instructional planning. They download the "Can Do Name Charts" from the WIDA website and work together to complete the charts and make copies to share. They also need more information about what educators can expect from students at different language proficiency levels according to the WIDA Performance Definitions (Gottlieb, pgs. 22 & 23).

The ESL teacher is able to provide further guidance in this area and the group also accesses some online resources from their state website about strategies for different language proficiency levels. Finally they have a conversation about what formative comprehension assessment looks like connected with content instruction. They study some resources about common formative assessments and use the Academic Language Framework as a guide as they determine some common vocabulary, sentence structures, and discourse needed for an upcoming unit on geographic landmarks. (This fits DuFour's first question, "1. What do we want them to learn?")

Collect evidence

At each PLC meeting the teachers provide evidence of student learning and discuss DuFour's other two questions:

  • How will we know when each student has learned it?
  • How will we respond when a student experiences difficulty in learning?

The teachers share insights on how to differentiate according to different language levels — how they've successfully modified materials or grouped students, examples of student learning using language related to content, and what works to help students who are still developing the academic language they need to communicate what they know. The types of evidence teachers might share are student assignments, notes or rubrics on student language production, student questions, and audio or video clips of student interaction.

Share and discuss

Throughout the process, teachers assist each other in brainstorming ways to model, instruct, and assess the students using content-based language at their proficiency levels. They may need to discover more resources to help them in certain areas and they may find items in the WIDA download library, online video clips or other research resources that will provide further guidance.

During this phase of PLC work teachers will often say things such as, "Tell me more about that?", "How exciting!", "I can hear your frustration, I'm wondering if…" or "One thought I had was…" The sharing is open, supportive, and focused on listening while also providing ideas. At the end of the PLC, each teacher should have a clear action step in mind for implementing with the students and will report back to the PLC in the next meeting.


Finally at the end of the PLC cycle (usually six–eight weeks), the teachers will revisit the Action Three reflection questions, their identified success indicators, and evidence of student learning. They review their initial responses to the Action Three reflection questions and add further information based on their learning experiences, adding their own evidence as much as possible. They discuss the evidence they have around their success indicators. Are all teachers aware of the student language proficiency levels and using them to differentiate instruction? Again, they provide as much evidence as possible to support their claims.

Finally, they look for evidence of student learning. When language was presented at a proficiency level that allowed the student to use the discourse, sentence structure and vocabulary required to demonstrate content knowledge — could they do it?

Teachers share evidence of student language production and content learning. Then they have a group hug, go home feeling great about their teaching career and all week people keep asking them if they've lost weight or done something with their hair… Okay, I may be exaggerating a bit there at the end, but really, a PLC team that works well together with a mission to become better for the students they love will feel very empowered and see positive results – both in student learning and in developing stronger collaborative partnerships with other educators.

Extension-Digital Tools

If the PLC team members have a positive experience and feel strongly that others will benefit from what they've learned, it's a great idea to seek ways to share their new knowledge with other educators. This could be with another grade-level PLC team, at a school-wide staff meeting or ELL focus data day, or at a district professional development forum where other teachers are gathering to focus on the needs of ELLs. It's also possible that they may want to share their findings digitally so others can access it according to their own schedules. If the PLC members want to explore digital sharing, they may want to experiment with some digital tools throughout the process so they have something to share electronically.

Here are a few (mostly free) tools I've been enjoying lately and they lend themselves nicely to connecting through digital media:

  • Flipgrid is an online video response system that allows a teacher to pose a question and send the link to a group. Respondents each record a 90-second video response, and the responses are visible to all with the link. I like this system because it's quick, easy, allows you to view on your own time, and it's fun to hear your colleagues' responses rather than reading it on a bulletin post. Flipgrid has a free trial period and then there is an annual subscription fee. (Try it out with the example below!)
  • Teaching Channel is a great online video resource website that has professional classroom video clips, study guides, and teacher discussion posts. It is a website designed for teachers who want to "get into other peoples' classrooms" and see instructional strategies. The other tool they've created that I'm excited about is the Tch Recorder app (for iPad and iPhone). This is a video recording app that allows you to easily record your own instruction or student interaction with the tap of a button and then easily upload it to your "workspace" on the Teaching Channel. The videos can be kept private for your own review, or if your school or district decides to use this system for team sharing, there is a "Teaching Channel Teams" component that allows you to interact in a coaching manner with the videos to make comments and share resources. Teaching Channel resources and workspace is free, but the Teaching Channel Teams cost money for site or district-level use.
  • Wikispaces is an online content management system that allows for sharing of resources, photos, video clips and much more. This is a great "virtual desktop" that allows many users to create the content and have online discussions. It is free for educators.

There are many tools a PLC team can use for their own learning and for ultimately sharing with others. These are just a few ideas that educators might enjoy playing with to gain new insights into their own learning and an opportunity to share meaningfully with others.


In the current climate of finger pointing and blaming about how bad education is, I actually see improvement in the use of collaboration, especially around meeting the needs of traditionally underserved populations such as ELLs. With more research and tools to guide conversations between educators, ELL academic achievement will continue to climb. If I had had ELD standards, support for effective collaboration, and a useful resource such as the Essential Actions Handbook long ago, I believe I would have done more than listen to stories and help with worksheets. Together we would have been an educational team focused on the identified language needs of ELLs and providing differentiated support to help them achieve.

As Helen Keller said, "Together we can do so much." These days, I see many educators teaming up, working hard to learn new instructional strategies for diverse learners and giving their best every day to ensure the achievement of all students. I would love to hear from educators who use the Essential Actions Handbook for their own learning or as part of a PLC or professional learning environment. Please click on the Flipgrid question below and tell us in 90 seconds or less how you've used the Essential Actions Handbook to take action in your classroom, school, or district!


Gottlieb, M. Essential Actions: A Handbook for Implementing WIDA's Framework for English Language Development Standards. WIDA. 2013.


You are welcome to print copies or republish materials for non-commercial use as long as credit is given to Colorín Colorado and the author(s). For commercial use, please contact [email protected].

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Thank you for all the great articles.

How do I get a copy?

Kristina, this is an excellent article and deserves several re-visits as it is so rich with both theory and practical ways to apply theory to practice. I have implemented a very similar process with many school teams as a "team PLC coach" and have found it invaluable in keeping people focused on students, their goals, and effective instructional practices (e.g., Essential Actions) that work to foster high levels of engagement and learning for ELLs. I so appreciate your sharing this information with educators in such an accessible way! My wondering for you is this: How might you build on these ideas for more articles in the future?

To get a PDF copy of the handbook, go to:
then click on the picture of the handbook, and that will open up the PDF copy. You can then save it to your hard drive - e.g. I saved mine to my desktop for reference. Hope this helps!

Your explanation of this article was right on! Thank you for sharing your knowledge and expertise in this area. I agree with Christy Reveles' post that it merits revisits because of the richness in theory and practical ways to apply this theory into practice. I will definitely share with my teachers.

Kristina. Thank you so much for all of the amazing ideas. I will definitely implement as much as possible to my next PLC. You are amazing. Thank you for the clear directions.

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