How to Develop a Lesson Plan that Includes ELLs

Small group math lesson in classroom

Learn how to plan lessons that support English learners' language development, build background knowledge, and give students opportunities to access grade-level content. This article is part of our Strategies for ELL Success guide.

Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages.

In content-area classes, English language learners (ELLs) face a double challenge: they must learn language and content at the same time. In order to succeed in these classes, ELLs need the literacy, language skills, and background knowledge necessary to master that new content knowledge.

One way to address that challenge is through effective lesson planning. Depending on their different stages of English proficiency and literacy, ELLs will benefit from the skills that a well-designed lesson can address. For additional tips on language instruction, see our tips for mainstream teachers.

Note: This article also includes some research-based recommendations offered by Dr. Diane August in her 2018 American Educator article, Educating English Language Learners: A Review of the Latest Research.

Video: The role of ESOL specialists in collaboration

This video showcases a 5th-grade team planning a science lesson. ESOL specialist Katy Padilla plays a key role in advocating for ELLs throughout the lesson planning process.

Lesson planning for the ELLs: Step by step

Effective lesson planning requires a number of steps from initial preparation to the final review of material. This blog post on lesson planning with sheltered instruction offers a general roadmap for that process.

Identify standards and objectives

First, identify your goals for the lesson. What are your target standards?  It is helpful to post these clearly so that students know what they will be focused on learning and eliminate unnecessary information that does not meet your objective.

Next, identify your content objectives and language objectives:

  • The content objectives focus on the content you will be teaching, such as a math, Science, Social Studies, or language arts objective.
  • The language objectives focus on the academic language functions that students need to master in order to access grade-level content.

It is critical to teach language objectives explicitly so that ELLs (and their peers) can learn the content and language they need.

For example, Jennifer Himmel shares the following examples in her popular article about how to write language objectives for content-area lessons:

3rd grade Science, States of Matter
Content Area StandardContent ObjectiveLanguage Objective
California: Students know that matter has three forms: solid, liquid, and gas.Students will be able to distinguish between liquids, solids, and gases and provide an example of each.Students will be able to orally describe characteristics of liquids, solids, and gases to a partner.

Build background knowledge

Background knowledge is the hook that students hang new information on. When planning lessons for ELLs, it is important to both:

  • access students' existing background knowledge
  • build background knowledge that students.

To start this process, you need to:

  1. Identify key background knowledge needed for the lesson
  2. Identify students' existing background knowledge
  3. Build background knowledge students need

Teach key vocabulary

Selecting words to teach

Select key vocabulary that students need to understand the content. Dr. Diane August notes that there are different kinds of vocabulary words that may need to be taught across different content areas:

  • words that are critical to the meaning of the lesson or text
  • words with multiple meanings ("plot," "table," "key," and "yard")
  • homonyms ("son"/"sun")
  • general academic words
  • academic vocabulary in a particular content area.

You can see additional recommendations on how to choose which vocabulary words to teach in this overview of the ACCELL project that Dr. August led at the American Institutes for Research.

Strategies for instruction

  • Write an ELL-friendly definition for each and post them where students can see them throughout the lesson.
  • Try different strategies to teach each word. If there are five words to be pre-taught, use different ways of engaging the students to hear and produce each word in context.
  • Give students ample opportunities to practice each new word both in oral and written languages.
  • Look for cognates, or words from different languages that are related. For example, Spanish and English have many cognates ("information" /"información") and they are particularly common in terms related to academic content. Learning how to use cognates can bolster Spanish-speaking ELLs' comprehension significantly.
  • Discuss word families and how different forms of words are used. ELLs may need explicit instruction in which form of a word to use. Help students look for spelling and usage patterns, such as past tense verbs ending in "-ed." Since English has so many exceptions, this isn't always a foolproof strategy, but a basic knowledge of these patterns, rules, and spellings will help.

Related resources

Support academic language development

Academic language, or the language of schooling, is the language that students need to succeed in their content-area classes. It is important for educators and students alike to understand the differences between social and academic language and why textbooks, tests, assignments, or class presentations may be more challenging for students than social conversations.

There are a number of ways to support academic language development, such as:

  • previewing the text
  • teaching grammatical structures relevant to a particular content area ("greater than" and "less than" in math class)
  • showing how the targeted academic language is used in reading, writing, speaking, and listening in your content area.

For example, what is the difference between the language students use to write a science report vs. the language used in a class message board? Sharing examples and teaching specific phrases or structures, especially when they related to a specific content area, can be a helpful way to help students feel comfortable in multiple settings.

 Dr. August also encourages educators to familiarize themselves with some features of academic language that may present challenges such as the following:

  • visual presenations of information, such as graphs, charts, diagrams, maps, and equations
  • figurative language
  • syntax, such as passive voice and complex sentences
  • nominalization, which refers to using a word that is not a noun as a noun or noun phrase (i.e., "the rich").

Collaborating with an ESL specialist can be a helpful way to start identifying areas of academic language where additional support would be helpful.

Related resources

Video: Instruction of Key Academic Vocabulary with High School ELLs

Video: Pre-teaching concepts and vocabulary before a lesson

ESOL specialist Katy Padilla shares more in-depth information about her "Super Secret Science Club," an informal lunch activity for 5th-grade ELLs where they see a preview of the afternoon's lesson.

Video: Bricks and mortar in language instruction

Dr. Cindy Lundgren discusses the concept of "bricks and mortar" when thinking about effective vocabulary instruction for ELLs.

Learn some additional strategies for scaffolding and differentiating instruction.

Scaffolding instruction means to put in place some supports that can help students access grade-level content.  In addition, your students may be at varying levels of English language proficiency, and some differentiation might be necessary. It's ok to start small -- and remember that this is an area where an ESL teacher can provide some helpful ideas!

Some strategies for scaffolding and differentiating include:

If students are having trouble with an activity, try to identify whether a new concept, set of directions, vocabulary word, or other element is causing the difficulty. Identify some different ways that you can help students move beyond those obstacles. These might include providing a book about the topic in the student's native language or reviewing new vocabulary words together.

Video: Pre-teaching concepts and vocabulary before a lesson

Video: Using "realia" to build background

Use peer review and cooperative learning strategies

Using peer learning can be a powerful way to help students master content. Here are some ways to get students working together:

  • Use graphic organizers. Have students work in collaborative groups and use a graphic organizer as a scaffold for specific tasks, such as identifying main ideas or relationships between information, etc. It gives a purpose while reading while interacting and using the language.
  • Assign reading partners. Pair ELLs with friendly fluent readers. Ask partners to read aloud to each other, alternating sentences or pages. After partner reading, ask them to summarize what they read. For variety, use choral reading once in a while. Assign different sections to each team, ask them to rehearse, and then ask teams to read chorally.
  • Use Think-Pair-Share (TPS). TPS is a collaborative learning strategy in which students work together to solve a problem or answer a question about an assigned reading. This technique requires students to (1) think individually about a topic or answer to a question; and (2) share ideas with classmates. Discussing an answer with a partner serves to maximize participation, focus attention and engage students in comprehending the reading material. Read more in the following articles:

You may also wish to look for ways to engage students through hands-on learning and project-based learning. Learn about other ways to effectively using cooperative learning strategies in these articles:

Video: Writing a cooperative paragraph


Consider how to incorporate different language skills into the lesson

When learning a new language, students need to master four key skills:

  • speaking
  • writing
  • reading
  • listening

(Drs. Andrea Honigsfeld and Maria Dove note that they like the acronym SWIRL, which includes "interaction" in the list.)

You can learn more about these skills in What Language Skills Do ELLs Need?, as well as ideas for teaching these skills both in person and online in Teaching ELLs Online: How to Develop Students' Language Skills.

For example, you can support ELLs' writing skills by modeling the kinds of writing used frequently in your particular content area, such as lab reports in chemistry class, or a persuasive essay in social studies. Help students understand what the purpose of different kinds of writing are, and review vocabulary that would be typically used in these kinds of assignments. Be sure to provide examples of the different kinds of writing to your students so they can learn and compare models.


Review and assess what students have learned

There are many ways to review and assess content following instruction. For example, graphic organizers are a helpful way for students to demonstrate that they understood the concepts and content, even if they only use a symbol or write one or two words for each category. Graphic organizers can also be used as a pre-teaching or post-teaching strategy for introducing or reinforcing key concepts and how they are related. The more connections ELLs make to the overall content and organization of the content before reading, the easier it will be to focus on and understand what is important. When teachers and/or students use graphic organizers at the end of a lesson, this helps to reinforce and synthesize lesson content.

For example:

Category: Pets




































Related resources

Video: Using informal assessment with ELLs

In this video, Ms. Samantha Kirch demonstrates the ways she uses informal assessment to gauge student understanding, as well as the kinds of support offered to ELLs who need some extra practice with the concept of drawing conclusions.

Examples from the Content Areas

For examples of content-related lesson plans and strategies for ELLs, take a look at the following:

Closing Thoughts

Finally, we want to close with some thoughts from expert ELL educator and administrator Kristina Robertson. First, she encourages educators to only introduce one new thing at a time when teaching ELLs. And she reminds educators not to be afraid to go back to the drawing board if it doesn't go well the first time! While your lesson planning process may involve some trial and error, you will start to see positive results when you take ELLs into account in your planning. You will soon be on your way to planning lessons that engage, include, and support the ELLs in your class.

Video: Try one new thing at a time

Kristina Robertson talks about the importance of only introducing one new thing at a time when teaching ELLs:

  • When introducing new language, use old content.
  • When introducing new content, use old language.
  • Try to avoid using new language and new content at the same time!

Video: When new things don't work

Kristina Robertson shares her advice for dealing with strategies that just don't work.


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Loved the page: Will help me plan my instruction more efficiently.

Very informative.The strategies used here will definitely help in bridging content with language learning.

I would like to use this article with some teachers in a professional development setting. Thank you.

I will share this as orientation for new teachers. I am the lead EL teacher in my district.

I am very excited about becoming an ESOL teacher. I am always searching the internet to read, clarify assignments and discover strategies I can implement once I am assigned a class. Your article was very insightful, useful and very readable.

Thank you very much for sharing this valuable article.

Thanks for the comprehensive and informative article.

Great ideas on breaking things down for these students. I love the Graphic organizers and the "Just Say Something" ideas.

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