How to Develop a Lesson Plan that Includes ELLs

Teacher holding up fingers to student in math lesson

Learn how to plan lessons that support English learners' language development, build background knowledge, and give students opportunities to access grade-level content.

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.

Video: The role of ESOL specialists in collaboration

This video showcases a 5th-grade team planning a science lesson about the difference between vascular and non-vascular plants. ESOL specialist Katy Padilla plays a key role in advocating for ELLs throughout the lesson planning process and sharing her strategies for engaging and supporting students.

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. It is also helpful to 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 writing 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.

Video: Using language objectives with ELLs

In this excerpt from her Meet the Expert interview, Dr. Cynthia Lundgren explains the value of writing language objectives when teaching English learners.

Build background knowledge

Building background knowledge is critical to ensure that students have the information they need to understand the lesson. Kristina Robertson shares the following anecdote in her article about planning social studies lessons for ELLs:

A fifth-grade teacher was preparing her class to learn about the American Revolution. She enlisted the students' help in acting out the events that led to the Revolution with elaborate props and exercises. When the class ended, the students were told they would read more about the Revolution the following day. As they left the room, an ESL student stopped and asked urgently, "But who won?"

Keep in mind that:

  • ELLs' background knowledge varies greatly from one student to another.
  • ELLs' background knowledge will likely differ from students who were raised in U.S.
  • ELLs will bring important experiences and perspectives based on their own lives and cultures.

Identify key background knowledge for the lesson

Review your lesson plan and:

  • look for areas of background knowledge that you may be taking for granted – daily activities that may vary across countries, cultural customs, historical references, events from pop culture, etc.
  • determine what background knowledge your ELLs will need to understand the lesson.

Identify students' existing background knowledge

As you are preparing for the lesson, find out what background knowledge your students have on this topic. You can do this by:

Connect content students' existing background knowledge

Look for ways to connect content to:

Build background knowledge

In order to build background knowledge, try the following:

  • Use pictures, real objects ("realia"), maps, or personal experiences. Say the names of objects as often as you can so ELLs can remember them. Relate material to students' lives when possible.
  • Build text-specific knowledge by providing students with information from the text beforehand, particularly if the text is conceptually difficult or has an abundance of information that is important. For example, if there are six main topics on the animal kingdom, highlight them beforehand.
  • Also, develop concept background by explaining difficult concepts and labeling them with key words ELLs can remember. For example, "This is the Statue of Liberty. Liberty means freedom. Liberty means libertad. The people of France gave us the Statue of Liberty…"
  • Establish the purpose for reading (e.g., "Now we are going to read to find out about a country called France. What are some things we might learn about France as we read?")
  • Select a specific comprehension strategy for students to use. For example, decide to focus on the main idea, cause and effect, or comparing and contrasting.

Learn more about background knowledge in the following articles:

Videos: ELL educators speak about the importance of building background knowledge


Pre-teach vocabulary and academic language

Teaching vocabulary

  • Select key vocabulary that students need to understand the content.
  • Write an ELL-friendly definition for each and post them where students can see them throughout the lesson.
  • Keep an eye out for words with multiple meanings (such as "plot" and "table") and homonyms ("son"/"sun").
  • Look for cognates, or words from different languages that are related. Spanish and English have many cognates and they are particularly common in terms related to academic content.
  • 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 language.

Teaching academic language

Academic language, or the language of schooling, is the language that students need to succeed in their content-area classes. It can take at least 5-7 years for students to develop the academic language they need in another language. It is more formal than the social language that students will use when talking with their peers. Sometimes, educators are surprised to when a student who is quite proficient in speaking struggles on assignments or assessments; one reason may be that the student is still developing academic language.

While vocabulary is part of academic language, it is also signal words and phrases, expressions, and idioms. Dr. Cindy Lungren describes it as the "mortar" holding the "bricks" (vocabulary words) together. Here is an example she uses to explain this idea:

         Even though bats have wings, they are not birds.

In this sentence, the bricks are the key vocabulary words in bold:

         Even though bats have wings, they are not birds.

Yet to fully understand the sentence, students must understand the meaning of "even though." Here is a sample definition:

"Even though" means that two items are similar, but they are not the same. In this case, bats and birds both share a similar feature (having wings), but they are not the same animal.

Understanding signal words and phrases is a key step in a student's ability to "unlock" the academic language they encounter, as well as to start using it correctly themselves.

Learn more about how to teach academic language from the following:

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.

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.

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 can learn about other ways to effectively using cooperative learning strategies in these articles:

Incorporate writing into the lesson

Writing is another way for ELLs to demonstrate and extend their understanding of content. You can ask teams to compose questions about the content and use those questions for their test. Throw in one of your questions as a 'surprise test question.' Or, ask students to practice writing short simple summaries of what they read.

You can also 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.

Sentence frames

Sentence frames give students the academic language they need to write in complete sentences. Learn more from ESOL specialist Sheila Majdi below.

Graphic organizers
Another writing option is to give students a graphic organizer to fill in. This will 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




































Review and assess what students have learned

There are many ways to review and assess content following instruction. For some ideas, take a look at these articles:

Video: Using sentence frames with ELLs

ESOL specialist Sheila Majdi explains what a sentence frame is and how she might use this strategy with ELLs.

Reading comprehension and using textbooks

Reading is an important part of learning new content in the classroom. Remember that ELLs (especially those students with limited educational experience) may also need some help with two areas in particular:

  • 1. Reading comprehension
  • 2. How to effectively use textbooks

There are a few ways to support these skills:

Explicitly teach reading comprehension skills. Learning skills such as summarizing and finding the main idea will help students apply these strategies to all subject matter.

Teach students how to make predictions. One method is the Directed Reading-Thinking Activity (DR-TA), which encourages students to be active readers.

Help students recognize the structure of expository text. Introduce the various parts of the text, such as the table of contents and the glossary. Show students how the text is organized, and teach them how to use these tools for informational reading:

  • Titles
  • Headings
  • Bold print
  • Captions
  • Side bars
  • Maps
  • Graphs
  • Pictures
  • Bullets

Read an introductory portion of the textbook aloud. Model thinking aloud about what you are reading, how you figure out difficult words, and how to summarize what you read.

Develop study guides to guide ELLs through their content area textbook reading. Study guides will focus their attention on the major ideas presented, and can include graphic organizers as described above, key vocabulary, and guiding questions.

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.

Encourage student engagement. One strategy is the "Say Something" activity. Students take turns reading aloud, and following the reading, each student 'says something,' such as asking question, making a comment, making a connection to something already read, or responding personally to the text. The exercise also engages students as readers and get them thinking about the text.

For more tips on supporing reading instruction in the ELL classroom, take a look at our reading tips for teachers.

For more great ideas on lesson plans for ELLs, take a look at Colorín Colorado's Bright Ideas section, and the Classroom Strategy Library from our sister site,!

Pulling It All Together

As a recap, effective lessons for ELLs pull together the following components. While each one may take a little trial and error to figure out, each of these components will help contribute to ELLs' success in learning grade-level content:

  • content and language objectives
  • background knowledge
  • key concepts
  • academic language and vocabulary
  • explicit instruction and modeling
  • differentiation for language proficiency level
  • guided practice
  • peer practice
  • assessment of content learned


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


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