Literacy Instruction for ELLs: Implementation and Advocacy

Two teachers in a meeting about biliteracy

Learn about some important considerations in the planning and implementation of literacy instruction for ELLs, as well as areas where advocacy may be needed. This article is part of our guide on Literacy Instruction for English Language Learners.

Image credit: Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages

In addition to the "What?" of reading instruction for ELLs, it’s also important to look at the "How?", "When?", and "Why?" Whether you are focused on teaching individual students or navigating a larger school- or district-wide shift in literacy instruction, there are a few key considerations that can have a big impact on ELLs. This list is not exhaustive and these summaries only scratch the surface, but they raise important questions worth reviewing as you look at literacy instruction in your setting.

Teaching one thing at a time

ELL expert Kristina Robertson suggests only teaching one new thing at a time when working with ELLs. For example, if you are introducing new language, use familiar content. And if you are introducing new content, use familiar language. The same is true for new skills in your literacy work.

Co-teaching and collaboration for ELLs’ reading instruction

There are multiple ways that educators can collaborate to support ELLs' literacy instruction. These include:

  • Co-planning and co-teaching literacy lessons
  • Forming a student support team with multiple roles represented
  • Forming a PLC to discuss best practices in literacy for ELLs

This kind of collaboration is particularly important if your school is adopting a new literacy model and educators have questions about what the changes mean for ELLs.

What about the role of ELL educators?

ELL educators have a critical role to play in ELLs' literacy development. However, this role may not be clearly defined or understood more broadly, which can make it harder for ELL educators to maximize their impact. Here are some areas where ELL educators have unique areas of expertise:

  • Supporting oral language development
  • Connecting literacy instruction to students' native languages
  • Supporting language development through vocabulary and comprehension
  • Showing colleagues how to learn more about ELLs' language proficiency levels
  • Bringing research-based information about teaching ELLs into conversations about literacy

At the same time, it's important to recognize that ELL teachers may not have formal training in reading instruction even though they may be tasked with delivering reading interventions. One school district that bolstered training across the board gave ELL teachers the opportunity to earn their Master's degrees in reading and general education teachers the opportunity to complete their ELL certifications. Starting conversations about expectations, expertise, and training may seem daunting — but it can yield important priorities, insights, and opportunities for growth.

You can learn more about ELL educators' areas of expertise (or how to talk about that expertise!) from our article What is an ELL educator?, as well as from the video clip with Dr. Karen Woodson below in which she describes her school's PLC that brought reading specialists and ELL specialists together to re-organize reading instruction.

Developing a new ELD model through teacher leadership

Dr. Karen Woodson describes the teacher-led process that her school went through to create an equitable instructional model for ELLs at the school.


If you look at ELLs' schedules from a student's point of view, you may be surprised to see how many transitions ELLs can have during the day and how much core instruction time they may miss during pull-out time.

Award-winning Principal Nathaniel Provencio saw this first-hand when he shadowed a student with a stopwatch and timed the actual instruction the student experienced. After all transitions and pull-outs were accounted for, the observed student was accessing just 15 minutes of instruction in a full school day.

This experience and a desire to improve reading instruction motivated the staff at Mr. Provencio’s school to implement the PRESS-In model, in which the literacy team pushed into the classroom rather than pulling students out. Not only did it reduce the number of transitions that students experienced during the day, but students' reading outcomes improved, more students were referred for gifted programs, and fewer students were referred for behavioral or special education interventions.

The PRESS-In model is an example of a school-wide initiative that takes careful planning and buy-in from administrators and staff alike, but there are other ways to reduce students' transitions during the day that include:

  • push-in opportunities
  • co-teaching and collaboration on a smaller scale
  • careful planning of pull-out time or interventions happening outside of the classroom

Look for opportunities to make small changes at first and share your successes with colleagues and administrators!

Video: Lessons learned from shadowing a student

Award-winning principal Nathaniel Provencio talks about the best professional development he ever experienced: following a student with a stopwatch to time the amount of effective instruction he experienced in a day.

Advocating for ELLs

Another key consideration around ELL literacy instruction is advocacy. As you look at your school or district literacy program, it's important to ask where ELLs fit into the picture. Is ELL instruction addressed in the curriculum, student materials, or educator training? If so, is it done in a thoughtful way that provides guidance to educators on what to prioritize?

If it is not addressed in a useful way (or at all), it is critical to ask school and district leaders how they might address that gap by providing additional training from experts who can help put the pieces together or considering additional/different materials or resources as needed. You can find additional ideas for more systemic advocacy in All In! How Educators Can Advocate for English Language Learners and you can also learn more in these reviews of curricular materials from Student Achievement Partners.

It is also important to keep in mind that all educators who work with ELLs have a role to play in supporting their language and literacy development and ensuring they are accessing grade-level content. By regularly asking, "What does this mean for ELLs?", educators from different perspectives can help create an environment in which ELLs are more likely to succeed.

Role of administrators

There are also many ways that administrators can lead and support this work, including by:

  • Becoming knowledgeable about best practices for ELLs’ literacy development
  • Providing time for staff training and collaboration around planning, instruction, and additional professional development where needed
  • Reviewing and selecting curriculum with care and in consultation with teams that include ELL and bilingual staff
  • Supporting family engagement and partnerships

For administrators who would like more training in this area, they can look for ELL courses, conferences, and collaboration opportunities alongside ELL educators. Many professional organizations and events focused on ELLs include administrator tracks.

Learn more from the following:

Family engagement

Multilingual families can be also powerful allies in support of students' literacy development. However, those partnerships may look different than what educators in U.S. schools are used to — thinking outside of the box is encouraged! This may include inviting families in to share songs or stories in the classroom, sending bilingual books home, and sharing information about the school and public libraries.

In addition, ELL specialist Becky Corr encourages schools to find out what family engagement looks like in families' home countries and what their experience has been like in other schools. For example, in some countries, families may not be encouraged or even allowed to enter the school. Ms. Corr suggests explicitly telling families that they are welcome in your school, how they can initiate a conversation with administration or teachers, and making sure they are aware of when planned events will be happening.

For more ideas on how to partner with multilingual families around literacy, take a look at our related article, which includes tip sheets and outreach videos in multiple languages, as well as our article on Communicating with ELL Families: 10 Strategies for Schools.


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