Placing English Language Learners in a Program of Instruction

By now you have determined that this student speaks a language other than English at home. You have information about the student's level of English proficiency, educational background, and academic content knowledge. Your next step is to come up with a plan for placing the English language learner (ELL) in an instructional program that meets his or her language and academic needs.

What should you consider when placing ELLs?

Just because a student is not proficient in English does not mean that he or she is incapable of thinking, learning the grade-level curriculum, and mastering content areas. ELLs who are beginning English speakers may arrive in your class with an equal or even above grade-level background from their first language.

When placing ELLs, educators must consider a variety of factors. Here are a few questions to ask:

  • How much previous education does this student have in the U.S. and/or the home country?
  • What are his or her language and literacy proficiency levels in English and in the first language?
  • How much support is there at home for first language literacy and/or English development?
  • Do prospective teachers know how to use effective teaching strategies for ELLs?
  • Do prospective teachers understand the second language acquisition process and know what to expect at different levels of English proficiency?
  • What kind of extra support can the state, district, and school provide to meet ELLs' language and academic needs?

How can you determine the appropriate instructional program for ELLs?

In order to make an informed decision for the appropriate program of instruction, you will need to consider the information you gained in the assessment stage as well as the opinions of other educators in your school.

When considering instructional programs for ELLs, be aware that some subjects are good for ELLs to take with peers and English-speaking role models. ELLs can benefit in regular classrooms when math, science, art, P.E., and music teachers use ELL-friendly strategies for teaching content areas. These strategies increase comprehension, learning, and interaction through modeling, acting out, gesturing, showing diagrams, and doing hands-on activities and experiments.

Yet some language areas and subjects need special attention because they depend mostly on language – like reading, writing, and social studies. Possibilities for instruction include using the support of bilingual aides, an ESL teacher, a resource teacher, a content area teacher with ESL training, a pull-out class, or a combined grade level class (in which ELLs can be placed at a lower level at first and then moved up as they gain proficiency in English).

Your instructional program options for placing ELL students will depend upon on the policies of your state, district, and school. For an overview of different instructional program options, click here.

Should you promote your ELL to the next grade level?

Sooner or later, you will have to decide whether to promote ELLs to the next grade level or retain them for another year. You need to think this decision through carefully and keep records throughout the school year in order to make an objective and informed decision. When making decisions of this nature about ELLs, seek the advice of experienced educators, whether they are other teachers, local university professors, or district central office specialists.

Grade retention should only be considered as a last alternative, after you have tried everything else. Just because an ELL is silent in class does not mean that he or she should be held back one year. This student could be going through the "silent period" of absorbing a language before speaking it. There is no research that says an ELL will learn more English by staying in lower grades. Take into account that unnecessary grade retention can have a devastating impact on a child and his or her family.

How can you be sure that an ELL needs to be placed in a special education program?

There is a big difference between struggling to learn a second language and having a learning disability. Being an English language learner is not the same as being learning disabled. Before you make a referral for special education, make sure that your student has been tested in his or her native language, and is not being penalized for not speaking English. Make sure to inform the ELL's parents or guardians of the steps being taken to find the appropriate program for the ELL. Involve parents and guardians in the process and continue to inform them of new developments.

A comprehensive assessment involving you, other teachers, the school administrator, and personnel from the district's special education office can confirm and identify specific learning disabilities. Referrals of ELLs to special education programs should include the results of tests in the student's first language and in English. In making this decision, it is also important to:

  • Keep a record of the ELL's problems through school and classroom-based observations
  • Provide evidence that the ELL's difficulties are observed in both languages, and that he or she has not made satisfactory progress despite receiving competent instruction
  • Ask for and keep a record of the input from the ESL teacher and others involved in the child's education
  • Ask for and keep a record of the input from parents or guardians

See additional information on ELLs and learning disabilities.


Adapted from: Eastern Stream Center on Resources and Training (ESCORT). (2003). Help! They don't speak English. Starter kit. Oneonta, NY: State University College.

And from: Kusimo, P., Ritter, M., Busick, K., Ferguson, C., Trumbull, E., & Solano-Flores, G. (2000). Making assessment work for everyone. How to build on student strengths. San Francisco, CA: WestEd.


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].
aft shield logo
nea logo

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.