Adapting Content for ELLs: What Non-ELL Teachers Should Know

A sad reality of being an ELL specialist in secondary schools is that our hardest working students are usually the ones who leave our program. We do our best to give them the skills they need to learn and demonstrate what they know for other teachers. Our role is often limited to monitoring to find out how well our students can compare to their native-born classmates.

But that’s not to say we have to take a reactive role for our students’ needs. We are still the experts of adapting content so the underlying information comes through without distracting or needlessly complicated language. Newer teachers may receive the benefits of linguistic-specific classes as a part of their education, but they will lack the experience, while more experienced teachers may be reluctant to make huge changes to their tried-and-true materials. And neither group has time to spare when it comes to planning their lessons.

So to make this sort of interdisciplinary collaboration work, we need tips that are both practical and easy to apply. Here are some I found that work:

1. The “Blah” test. Before handing out a reading activity to students, the teacher may want to read through it—and replace every word the ELL student may not understand with “Blah.” If the reader sounds like Charlie Brown’s teacher, consider simplifying the text. That’s not to say there should be no “blahs,” especially if these show up with the target concepts for the lesson.

2. Hemingway App. You don’t have to be a famous writer to turn any piece of text into clear and concise prose with this free online service. Just paste in the troublesome text to instantly see what words may be too high-level, what sentences are long enough to be confusing, and other suggested improvements. Once the text is pasted in, you can adjust it in real-time and watch the grade level drop.

3. Avoid polysemous words. Remember that students may still rely on dictionaries, and the intended definition may not be the first one. Multiple meanings for uncommon words can make a simple sentence hard to understand. I once had a student struggle over a social studies question that asked, “Are governments bound to follow their own laws?” because her dictionary said “bound” meant a very big jump.

4. Watch the idioms. Colloquiums are often the last things language learners master. They may not see any rhyme or reason to phrases that don’t ring a bell, especially when they come out of the blue. It’s best to avoid any gray areas when dotting your “i”s and crossing your “t”s as a rule of thumb.

5. Remember the cultural disconnect. ELLs may know the language, but unless they started their American education in kindergarten, they may struggle with what’s common knowledge in this nation. For example, even students who didn’t pay much attention in history class will know what a “pilgrim” was. It may help to take some extra time to explain these concepts to bring your ELLs up to speed while activating prior knowledge among their classmates.

About Nathan Hall

Nathan Hall
Nathan Hall, MA TESOL, MS Education, lives in Pottstown, PA with his wife and two daughters. He has been involved in ESL since he volunteered as a tutor in 2001, which inspired him to leave the field of journalism for education. He has since taught English language learners in a variety of settings ranging from community programs to colleges as well as in several different types of middle schools and high schools. He is currently an ELL specialist at Achievement House Cyber Charter School in Exton, PA.
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One Response to Adapting Content for ELLs: What Non-ELL Teachers Should Know

  1. Param Murgan says:

    Teaching English as a Second Language to students poses a number of issues that have to be understood, before being resolved.
    The first thing I do is to understand the culture of the learners – that is, to know aspects such as the structure of their mother tongue, the values they uphold, some of their habits and their beliefs. Very soon I managed to comprehend a fair amount of the aspects of my students who were mostly from the Middle East and Northern Africa. That made me approach teaching English in a manner that became quite palatable for the learners. The trick is making them realise that we the instructors are aware of their ‘system’. From then on it is fairly a less formidable task trying to make them use English.

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