A Short Guide to English Language Learners


I've made this wiki to help teachers understand who English language learners (ELL) are, and to introduce some strategies we can all use to ease their classroom integration and help them succeed. I've read a lot of Ontario Ministry of Education documents on the topic and will try to summarize their findings and approach. I'll include a few links to audio-visual material and some ideas how it can be used. We will also take a look at modifying the curriculum, lessons, and assessment and possible accommodations that can be made. Please feel free to use and enjoy.


I've been ESL/EFL (English as a Second Language/English as a Foreign Language) teaching abroad since 1996. Now back in Canada, I'm excited to discover how ELLs are being taught in our public schools, where the emphasis is not strictly on language-learning, but on meeting curriculum expectations.

Canadian Home

Here I'd like to introduce myself to give you an understanding of my relation to the topic. I am an Anglophone from Montreal and I've always been interested in diversity, multiculturalism, and second-language acquisition. In my opinion, French immersion was a failure for me. The program was unsuccessful because it did not interest me and I was not involved in my own education. The focus was on grammar and the material was irrelevant to the situation in Quebec. Due to political concerns, I did not seek integration into Quebec society. To this day I do not consider myself Quebecois and identify myself as a Montrealer and Canadian. As a teacher at home and in Asia, I've developed a few strategies to reach and engage students. Students must be respected for who they are and encouraged to participate fully in the class and in society. My wife is currently undergoing francization ("French-ification"), taking government-run French courses because she is an immigrant to Quebec. They are intended to welcome newcomers and facilitate their integration into our society. I have observed Jojo, my wife, go through several recognized stages that many immigrants experience, from an initial honeymoon period to disillusionment and finally to acceptance of a new culture. My son Daniel entered French-language daycare this summer and is faced with not just a new environment but also a new language. He has already been to two different garderies, each with a different approach to his existing linguistic knowledge. His attitude towards schooling has varied according to the treatment he has received. Second-language learning, immigration, and minority language status have been constants in the lives of my family members and these issues are always close to our hearts.

First Day of School
My family is diverse and ELLs in Canadian schools are no less so. There are a number of native Canadians studying ESL, whether they are from First Nations, Metis, Inuit, French, or other immigrant communities. ELLs also include immigrants who have made a conscious decision to settle here. Refugees who have had to leave their homes, perhaps unwillingly, due to war, disaster, and poverty are studying in many of our schools. All of these students are on a language-learning continuum. Ontario has identified four stages that learners will progress through on their way to native-speaker-like status. These range from students who do not require any modification to their expectations or assessments to stage one learners with practically no English, and include students who require English literacy development classes (ELD).

My family history and present situation have led me to an interest in ELLs and their success in Canada, but everyone should be involved. According to the government of Ontario, of the two-million students attending the province's public schools, over half are ELLs (http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/document/esleldprograms/guide.pdf, pp.3,18). Even if this extraordinary figure is suspect, it hints at the dimensions of the challenge we are facing. This is not about the individual success of each ELL alone, but rather about the success of the system itself and the fate of our national experiment. Paradoxically, the only way we can guarantee our collective future prosperity is by reaching each student as an individual.

In writing this I've drawn upon personal experience, conversations with colleagues, education ministry documents from Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia, and ESL teacher websites. I have highlighted key words and statements which I believe are important, making it easier for the casual user to skim this wiki. I hope we can all use this as a resource in the future and I welcome your comments, questions, and criticisms.

Theoretical Framework and Legal Responsibility

Here are some good lines from the ministry document "Supporting English Language Learners" (p.9), that really state their policy towards ELLs in Ontario schools;

Understanding the bilingual advantage
Students who see their previously developed language skills acknowledged by
their teachers and parents are more likely to feel confident and take the risks
involved in learning a new language. They are able to view English as an addition
to their first language, rather than as a substitution for it.

They want all students to be supported and their existing knowledge recognized.

Teachers have a responsibility to teach the curriculum to every student, although there is some flexibility with ELLs and they are allowed to be accomodated according to their needs. That's why assessment for learning is essential when they enter school.

Mandated Gov't policy requirements,
"As part of the Board Improvement Plan and the Student
Success/Learning to 18 Action Plan, all boards will include a
section that addresses the needs of English language learners."

The literature emphasizes the importance of the whole school and community welcoming students and their families. Of course communication with parents who have little or no English requires the use of a second-language, but the ministry actually encourages students to use their mother tongue. This seems unusual to me as in the past I have only known immersion-like situations where the learner is prohibited from speaking L1 (Their first language). Governments across Canada seem to have a very flexible approach to welcoming ELLs into our schools and communities. This is not only because of theoretical concerns, but also due to our practical need to educate and integrate our future work force.

The ESL/ELD resource guide ( http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/document/curricul/esl18.pdf) has some good stuff from the ministry. If you want know what your ELLs for each stage for every grade level should be capable of there are examples. It also hopes to describe the stages of L2 (Second-language) acquisition.

For example, p.92-97 looks at possible accommodations at the grade 6 level. The lesson is in social studies on Canada and its trading partners.

For "Language – Oral and Visual Communication

Students will:
– ask and answer questions to obtain and clarify information
– contribute and work constructively in groups"

However for the modified expectations of stage 1 ELLs, they will:"
– respond to simple content questions (e.g., What country exports shoes to Canada?)
– work constructively in a group in a limited role"

Level 2 ELLs will:
"- respond to content questions (e.g., What three natural resources does Canada export?)
– contribute and work constructively in groups in a limited role"

We can see that ELLs are all required to meet curriculum expectations.

Assessment rubrics for stage 1 learners range from 1, with substantial assistance, to 4, independently. The average 3 looks for the student to complete the task with minimal help.

English Literacy Development

Here's a good introduction to ELD, http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/document/manyroots/ELL_LPS.pdf, which looks specifically at strategies to help ELLs with limited prior schooling. In most examples, students are not willing immigrants, but more likely to be refugees and have experienced violence, famine, or poverty.

For ELLs, assessment for learning is essential. Teachers must know where their students stand in order to scaffold for lessons and make appropriate accommodations.


Time to change gears and put my boy to bed. Let's listen to some music.

This is Joni Mitchell doing a fantastic song of hers, "California". It could be used to introduce a Canadian singer or discuss the popular culture of the 60s and 70s. It is a beautiful song and may open up a lot of interest in the art and history of the period for al students, not just ELLs.

I am not sure if I could make a lesson out of a few goods songs, but they do suggest something different to me and I feel good music opens my mind in a certain way and allows me to make special connections. Memories are easier to recall when they are tied to our emotions. It is important to keep all students interested in the lesson and excited about school in general. For ELLs and ELD students the use of music could help bridge cultural gaps and create understanding of content. I love Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. The Tragically Hip and the Rheostatics are also good Canadian bands. The Barenaked Ladies have a number of simple (Some would say funny) songs that could be great for ELLs, and the Raffi is always essential. I like all these bands and they teach content as well as make emotional contact with students.

Here's a video of the Canadian band, the Tragically Hip's. I find this song "Boycaygeon" very moving and warm. It could be used to highlight a rural/urban divide or just to make poetry accessible to students. Many of the Hip's tunes are quintessentially Canuck and reference Bill Barilko, Hugh MacLennan, and David Milgaard. Besides their popularity, they introduce ELLs and students to many Canadian and universal themes.

Teaching Ideas and Tips

All students in Ontario are expected to meet curriculum expectations, although they may be modified in individual cases. A key term is differentiation. The following advice for teachers of ELLs is taken from "Supporting English Language Learners". (http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/document/esleldprograms/guide.pdf) I have italicizied key terms and put the most interesting in bold.

Differentiating instruction for English language learners

Teachers must adapt the instructional program in order to facilitate the success
of English language learners in their classrooms.
Appropriate adaptations to the instructional program include:
•• modification of some or all of the subject expectations so that they are challenging but
attainable for the learner at his or her present level of English proficiency, given the
necessary support from the teacher;
•• use of a variety of instructional strategies (e.g., extensive use of visual cues, graphic
organizers, scaffolding; previewing of textbooks, pre-teaching of key vocabulary; peer
•• strategic use of students’ first languages;
•• use of a variety of learning resources (e.g., visual material, simplified text, bilingual
dictionaries, and materials that reflect cultural diversity);
•• use of assessment accommodations (e.g., granting of extra time, oral interviews,
demonstrations or visual representations, tasks requiring completion of graphic
organizers or cloze sentences instead of essay questions and other assessment tasks
that depend heavily on proficiency in English).
While the degree of program adaptation required will decrease over time, English
language learners continue to need some level of program support in order to
experience school success.
The teacher needs to adapt the program for ELLs as they acquire English

pp.56-62 Strategies for ELLs

Making language and content accessible for English language learners

It is important for teachers to identify language that may be confusing to ELLs
and to substitute clearer alternatives. Students learn language best when they
can understand what is said by inference: that is, by making connections to
what they already know. To help students do this, teachers can use the following

••Simplify vocabulary. Choose simple, straightforward words that are in
everyday use. For example, most students will understand “Learn the new
words” more easily than “Review the new vocabulary.”

••Recycle new words. Reintroduce new words in a different context or use
recently learned words to reintroduce or expand a concept.

••Simplify sentence structure. Avoid complex sentences and passive verbs if
possible. For example, instead of “The homework must be completed and
handed in by Friday,” it would be better to say “You must finish the work and
give it to me on Friday.”

••Highlight key ideas and instructions. Review instructions and concepts
periodically with the class to reinforce students’ comprehension. Pause to
get students’ attention before making an important point, and make sure all
students can see you. Use gestures for emphasis, raise pitch and volume
slightly, repeat or rephrase (or ask a student to do so).

••Provide notes that highlight key ideas and new words. Use the chalkboard
or post a chart in the classroom for ongoing reference. Provide a summary
sheet so that students can refer to it when studying at home.

••Give clear, explicit instructions. Number and label the steps in an activity.
Reinforce oral instructions for homework and projects with a written outline
to help students who may not be able to process oral instructions quickly
enough to understand fully.

••Use many non-verbal cues. Gestures, facial expressions, and mime help
learners grasp the meaning of what you are saying. Be aware that some
gestures (e.g., pointing at people) may have negative meanings in some

••Make frequent use of a variety of concrete and visual supports. These might
include models, toys, math manipulatives, pictures, charts, flashcards,
vocabulary lists, key visuals, posters, and banners. Demonstrate procedures
and provide related hands-on activities.

••Allow sufficient response time when interacting orally. Students need time to
think in the first language and compose a response in the second.

••Check often for comprehension. For example, at frequent intervals say, “Tell
me what you have to do next.”

••Provide bilingual support. For students who are in the early stages of learning
English, bilingual peers can clarify instruction, provide translations of key
words that are difficult to explain in English, and help to determine whether a
student understands.

••Speak naturally, but pause briefly between phrases. This gives English
language learners time to process the smaller chunks of language. This also
helps them recognize English as it is actually spoken.

••Be conscious of words that need further explanation. It may be necessary to
explain contractions such as “don’t” and non-standard spoken forms such
as “gonna.”

••Use key visuals. Key visuals are teacher-developed graphic organizers that
show how ideas are related. T-charts, Venn diagrams, flow charts, story
maps, timelines, and decision trees are examples of organizers that are not
dependent on language knowledge and that promote the development of
thinking skills such as classifying, relating cause-and-effect, comparing and
contrasting, or following a sequence.

Many of these tips are obvious and some are intuitive, but are good to keep in mind by reviewing every once in a while. In the heat of classroom action sometimes the obvious is forgotten.

It is interesting for those familiar with immersion and second-language acquisition programs to note the recommendations for bilingual support. Out of all the research I did for this wiki this was the most shocking fact. In my experience, L1 use (The first language, or mother tongue) is to be avoided in the classroom.


This lesson was suggested in "Supporting English Language Learners: A Practical Guide for Ontario Educators, Grades 1 to 8" (2008)


It is intended to meet overall expectations in grade 5 social studies, language, visual arts, and mathematics. After describing the lesson I will show possible modifications to the lesson and assessment for ELLs. In this example, there are three hypothetical students from three different stages; Stage 1 Benjime, Stage 2 Min-su, Stage 3-4 Olesya.

innovations lesson plan

Print and websites references:
The Ontario Curriculum:
Social Studies, Grades 1 to 6; History and Geography, Grades 7 and 8, 2004.

The Ontario Curriculum:
Language, Grades 1-8, 2006.

Canadiens at School

To start off at the elementary level, the Montreal Canadiens has a website for teachers and parents with lesson plan help, activities, and printable book marks, certificates, and merit charts. I like the Carey Price unit on conservation; Remember to recycle!
It includes two story books at high and low levels to print up and illustrate and a number of worksheets for classroom use.


The conservation unit is for grades 1-2, but this info on Guy Lafleur is for grades 5-6.

It is intended to meet Quebec ESL curriculum but would be useful to Habs fans everywhere. I've always thought that French could be best taught in the R.O.C. (Rest of Canada) through the intensive study of Les Glorieux.

Here's is a French-language worksheet concerning Maurice Richard for grades 5-6. Try it yourself, how do you do?


Here are some simple math work sheets;


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Professional Development

Here I've looked at Ontario ministry requirements, and again italicizied and put key terms in bold.


School boards will assign staff with the qualifications required
by the Ministry of Education to teach ESL and ELD programs
(see Ontario Regulation 184/97).

All teachers are responsible for supporting academic success for all students
– including English language learners.

Classroom/subject teachers who have
students in their classes who are English language learners are not required
to hold English as a Second Language Part 1 qualifications. However, the
school board should provide all teachers with opportunities for professional
development in meeting the needs of English language learners.

Teachers assigned to ESL and ELD programs/courses at both the elementary
and secondary school level are required to hold English as a Second Language
Part 1 qualifications.

Teachers with positions of added responsibility in the area of ESL and ELD (e.g., ESL/ELD department heads in secondary schools, ESL/ELD consultants and coordinators) are required to possess a Specialist Certificate in English as a Second Language.

School boards will provide appropriate professional development
opportunities to administrators, ESL/ELD teachers, classroom
teachers, and support staff to support the implementation of
this policy.

English language learners are present in classrooms throughout the province.
All teachers require the knowledge and skills to meet the needs of these
students and effectively support their ongoing academic achievement.

Professional development opportunities related to meeting the needs of
English language learners might include training in:
– making program adaptations (including accommodations related to both
teaching and assessment strategies) to support English language learners;
– modifying learning expectations for English English language learners;
– fostering involvement by parents and communities in the schooling of
English language learners."

If you are interested in working with ELLs in the future, it seems like it would be a good idea to get a specialist certificate in ESL, or at least part 1 qualifications.


For ELLs in the province of Ontario, their assessments may be modified. Accommodation ranges from a stage one student having one-on-one help with an ELD teacher to stage three or four students doing the curriculum with relatively few changes to it. Supporting English Language Learners: A Practical Guide for Ontario Educators Grades 1 to 8 has examples of possible accommodations made to either the lesson or assessment.


For Classroom Teachers

Here is something new I've just added that I consider helpful. There are many practical tips on building vocabulary.


Supporting English Language Learners -http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/document/esleldprograms/guide.pdf has great strategies for integrating ELLs, and then superb examples of lesson plans, curriculum expectations, and assessment modifications for three hypothetical students at three different levels.
(Strategies and adaptations pp.50-92)

ESL Specific

Here's some stuff offered on-line by our friends at Carleton applied linguistics and the CBC.
There are videos on Terry Fox and the Queen that could be used by ELLs to develop Canadian cultural knowledge and media literacy.

If you are looking for ESL activities or scouting out job opportunities, I've often used Dave's ESL Cafe, eslcafe.com. I've been able to get jobs overnight and make some good contacts. The lesson plans can sometimes be useful too.

I've never used Canada-ESL.com, but they do have a lesson index.

For Parents

ABC123 is an Ontario government document in fifteen languages intended to fulfill the ministry's mandate to reach every student. It outlines a number of ways to help children improve their literacy and numeracy skills. It is a helpful tool in the absence of a translator or common language. It reaches non-English speaking parents and shows them that their heritage and children are valued and their future contributions to our society appreciated. The only problem with this approach is the fact that fifteen languages hardly cover those spoken in one University of Ottawa-area primary school, let alone the number of mother tongues being spoken in the province.


English language learners in Ontario have the support they need to succeed academically. Schools are welcoming them and making modifications to the curriculum and assessment. As teachers, we will be encouraged to reach all students and given the power to accommodate ELLs depending on the stage of their literacy. Teaching all children is our responsibility, not just to the individual learners, but to the community and society. The resources and theoretical framework are all in place. Now, we must access them and use them to our advantage. Good luck!



Ontario Ministry of Education

The Ontario Curriculum Grades 1-8 Language (2006)

The Ontario Curriculum Grades 1-8 English as a Second Language and English Literacy Development: A Resource Guide (2001)

English Language Learners ESL and ELD Programs and Services: Policy and Procedures for Ontario Elementary and Secondary Schools, Kindergarten to Grade 12 (2007)

Supporting English Language Learners Grades 1-8 (2008)

Supporting English Language Learners in Kindergarten (2007)

Supporting English Language Learners with Limited Prior Schooling 3-12 (2008)

The Ontario Curriculum Unit Planner ESL/ELD Companion (2002)

Alberta Education

English as a Second Language: Guide to Implementation Kindergarten to Grade 9 (2007)

British Columbia. Ministry of Education. Special Programs Branch.
English as a Second Language Learners: A Guide for ESL Specialists (1999)