Authored by Raelene Christman

"Through learning language, we learn about culture. Through learning about culture, we learn respect for others. Through learning respect for others, we can hope for peace." ~unknown


Although the majority of the Canadian population is comprised of people whose mother tongue is English, around 32% of individual’s native language is French and about 18% of the populations’ mother tongue is a language other than English or French (Statistics Canada). “Many English language learners [are] born in Canada and raised in families and communities in which languages other than English [are] spoken…[and] other English language learners arrive…as newcomers from other countries” (The Ontario Curriculum Grades 1-8, Lanuage, 2006p.26). Due to the fact that Canada has more than one official language and a large amount of immigration, it is not unusual or unlikely that, as a teacher, you will eventually encounter an ESL student in one of your classrooms. In fact, knowing how to work with ESL students is no longer a supplementary skill, but a primary skill. As an educator, it is your responsibility for their English language development to be as smooth and graceful as possible, while not overlooking the students’ heritage. It is important to realize that these students have a rich cultural, educational and linguistic history of their own, which not only fosters their own ability to learn but which can also add value to your classroom (O’Donnell et al. Chapter 1). Teachers who are prepared to embrace and integrate ESL learners into their classrooms will undoubtedly be successful at increasing student’s confidence in their language skills, creating a safe and supportive environment and introducing students to diversity in a positive way.

The purpose of this Wiki is to provide a theoretical framework, mostly based on Vygotsky’s theories of cognitive development and to introduce ideas, lessons and strategies that can help teachers integrate ESL students into their ELA classrooms


Theoretical Framework

As educators, we need to address the needs of students with special needs, in this case, students whose first language is not English, in the classroom and make them feel at ease. To do this, we must consider two variables.
  1. Equality: All students are equal and deserve the same quality of teaching, attention and care. Individual expectations for educational success should not be a result of the student’s level of income, social class, gender, culture, race or language.
  2. Accommodation: Educators must embrace differences and appreciate them. These differences have a place in the classroom and can add richness to the entire classroom’s learning experience. “Accommodation refers to approaches whereby the learning environment of the student, either some of the elements of the total environment, is modified to promote learning. The focus is on changing the learning environment or the academic requirements so that the students may learn in spite of a fundamental [difference]” (Price et al.) Accommodation Strategies. This website offers many tips and strategies on accommodation in the classroom. Although it doesn’t specifically address ESL learners, I suggest that the basic objectives can be applied to a diverse group of students, which include ESL.

In order to help an ESL student in the ELA classroom, I suggest utilizing Vygotsky’s theories. To begin, Vygotsky viewed the role of the child as an apprentice, someone who benefits from the accrued knowledge and skills of the people and culture around them. The things that ones culture “hands down” to its children are cultural tools and Vygotsky believed that language is the most essential cultural tool, for the following reasons (O’Donnell et al. Chapter 2):
  1. Language is the main way in which cultural experience is passed on from previous generations.
  2. Language enables children to regulate their own activities.
  3. As language becomes internalized, it becomes the principle tool of cognitive functioning (children move from talking to themselves to thinking for themselves in their native languages).
As educators trying to incorporate ESL students into ELA classrooms, I suggest it is important to keep in mind the third reason, as it illustrates how important one’s native language is, and how its integral to a students learning.

Vygotsky also encouraged the idea that instruction should be in the student’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). This means that the learning task and activity should be one that the student can accomplish with just a little help and guidance. It shouldn’t be too difficult with support, but it should be a little more difficult than what you can do on your own with ease. It represents the disparity between what a student already knows and what the student is capable of doing. This theory really applies to all students, but should especially be encouraged with ESL students; this may mean modifying activities or assignments for the ESL student and making sure to give support when needed. To achieve intellectual competencies, ESL students must internalize strategies and problem solving approaches towards a new language, and these strategies normally develop and emerge while working with others (peers) and getting guidance from more experienced people (teachers or parents). This is where Scaffolding comes into play.

Scaffolding allows students to succeed at a higher level/rate that if he/she had worked alone. Although it should only be used when needed, it can be extremely useful when working with ESL students in an ELA classroom. In order for scaffolding to be successful, the student must learn when to ask for help and the teacher must gradually release responsibility onto the student as time goes on. The student can start to take on more responsibility by learning and remembering to use self-reminders, planning, extra notes and so on. Some examples of scaffolding that can help ESL students are:
  • providing hints
  • providing prompts
  • leading conversations
  • providing an array of examples, specifically, cultural examples that the student can relate to
  • providing ongoing explanations whenever the student needs it

Scaffolding can take place between ESL students and teachers, or ESL students and other students. When taking place between students, working in groups can be extremely effective. By working in a group, the ESL student gains a shared understanding while growing and learning through novice-expert (the ESL student-the English student) interactions. Often this is the best way for these students to improve their language skills, improve their social skills, and share their culture (which they should always be proud of and never trying to hide!). It also allows each member to take on different roles that may be more appropriate for certain individuals (ex. an ESL student may become the groups illustrator or material gatherer).

In the following section, tools such as videos, lesson ideas, and resources will be shared to help teachers integrate ESL students into their ELA classrooms.



This is a very help video. It demonstrates that every student is unique, and it is our jobs as educators to provide the support, hope and guidance to see EVERY child succeed. The video clearly outlines 7 strategies to help teachers integrate ESL students into an ELA classroom. The strategies are listed below:
  1. Assess each student individually
  2. Empathize and foster a sense of belonging
  3. Assign a buddy
  4. Read and re-read aloud
  5. Get family members involved
  6. Foster cultural diversity
  7. Keep track of progress and encourage success

  • Teach words from the other languages that students speak. It is important to get students to really understand the meaning of these words and to find comparisons between the word and its English language counterpart. It may also be fun to have each student come to class with a word from their ancestral language (ex. the student's grandparents come from Poland, so they have a word prepared from the Polish language), what that word means and the word that could be used in English to achieve that same meaning. This shows the students that EVERYONE is diverse and unique and comes from varied background and ethnicities, which helps the ESL student have a sense of belonging. It also helps student's expand their knowledge of the English language (ex. vocabulary, meaning, pronunciation, etc)
  • Encourage family/ancestral research. Having a unit on family background or ancestry encourages student's to find out more about their heritage and where they came from while not alienating anyone. It also introduces the students to different cultures and ethnicities. The possible lessons are endless in this unit; you can have students research countries of origin, conduct interviews with relatives, bring in cultural artifacts or customs, etc. Additionally, it's possible to have students complete many strands form the curriculum documents such as Oral Communications (presentations) , Writing (essays), Reading (reading from journals, stories, etc) and Media Literacy (making webpages, creating picture books, videos, etc).
  • Introduce book clubs. Book clubs are interesting tools to help with literacy. It also allows the students to take on appropriate roles, interact with other students, work on their self-created schedules and get help when they need it from stronger readers. Groups of 5 students are ideal, as students feel comfortable talking and discussing and can come to agreement more readily. The ideal grouping would put the ESL student with a more advanced reading buddy. It is also a good idea introduce books that contains some of the ESL student's native language, so they can translate and help with pronunciation. This gives the ESL student a chance to play an exact role, and feel like they are really contributing and helping the group. Another suggestion is giving the ESL student a role, such as illustrator. In this role, they are required to summarize readings or chapters by drawing a picture. (this information was taken and adapted from the article "Book Clubs and Literature Circles" (2007) by Sandra Rief and Julie Heimburge in the PED 3177 Course Pack)


There are countless internet sites for ESL student learning. I have found the following to be insightful, resource rich and easy to navigate:


Assessing ESL students should be thought of “as a continuum from the informal on one end to the formal end on the other” (Ernst, 323). Informal assessment refers to the data gathering process through observations, discussions, and interactions with the student. Formal assessment refers to the traditional, standardized measurements, which are required by the district for every student. While formal assessment must be completed, often it is the informal assessment that applies most to ESL students and really demonstrates their growth as ESL learners. However, there are a few tips to help make assessment more equal for all students, since problems often arise for ESL students when formal assessment takes place.
  • Often with these types of testing, cultural and linguistic factors are ignored and ESL students find it hard to interpret the material. Research shows that ESL students (who lack proficiency in English), consistently perform at lower levels than native English speaking students, and that even slight changes in the language used on the test can drastically change scores (Abedi et al.).
  • Adding relevant cultural references on tests and quizzes can help the ESL student achieve a more accurate result and also help introduce diversity to other students.
  • When it comes to returning assignments, providing positive feedback is essential to help the student gain confidence in his/her own abilities, which will make learning easier and more fun for the student (O'Donnell et al. Chapter 13).


Abedi et al. "Assessment Accommodations for English Language Learners: Implications for Policy-Based Empirical Research" Review of Educational Research 74.1 (2004): 28 Sept. 2010

Ernst, Gisela. "Beyond Language: The Many Dimensions of an ESL Program". Anthropology & Education Quarterly 5.3 (1994): Retrieved from JSTOR 28 Sept. 2010.

O'Donnell et al. "Chapter 1: Introducing Educational Psychology and Reflective Practices". Educational Psychology: Reflection for Action. Ontario: John Wiley & Sons Canada, 2008.

O'Donnell et al. "Chapter 2: Cognitive Development". Educational Psychology: Reflection for Action. Ontario: John Wiley & Sons Canada, 2008.

O'Donnell et al. "Chapter 13: Classroom Assessment". Educational Psychology: Reflection for Action. Ontario: John Wiley & Sons Canada, 2008.

Price et al. "Accommodation Strategies". Collaborative Teaching: Special Education for Inclusive Classrooms. Parrot Publishing, 2001.

Rief, S., Heimburge, J. "Book Clubs and Literature Circles". How to Reach and Teach all Children Through Balanced Literacy. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007.

Statistics Canada. "Languages in Canada". Canadian Census.

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