Considerations for English Language Development Programs

by Natalia Heckman

Considerations for English Language Development Programs

“My English learners need help. I have about 100 students across grades six through eight who need immediate language support. Did you know they read at the second-grade level? What are your suggestions? How can we better prepare them for the state exams? What can we set up for these kiddos? Can we get some pull-outs started? Should they work with ESL aides during advisory? Can you help my ESL aide pull together some materials?”

If you’ve ever supported English learners as an ESL teacher, an ESL instructional coach, or an ESL program specialist, you know that well-meaning principals want the best for English Learners on their campuses. Hearing the urgency in the principal’s voice, you convey your readiness to help. At the same time, you know quite well that the needs of those 100 students range as widely as their backgrounds and personalities, and there is no program that would be a panacea for all. 

So, here are some things you want your principal to know as you embark on this adventure of  building an effective English Language Development Program:

What an English Language Development Program Is NOT 

  1. ELD is not a support class driven by grade-level ELA learning objectives. 
  2. ELD  is not Tier 1 instruction on steroids where students relearn ELA content or prep for state exams. 
  3. ELD is not a place to get help with current projects or homework 

The above characteristics are more appropriate to sheltered instruction models, focusing on content and addressing language skills to help students understand the content. In contrast, an ELD program focuses solely on the language. Once we draw a clear line between an ELD program and a sheltered instruction classroom or an ELA tutorial, several other components come into focus: How do I select resources, schedule students, and hire the right teacher? 

Unfortunately, even with good intentions in mind and our hearts in the right place, we may still be seduced by educational jingles, falling victim to wishful thinking and failing to recognize the reality. 

Let’s look at a few of the appealing soundbites we might come across as we start planning our ELD versus the realities of the students’ needs.

Soundbite  #1

English learners will receive small-group instruction aligned with the learning goals of a regular ELA classroom. An ESL teacher will address ELA content objectives using appropriate Lexile level materials (leveled readers) accessible to English Learners.


English learners aren’t deficient in cognition, and very often, comprehension of ELA concepts isn’t the issue. Failing test scores often reflect English Learners’ inabilities to access the text independently or form an oral or written response; therefore, the program’s goal is to focus on explicit language instruction: decoding, comprehension, syntax, and grammar. According to Saunders, Goldenberg, & Marcelletti, “In ELD instruction, language is the primary objective and content is secondary” (2013). If we intend to build literacy, we must provide instruction to empower English learners to become independent readers and writers. Reteaching an ELA concept is appropriate for an ELA remediation program, but it does absolutely nothing for building functional literacy. 

Soundbite #2 

An ELD teacher will continuously coordinate with ELA teachers to select resources for struggling English learners. 


Well, this is easier said than done. First of all, teachers’ planning times are limited, and “coordinating continuously” sounds like a lofty dream. In reality, it’s likely this effort to coordinate continuously will devolve into simply “pulling something together” for each session. The haphazard nature of this approach presents several hurdles. It puts tremendous pressure on the ELA teacher, who ends up sharing her/his worksheets with the ELD teacher or encourages the teacher to “just do whatever you can.” Also, the ELA teacher may lack the training necessary to select appropriate ESL materials. For example, very few secondary level ELA teachers have training in decoding, phonics, or ESL grammar. That’s why hiring an elementary reading specialist to provide ELD instruction has become a common practice among secondary campuses. 

Soundbite # 3 

The ELD teacher will work with students of various proficiency levels and differentiate instruction to meet the needs of all students. 


From the beginning, the term differentiation has often been thrown around as a catch-all response to refer to “what to do” with a lack of manpower, time, and resources to meet the needs of diverse students. Widely accepted in public education (sometimes out of necessity), the concept sometimes doesn’t make sense in the real world. When applied to high-stakes situations, our expectations for differentiation can fail the test of logic. 

If you’re preparing for the Winter Olympics, would you like to spend an hour of your precious training time every morning in a tots-on-ice class where the coach helps you whenever he/she has a chance? Of course not! English learners, especially at the secondary level, are in high-stakes situations, and every minute of instructional time counts.

Let’s say an ESL teacher has ten students of various levels who show up for 30 minutes per day during advisory/enrichment time. In this setting, the teacher spends about 10 minutes addressing the learning needs of a particular group. The rest of the time goes into logistics. 

To grow in language skills, students need to receive a full dose of instruction that’s one level higher than their current language proficiency. 

This doesn’t mean the students will be segregated by their language levels throughout the day! The ELD section shouldn’t ever pull students away from grade-level instruction in a mainstream or sheltered class. 

Sample Scenario 

Jose speaks English fluently. In his seventh grade ELA class, he follows the teacher’s explanations effortlessly and answers questions during the interactive lecture. Jose understands the concepts clearly: in fact, he can turn to his shoulder partner and explain the meaning of mood or tone, providing examples from popular movies. However, when the class reads short passages and answers multiple choice questions about mood and tone, Jose only answers 3 out of 30 questions correctly. The teacher asks Jose what caused the difficulties on the test, and Jose replies that “it was boring” and “he didn’t get it.” The teacher notices that Jose is coded as an English learner, so he adds him to the list of candidates for the ELD enrichment.

During advisory, Jose goes to an ESL teacher who talks about mood and tone again and shows some examples from picture books and high/low readers. The principal pops into the advisory room and seems pleased, noticing that English learners are involved in HOTS (higher-order thinking skills) that are in perfect alignment with the ELA learning goals he/she previously observed in the class next door. When the principal leaves, Jose asks the ESL teacher why he has to be in the class with “all the kids who don’t speak English.” Jose is visibly frustrated and asks to go back to his regular advisory, where he can “chill with his buds” or “get some math homework done with his girlfriend.” To be honest, for this student’s emotional and academic well-being, the latter would have been more beneficial.  

So, What Seems to Be the Problem? 

Jose doesn’t need help with the ELA concept of mood and tone, and his oral English is near-native. He gets frustrated (and rightfully so) when he’s taught the same concept twice — the second time using high-interest/low-Lexile readers. Language development doesn’t happen during the language support class because the instruction is lower than Jose’s current proficiency and it fails to address his needs. 

Jose struggles with independent reading because he lacks decoding skills and vocabulary. Jose can sight-read, meaning he guesses some memorized words (the high-frequency words sounded out in class), but he can’t sound out unfamiliar words on his own — even the ones he understands in spoken English. He doesn’t recognize these words in print because he hasn’t developed good orthographic mapping, which is a prerequisite for independent reading.

Jose also lacks vocabulary. Since he hasn’t learned to decode well, he doesn’t have the opportunity to expand his vocabulary through independent reading. Jose acquires new words through listening but can’t recognize those words in print. During the daily SSR, he sits quietly and “fake-reads.” Therefore, the gap between decoders and non-decoders like Jose gets larger by the minute. On the test, Jose didn’t struggle with identifying mood and tone but with reading. He had no idea what those passages said, so he randomly bubbled the answers. However, he would’ve probably scored 100 if someone read the passages to him. Although coded as an English learner, Jose could be more comfortable in a decoding class side-by-side with native speakers. This situation is not unique.  

Let’s Get It Right! 

When developing your school’s ELD program, consider these best practices to ensure it meets students’ needs.

  1. The ESL specialist meets with every student and identifies their specific needs. 

These meetings may delay the full implementation of a specialized ELD program, but identifying specific needs is well worth the time. One important decision to make is whether or not a student requires decoding instruction. This can be done by administering a quick fluency and comprehension test. However, this doesn’t mean the student will stay in a phonics instruction group for the rest of the year. Be fluid and flexible with grouping, and be prepared to move students based on changes in their instructional needs.

  1. Campus leadership understands and recognizes different types of rigor. 

Don’t underestimate basic skills. Please don’t expect to see higher-order thinking every time you visit your language development groups. When you see high school students repeatedly sounding out multisyllabic words, that may be exactly what those specific readers need to become independent readers. If you see students learning to write basic questions with the help of auxiliary verbs (do/does), rest assured that this could be a quite a rigorous task because it doesn’t come naturally to English learners. Some secondary students may need to learn these skills explicitly, so we may need to teach them explicitly. The language development class could be the only place where students receive this very narrow and highly specialized type of instruction. 

  1. Campus administration coordinates with the ESL specialist to group and schedule students by their language proficiency levels. 

Saunders, Goldenberg,and Marcelletti recommend that “school personnel should strongly consider establishing, within the daily schedule and without compromising access to the core curriculum, a block of time dedicated exclusively to ELD instruction. To the greatest extent possible, ELs should be grouped by language proficiency levels for ELD instruction. Still they should not be segregated by language proficiency throughout the rest of the day” (2013).  

  1. The ELD teacher implements a reputable, thoroughly sequenced ESL/reading program. 

Supplying a vetted ESL print/digital program ensures lesson continuity, skill progression, consistency, and accountability. All ELD teachers should receive sufficient training and be able to adhere to the guidelines of the program. Availability of a reliable resource is one of the major factors in the quality and sustainability of an ELD program. Grammar for Great Writing, by Keith Folse, is an example of a high-quality print resource for English Learners. 

  1. Don’t measure the success of the ELD program by end-of-year ELA scores. 

Give yourself patience and grace! Moving forward sometimes requires taking a step back, filling in the gaps, and banking on the bursts of success. Future success rests on granular improvements. Don’t expect immediate results such as spikes in test scores. If a seventh-grader becomes a fluent decoder, that’s something to celebrate! From that point on on, the student will be able to access the written language in all content areas. The growth may not necessarily be immediately manifested on the seventh-grade ELA exam, but you’ve laid the pathway for future success.


Maguire, C. (2018) When Language Teachers Don’t Teach Language: A Narrative Inquiry of Language Focused ESL Instruction in Content-Based Settings. Retrieved on July 11, 2020, from

Parker, S. (2019) “Sight Words, Orthographic Mapping, Phonemic Awareness” The Science of Reading. Retrieved on October 17, 2020, from

Saunders, W., Goldenberg, W., & and Marcelletti (2013) “Unlocking the Research on English Learners”,  American Educator Vol. 37, No. 2, Summer 2013, AFT.  Retrieved July 11, 2020, from

One thought on “Considerations for English Language Development Programs

  1. Thank you for this post. It really resonated with me. In smaller districts, like mine, yes, ELD/ESL is seen as intervention/support even by those in positions of power. I am going to reflect deeply on this post.


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