On ELLs and Reading Comprehension

Teaching reading comprehension isn’t easy in students’ first language, let alone an additional one.  There are a number of different methods to teach students to comprehend what they read or how to try to understand a reading that is difficult.  With EAL/ESL students this is especially difficult because their comprehension depends on, not necessarily just the understanding of the story sequence or topic, but on their level of English proficiency as well, on what vocabulary they do or do not know in the reading and whether they know that vocabulary in their L1 (first language).

reading 3

According to Birch (2002) it is important to be aware that reading and
writing require both bottom-up and top-down strategies. Bottom-up strategies refer to
language processing strategies, including chunking words into phrases, accessing
word meaning, letter recognition and word identification, as well as language
knowledge such as sentences, phrases, words, letters and sounds . Top-down strategies, in comparison, involve different cognitive processing strategies, including inferencing, predicting, problem solving and constructing meaning, combined with world knowledge (Birch, 2002).

reading strategies

I have found that most of my students (who are at the high school level) come to Canada with bottom-up strategies.  This always amazes me since English is such a difficult language to learn to read with our confusing, opaque English orthography (spelling) where the letter to sound correlation is not consistent, as opposed to other alphabetic languages that have very transparent spellings (Birch 2002).  Of course my students still need to practice reading fluency, including pronunciation and proper syllabic emphasis, but most seem to have basic decoding skills in English.  I do have some students that are starting from the beginning stages of learning to read English, but for the purpose of this blog post, will focus on those who have “bottom-up” reading skills and already know how to read (decode) in English, but are still working on reading comprehension and vocabulary building.

reading 1

My Strategies for Helping ELLs to Develop Reading Comprehension in English

  • Vocabulary Building.  Obviously.  In order for students to understand what they are reading, they need to further develop their English vocabulary.  Check out my blog post “On Teaching Vocabulary to ELLs” for more information on how I support students with this.  Currently, I am also looking into getting a subscription to the site Vocabulary.com, which looks amazing.  I’ve done a trial with a few students and they love it.  Fingers crossed.
  • BDA Skills.  This might seem like another obvious one as all teachers from the elementary level up use Before, During and After Reading Skills to plan their ELA lessons, but it’s especially helpful to make EAL/ESL students aware of these strategies, instead of just using them to plan lessons.  Tell the students what they can do Before, During and After Reading to help them comprehend.

reading 2

  • Paraphrasing/Summarizing.I often get my students to read a paragraph, stop and put it in their own words.  This works best with a partner, but it is also something that they can get in the habit of doing on their own.  I model doing this for my students.  Read the paragraph and then talk it out, put it in your own words.  What are they trying to say here?  What is this paragraph about?  Get the students to explain it in their L1 if it works better.
  • L1 Support.  My last point leads into this one.  Get students to use their L1 (first language) for support.  Read about the topic they are learning about in their L1 first.  (See my blog post “Tips for Working with EAL Students” for more info. on this.)  Furthermore, have students talk things out in their L1 or make notes in their L1.  In addition, there is so much amazing information out there on translanguaging these days that can be very beneficial to students learning English and in helping with reading comprehension.  Check it out.


  • Questions Questions Questions.  Having students ask questions to check comprehension (a BDA reading skill) is really helpful in getting students to check their own understanding.  Have students read with a partner, stopping after a paragraph and asking each other a question about it, or writing down questions to ask the class.  Make it into a fun game.
  • Highlighting, Key Words and Notes. I always show and encourage my students to highlight key words and make notes in the margins. This helps them comprehend as they read and be able to go back and find information easily.
  • Scaffolding. Who doesn’t love graphic organizers and visuals? They help organize thoughts and information, supporting reading comprehension.
  • Inferring Meaning from Context.  I always teach my students a lesson on how to understand words in context without having to look up or translate every word they come across that they don’t understand.  I get them to think about how it fits into the context, what might the word mean and would it make sense in this context.  What part of speech is the word?  Do they need to know this word in order to understand what they are reading?  Does it impede their understanding or can they move on from it?
  • Instructional Reading Level.  Reading often is one of the best ways to implicitly build vocabulary, become a better reader, develop better comprehension skills and even become a better writer.  However, students should read at their instructional level.  They shouldn’t be reading something where there are a ton of new words on the page making the reading overwhelming and barely comprehensible.  The reading also shouldn’t be too easy where the student isn’t learning any new words.  There should be new words that students are learning, but they can still read with ease while learning these new words as they read.
  • Real Life Experience and Connections.  Students need to be able to make connections to what they are reading in order to really comprehend it and enjoy what they are reading.  When choosing readings for my students, I try to choose something that they can relate to, might be interested in and will get a good discussion going.

reading newspaper

  • Realia and Different Reading Genres.  I think it’s important to expose EAL/ESL students to things they’ll need to read in their real lives, whether it’s information pamphlets on cell phone plans, the school’s student handbook, a government website on steps to citizenship or the driver’s education handbook.  In addition, it’s important for students to be aware of and exposed to different genres and styles.
  • Interest.  This one seems like another no brainer, but I had to add it as students will be better able to improve reading comprehension skills if they enjoy what their reading, are able to make choices in what they read, and want to read.
  • Model. Model. Model.  As I mentioned in the paraphrasing bullet, I really like to model to my students how I would go about comprehending something I find difficult from paraphrasing and talking out what a section or paragraph is about (as mentioned earlier), to rereading something or reading aloud, to thinking what I already know about a topic, to making a visual, graphic organizer or a picture in my mind.
  • Discuss Purpose.  Students should be clear on why they are reading something.  Is it simply to build vocabulary and/or reading comprehension skills?  Are they reading to learn something new or for personal enjoyment?  Do they need to understand the text deeply and completely or do they need to skim and scan for particular information? Are they reading something for school or something they need in the real world like a form they need to fill out or information about an extra curricular activity they are interested in joining?  Will they be tested on what they read?  Will they need to answer questions about what they read or create questions?  Will they need to discuss what they read?  And so forth…

Fiction Vs. Non-Fiction

harry potter book

Something else I always consider when getting my students to read something is whether the reading is fiction or non-fiction.  When I taught mainstream elementary school and had to do reading benchmarks on my students, the leveled program that we used had a fiction and a non-fiction reading at each level.  In my personal experience, I found that my Canadian born students whose L1 was English had a much easier time with reading comprehension when reading a piece of fiction than reading the non-fiction piece at the same level as it was easier for them to remember and relate to a story than animal adaptations, for example.  My EAL/ESL students on the other hand did much better with non-fiction.  This was also true of my EAL husband.  English is his third language and his English proficiency when coming to Canada was at a level where, when tested, he did not need to take any EAL/ESL classes in order to do his Master’s degree at a Canadian university in English.  However (though now his English is completely fluent), he had difficulty at the time comprehending certain movies or sitcoms, as well as some of the fantasy books I had on my bookshelf.  Yet, if we were to watch a documentary or he was to read a scientific journal article or a newspaper article on politics or even a biography, he comprehended with little difficulty.

jungle animals

Non-fiction readings are probably easier for a number of EAL/ESL students for a number of possible reasons.  Firstly, more cognates (words that are very similar in English and a student’s L1) exist in academic language and certain subject areas like science or math.  Secondly, students may already have some background information about certain non-fiction topics.  Thirdly, fiction stories in English may be culturally biased or something that students have no experience with or cannot relate to.  Finally, another possible reason why I’ve found that non-fiction is easier for my EAL/ESL students to comprehend is that fiction may use a lot of descriptive language that is not used in everyday English or even in academic English that students have yet to learn, and may also use idioms and figurative language (such as similes, metaphors, personification and so forth) or literary elements (such as foreshadowing, suspense or symbolism) that students have difficulty picking up on in an additional language.  Therefore, I think it is important for teachers to consider what their students are reading and how best to support them, make them interested and feel successful.  Of course, I am not saying that fiction should not be taught and most students seem to prefer reading fiction, but merely that non-fiction seems easier for EAL/ESL students to comprehend so certain considerations need to be made when teaching fiction readings as opposed to non-fiction and that a student may have difficulty comprehending a piece of fiction that is at the same level as a piece of non-fiction that the student easily understood.

Final Thoughts

As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog post, teaching reading comprehension is not easy.  First, students need to be able to decode in English and develop reading fluency and then need to build enough vocabulary and learn enough of the structure of English to comprehend what they are reading.  Students also need to be able to make some connections to what they are reading, be able to ask questions, make inferences, have discussions and so forth.  They also need to learn from what they are reading, improve their language skills and, hopefully, enjoy what they are reading.  Let me know if you have any tips and tricks for teaching reading comprehension to ELLs.


Birch, B. (2002). English L2 Reading: Getting to the bottom. Mahway, NJ: Lawrence
Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Flipped Lessons in my ELA Class of EAL/ESL Students

Flipped lessons in my ELA class of EAL/ESL students” – that’s a mouthful!  Let me explain.  Just this year I began teaching regular English Language Arts (ELA) A10 and B10 Classes (one per semester) to all EAL students.  The reasoning for this sheltered class is to support my lower level EAL students in getting through a regular ELA class, help them to improve their English language skills and hopefully prepare them for grade 11 and 12 ELA classes.


Some Background


I did not take this task (or rather challenge) of teaching regular ELA (even Shakespeare – yikes!) to all EAL students lightly.  I prepared as much as I could, choosing my resources carefully.  Although I can adapt for my students, I cannot modify.  The students need to meet all of the outcomes and read approved grade 10 level materials.  From those approved materials, I carefully chose stories, poems, non-fiction readings, novels and so forth that would be both relevant and interesting to my students, as well as easier to comprehend.  For example, in ELA A10 in our province the two main themes are Challenges and Mysteries of the World.  For a novel study, most ELA teachers choose something from the Mysteries of the World theme such as “The Hunger Games”, “Divergent”, “Ender’s Game” or “Maze Runner”.  Now, I love these novels and would have been thrilled to teach them, but they would be harder for my students to understand.  “The Hunger Games” is quite long, “Maze Runner” has its own special lingo for the world the characters are in (and my kids are still trying to figure out English) and the whole sci-fi world, while fascinating, is a bit harder to understand when learning English, especially when authors are describing made up worlds that the students have no knowledge of.  Therefore, I went with the “Challenge” unit theme and chose “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”.  Not only is it a great book and a pretty easy read, but students may have some background knowledge about the Holocaust or be able to understand themes of discrimination, bias, friendship and so forth.



My next thoughts in planning for my students were: Now that I’ve picked our readings, how do I bring them to life for the students, make them as comprehensible as possible, while teaching about things like figurative language, elements of plot and other elements of literature? The idea of a flipped class appealed to me for this.  Now, I didn’t “flip” my entire class, but tried to do so with a few lessons.  That way students could prepare as much as possible on their own, with what their needs are, for something we’d be reading in class.  We’d then read it together and work on questions, assignments and projects in class where they had my support and could ask questions.  The only downfall of this method was the students had to actually do the preparation and, unfortunately, a number of them didn’t.  But, let’s focus on those who did for now.

These are some of the things I prepared for students to do for homework before reading:

  • A list of tricky vocabulary (especially any that would impede comprehension) for students to highlight in the text and look up translations of those they did not understand.
  • An audio version of the reading.  I tried to find them online first and provide students with a link, but if none existed I recorded them myself – not for entire novels though:)
  • A video option if possible.  Some more famous short stories or poems have youtube video options.
  • Practice.  I provided my students with a task for practicing the new vocabulary, whether it was a cloze activity, a definition matching activity or a Quizlet game.  (I like giving these the best and so do the students.)

Here’s an example of a lesson.  I was teaching my students the short story “The Sniper”.  Along with trying to understand the story, learn new vocabulary and answer questions about it, we were also working on identifying elements of plot and do a story map of the story.

Lesson Plan (The Sniper):

I began the lesson of “The Sniper” the class before we actually read the story by working on story mapping and giving students their reading preparation/homework.


  1. First, I told the students that stories can be ‘mapped’. They will be learning about how to “map” the elements of plot of a short story and will then be reading “The Sniper”.
  2. I began by giving a lesson on story mapping by first going over the elements of plot and explaining it in detail.  I used the Flocabulary  “elements of plot” video and lessons (an amazing and highly recommended site but you have to pay for it) and practiced picking out elements of plot of a very short and easy to read story as well as discussing other stories we’d read or famous movies we’ve seen.
  3. I ended the class with a review to see what the students remembered, getting them to label the elements of plot on a diagram. I have a Mimio in my classroom so created a Mimio lesson to do this.  Students love to use the pen and come up to the board, but of course this can be done in so many other ways.
  4. Next, I handed out and explained the students’ next class preparation.

Next Class Preparation:

  1. Introduce the short story, “The Sniper” and give the students some background info. about it and tell them what it’s about. Provide the students with a copy of the story.
  2. For homework, the students must  do the following:
    • Study and learn the vocabulary  I picked out, finding and highlighting it in the story.  (Having one-to-one devices in my classroom, I was able to put all of this in the students’ OneNotes.)
    • Practice the vocabulary on Quizlet.  I made a game in advance and provided students the link.  Of course, there are many other ways they could practice the vocabulary.  This is just what I did.
    • Listen to the audio file of the story being read and follow along. They can also watch a video of the story. (Extension: use EdPuzzle website to add questions to the video.)
    • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ToGUnK9SGJg – video

    • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qniva4k947o – audio

    • Read the story once on their own, using BDA skills and making note of anything they’re confused about.

Next Class:

  1. I asked the students if they did their lesson preparation. What did they know? Learn? Find difficult/easy?  Did they have any questions? Get them to tell a partner what they think the story was about.

sniper word sort

  1. Do a word sort – sound words, action words and descriptive words from the story.  (I also did this using the Mimio, but students had an electronic copy so that they were typing the words into the correct sections along with me.)
  2. Explain/review the words ‘protagonist’ and ‘antagonist’ and discuss examples (as it’s especially important in this particular story).
  3. Read the story with the students getting them to take turns reading aloud. Stop after each paragraph, paraphrase and make notes in the side of the paper, getting students to do the same.  Tell the students this is a good during reading skill for comprehending difficult readings.
    • I also taught my students a lesson on inferring meaning from context at the beginning of the course and how they don’t need to know what every word means to understand a sentence/paragraph, but can infer the meaning.  What are the important words? – practice with one paragraph, highlighting difficult unknown words and marking parts of speech, etc.
    • Go over the comprehension questions and have the students complete them. Having the teacher in class while students are answering questions is especially helpful for EAL students.
    • Along with the comprehension questions, have the students map the story, using the lesson sheet from the previous day to guide them.
  4. Extensions: imagery (pictures of phrases that portray imagery, showing literal and figurative meaning), create an action video of the action scene only with a group, having one student be the narrator.

Final Thoughts

flipped again

Of course there are many other ways this can be done and I’ve tried a number of different things.  This is just an example of one lesson that worked well and helped my students to comprehend the story as well as story mapping. In the future, I plan to write a blog post on how I read regular ELA readings to my students and what I do specifically to help them comprehend – especially when I have a full curriculum to teach and there isn’t much time to slow things down, while meeting all of the outcomes.

What are some of the things some of you out there have tried?  I’d love to hear some other ideas.

Around my EAL/ESL Classroom

I have a question for all of you EAL/ESL/EFL teachers out there.  How do you set up your classroom?  What are some of the resources you have available for your students?  I’ll share with you what I have in my classroom and how it works for me, including what I wish I had in my classroom.  I’d love to hear ideas from you as well!


Firstly, I should say that I currently have a very tiny, windowless classroom so there aren’t a lot of possibilities with what I can do and what I’d like to do, but I try.  Our school is so full right now that some of our classes take place in the basement of the elementary school next door, so at least I’m in the building.  Despite the size of the class, I love my classroom location.  I have amazing and supportive neighbours and it’s right in the thick of things.  Too often the EAL classroom is somewhere out of the way at the end of some dark hall, so I love that my students don’t feel ostracized from the rest of the school in coming to my class.

So, here are some of the ways I’ve set up and organized my classroom:

  • Word Walls.  Oh so many word walls.  I love putting nice, bright pictures on my walls for students to see and would probably have more if it wasn’t for fire regulations.  The word wall I made includes large flashcards from the site ESL kids.  I made the word wall interactive by putting the words on the pictures with sticky tack so that they can be taken off and students can try to place them on the correct pictures.  It makes a great center.

I also made a kind of mini word wall of some basic transition words.  It doesn’t look great, but it does the trick and is a quick and easy reference for the students.  Ideally, I’d also like to have an ongoing word wall for words as we learn them.  In the past, I had the letters of the alphabet under my whiteboard and we added new words to them as we learned them.

transition word wall

  • Posters.  I have a variety of posters from the writing process to punctuation and elements of a story – anything that might be helpful for my students to be able to take quick glance at.

In addition, I have a set of mini posters from when I taught elementary school for learning how to read.  They have come in handy in my EAL high school class when I’ve had students with beginner print literacy skills in English.

reading wall

  • Dictionaries.  Although students can now use their phones or classroom devices easily to search definitions and translations, it’s nice to have some bilingual dictionaries on hand if possible.  That way I can provide my students with a dictionary for a test when devices are not allowed.  Students also really like picture dictionaries and the Oxford Picture Dictionaries come in a variety of languages and include workbooks with activities to go along with them.  I also have a math dictionary that my students who are struggling in their math classes can use as a reference.


  • Reading Materials.  I like to have my own little classroom library of high interest low level books that my students can read.  I’ve borrowed a number of “quick reads” from the school library and collected a few other books over the years.  Our librarian and library assistant are both amazing at putting aside deleted books I may be able to use or finding new resources that might work for my students.  I’ve had some students look through my little classroom library and choose books for book reports for other classes, I’ve used them myself for book report and vocabulary building projects and it’s one of the options my students have when they are done their work.  Read a book!

class books

  • Books from my students’ home countries.  I always try to take books out of the school library or our school system’s main resource center about the countries my students are from and display them in the classroom.  I’ve found it makes the students feel at home and they love looking through the books to see how accurate they are and sharing with other students about where they are from.

coutnry books

  • Maps.  Of course every EAL/ESL teacher has a map in their classroom to see where their students are from.  Ideally, I’d love to have a huge map that covered an entire wall like our history teacher does, or have the map on a bulletin board so we can pin point where all of the students are from.  I also have a map of Canada, as it’s important for the students to know about where they are living now.
  • Technology.  I will admit that, although I have a very tiny classroom, I am blessed with one-to-one devices for my students.  We use the laptops daily and they have been so beneficial to the students.  The students get attached to their classroom computers and take extra good care of them.  I also have a Mimio.  Making the board interactive is wonderful for teaching lessons so I don’t have to constantly be grabbing the mouse of my computer, but there are many other possibilities as well.  I’ve made a number of interactive Mimio lessons and activities.  The students love them.


  • Organization.  Although I don’t have a lot of room to organize in my classroom and my one shelving unit is packed to the hilt with all of my resources, I have a few things in my classroom that help me organize. Firstly, I have a nice, little, case for handing in assignments.  It’s a quick easy way for my students to hand in written assignments.  Secondly, I have some shoe holders that I use for cell phones.  Since my students have laptops, I figure they don’t need their cell phones so into the pockets they go.  I’ve numbered the pockets so that students put their phones in the same pocket number as their laptop number.  I’ve also put into each pocket a laminated plickers card with the same number.  If you haven’t tried plickers, take a look.  It’s an awesome formative assessment site that is especially useful if you don’t have classroom devices.  All you need is your cell phone.

Board Games and Cards.  We all have a box of board games in our classrooms, don’t we?  I like to collect them for my classroom and am always looking for cheap, used board games to purchase that will promote English language development.  I also have a box of cards and have found that a great activity is putting students in groups where (if possible) they speak different first languages and getting them to teach each other card games from their countries.

  • Welcome and Greetings in Many Languages.  It’s nice for students to see their first language when they come into the classroom.  In the future, I’d like to place welcome signs on the wall outside my classroom as well.  In one school that I worked in “welcome” in was placed all over the walls in the front entrances in a number of different languages.  My students like to feel good about their first languages and most love it when I ask them to teach me a few words.
  • Flashcards.  I have a box of sight words and flashcards available to students if they have free time or to use during centers.  It’s still a simple, but effective way to learn language.

sight words

  • Realia.  It is important for students to use and learn from resources that have out of school purposes.  Although we have a set of classroom laptops and access to the internet, I still like to keep a pile of newspapers, magazines and pamphlets to use with my lessons.  In addition, I keep some booklets from local universities and secondary institutions for students to browse through.
  • Information.  I always display the posters from our city’s immigration support organization as well as information on my door for when I’m available to help students.  EAL students need to both hear and see things, so it’s nice to post information clearly and accessibly in the classroom.  I like my students to know that there is always help and support out there for them.
  • Canadian Flag.  Finally, I have my Canadian flag for my students and I to face when listening to O’Canada each morning.  It is important for them to become familiar with the symbols of the country they now live in and develop a sense of pride in living here while still staying true to who they are and the culture they come from.  If possible, I’d have the flags of all of my students in the classroom.

Canadian Flag


My Classroom Wishes

If I had a bigger classroom (and perhaps an unlimited budget) there are a number of things I’d love to have in my classroom.

  • Flexible seating.  (I do have one standing desk I forgot to take a picture of.  Yeah!)
  • A listening station.
  • A recording station for Flipgrid and Seesaw recordings.
  • A writing center with folders of writing references and tools.
  • Space for centers and different activities.
  • A bulletin board for important events and assignment due dates.  (However, I do provide all of this in the students’ classroom OneNote and my class blog.)

How about you?  What do you have in your EAL/ESL/EFL classroom and what would your ideal classroom look like?  I’d love to hear and learn from you!


Using OneNote with EAL


OneNote.  I love it!  Just saying.  A couple years ago after coming off of a maternity leave, I was introduced to OneNote.  What is this OneNote, I thought.  It was something else I needed to learn, along with being placed at a new school with new students, new staff  and everything else that goes along with getting back into the world of work after a maternity leave.  At first, I used it for staff meetings, working on units for new courses with my fellow high school EAL teachers in the system, and for student support team information.  Next, I moved on to making my own notebooks and keeping resources for different courses in them.  It was really nice to organize all of my units  using the tabs at the top and then putting my lessons in and the sheets, links, PowerPoints and even Mimio lessons that went along with them in the tabs along the side.  I love how I can easily pull up a worksheet and project it onto the whiteboard so the students can follow along or have quick access to a link or video without having to search during class or spend the time to get all my windows ready in advance.  I also love that I can freeze my projector screen so students can still look at the whiteboard, but can do other things on my computer if I need to.  In addition, OneNote is a great way to share lessons and courses with colleagues.

Okay, so all of this is well and good, but in becoming a “Connected Educator” this year (see my blog post The EAL Connected Educator for more information on this), I was introduced into the world of OneNote Classroom, and I’m loving it even more.

OneNote Classroom


I am lucky to be able to have one-to-one devices (laptops in my case) in my classroom for students to use.  Without them, OneNote classroom isn’t really a possibility, unless you want to set up notebooks for students to use at home on their own or if they can bring their own devices.  With my one-to-one devices, I have been able to sync student OneDrives to the computers they are assigned to in the classroom, including OneNote Classroom.  OneNote classroom has allowed me to provide my students with all the necessary materials for the class whether they are worksheets, rubrics, readings, links to sites or videos, PowerPoints, or instructions that my students need.  In addition, I can go into each students’ individual notebook and correct assignments or even just see if they’ve started an assignment or how they are progressing.  Plus, I love the fun stickers I can add!

OneNote Classroom and Teaching EAL

A lot of the things I’ll talk about in this section may be useful for any classroom, but I’ll be focusing on EAL students (at the high school level in particular).  Here are some of the ways I find OneNote Classroom especially useful with EAL students.

  • Everything is there for them.  So Many references and No excuses.  Students can access their office 365 accounts at home or wherever internet is available and this, of course, includes their OneNote.  Everything that I put in my classroom notebooks is available to the students in the class whenever they need it.  With EAL students this is especially helpful in case they misunderstood something in class, misplaced a paper or were absent.  (And of course you always get those students who make excuses why their work isn’t done.  I lost my sheet is no longer an option.  Even when I do give handouts, I still put the sheet in OneNote.)
    • Note: Even though I use OneNote classroom often, have students complete assignments in it and believe that technology skills are important in today’s world, I still get students to use pen and paper and think that the process of actually writing something (as opposed to typing) really does help with retention of information.

boy in striped pjs lessons

  • Students learn Organizational Skills.  The students can learn how I organize lessons and information, which in turn teaches them some basic organizational skills through modelling, and I can provide students with one place for handy reference sheets to support them not only in my class, but other mainstream classes as well.  I can provide handy grammar references, vocabulary words or transition words and sentence starters.  Plus, I can provide them with a lot of handy links, including something as simple as the school website.  I’ve put all kinds of great EAL/ESL websites in students’ OneNotes and even typing practice sites.
    • Note: I’m not an advocate for students being lazy and not learning to organize on their own, which is a very important skill and something I teach explicitly in my Grade 9 Literacy Class, but EAL students are already overwhelmed and bombarded with information, so being able to help them out a bit and model some organizational skills in my EAL classes and provide them with everything they need for the class is helpful and allows us to focus more on what we are learning.
  • Immersive Reader.  OneNote has a wonderful add-in called “Learning Tools” which includes an immersive reader that will not only read any text you put in OneNote for students, but they can vary the speed the text is read and immersive reader will also highlight some different parts of speech and break things into syllables.  This is a great tool to have when teaching EAL.  We did need to add the Learning Tools add-in to each individual computer, but it was well worth it.


  • Flipped Classes.  One of the classes I teach is a regular ELA 10 class, but to all EAL students – a Sheltered (or SIOP) class.  I work with all the EAL students that need to take the course and are below a particular level in their English language acquisition.  I need to attempt to get the students through a regular ELA course without modifications (though I can adapt) and make things as comprehensible as possible to them.  One of the things I tried doing (which I really liked for the students who actually did it) is teaching my classes “flipped”.  I give the students information to prepare for the class and then we work on the assignment together in class where they have my support.  OneNote classroom has really helped with this.  If we are reading a short story, for example, I can give the students a paper copy of the story, as well as a copy in OneNote, and provide the students with a list in OneNote of tricky vocabulary words I’ve picked out.  Their task is to highlight the words in the story and learn any words they don’t know.  I also provide the students with an audio version of the story in their OneNote (either a link to a reading I found online, or a recording I personally made), and some kind of practice such as a link to a Quizlet study set.  This way the students can prepare as much as possible before class and we can spend our time reading, clarifying and further understanding the story, as well as doing after reading activities in class instead of for homework on their own.
  • Collaboration Space.  OneNote classroom has a collaboration space that all students have access to.  As long as students are respectful in the space, it’s a great way for students to work together and even provide each other with feedback.  The teacher can also lock this space until he/she is ready to use it with the class.

collaboration space

  • Assignments, Assessments and Progress.  Students can work on assignments right in OneNote or can attach work that they’ve done in, for example, a Word Document.  I like how I can see my students’ progress, including who has started the assignment and who hasn’t.  If I notice someone is having difficulty, or on the wrong track, I can make a comment that the student will see right away.  So, if I’m at home on the weekend, checking the students’ progress and one of my students is working on an assignment, I can give some feedback as the student is working and perhaps steer him/her in another direction.  Of course, this can be a lot of work, but can also be quick, easy and helpful if students are working on a major project and you check mid project how they’re doing.

onenote paragraph

  • Just click the link.  Another thing I like, which I mentioned earlier, is how I can put links to sites into students’ OneNotes, making it quick and easy to use technology tools in the classroom, instead of writing out a link on the board or emailing it and so forth.  So if I want students to do work on some awesome sites like Flipgrid, Padlet or Peergrade (to name a few – check my The EAL Connected Educator post for more), they are all a simple click away.
  • Other Features.  So a few other features I like are that students can highlight and draw right on their OneNote pages, there are fun stickers and everything gets saved automatically.  However, OneNote is not the only place teachers should keep all of their important teaching resources.  Keep them in files and put them in OneNote from there.  (I’m old school so I still have big binders of each course I teach as well.)

Final Tips

So, I really do love OneNote and think it’s a great resource for EAL students if you are able to have the devices in your classroom to use it.  If you do decide to set up OneNote classroom, make sure to plan your main tabs ahead of time, as it can be tricky to add them afterwards.  Also, if you get any new students part way through the year and you want them to have any resources or information from before they came, you’ll need to cut and paste it into their OneNotes, but they’ll have all new information you distribute.

I hope this was helpful to some.  I just wanted to share a little bit about my newfound love for OneNote Classroom.


EAL and Making Connections

monkey connections

As teachers, we all know that making connections and building relationships with students is important, no matter what we are teaching or who we are teaching.  There are many different ways that we do this from greeting students at the door to asking how they are to getting to know them and their interests.  When it comes to working with EAL students, I have found it is especially important to build these connections and relationships, making students feel safe and comfortable in the classroom environment.  One of the ways in which I’ve worked on doing this is through learning about my students cultures and life histories.  Not only does this support me in making my students feel comfortable and more willing to learn and focus within the classroom, but it gives me an insight into their literacy practices and, therefore, guides me in how to go about teaching them English.  A student’s life history and culture help in shaping their literacy practices.

As a little aside:

Barton and Hamilton (1998) claim that “literacy practices are culturally constructed, and, like all cultural phenomena, they have their roots in the past” (p. 12). So, according to Barton and Hamilton (1998), literacy practices develop because of culture and they are connected to the past. It is,therefore, necessary to look at both the life histories of individuals, as well as their culture since an individual’s literacy practices are rooted in and influenced by their life experiences and the cultures they come from.

more connections

Okay, back to the reality of the classroom.  I can’t spend all my time researching up on every student I teach and the history of the country they come from, but I can let them share about themselves, learn from them and how best to support them in their learning.  There are a number of ways in which I’ve tried to get my students to open up and share about their background, where they come from, their experiences in coming to Canada and how they feel about it all.

Here are some things I’ve tried:

  • Icebreakers.  There are so many out there and it’s a great way to get students to feel comfortable in the classroom with each other and the teacher.  It’s a good idea for the teacher to join in the icebreakers as well.  I usually adapt my icebreakers so that they are relevant for my students.


  • Presentations about students’ home towns and/or countries.  In some of my beginner classes, I’ve had students create simple PowerPoint presentations about where they are from.  I give them specific guidelines and will often do a sample presentation first about Canada or the province they now live in.  In one particular class, I teach a unit on Canada, while constantly making connections back with their home countries, similarities and differences.  I pose a lot of questions and get them thinking, as well as collecting and putting together information that they’ll share about where they are from.  Even with very beginner students, they can still say a few words to go with each slide: “my flag”, “our food”, “music”, etc.  I show my students genuine interest as they present and encourage questions.  This helps students to feel proud about where they are from – and they should be.  Their background and the culture they come from is an important part of who they are.
  • Show genuine interest.  As mentioned in the last bullet point, I show my students that I am very interested in where they are from, ask a lot of questions and encourage them to be the experts, teaching me something about where they are from.  I have found that some students speak poorly of where they are from (for whatever reason) and some even want to forget their first language and just learn English.  I try to tell them how blessed they are to be bilingual or multilingual and all of the benefits that go along with it.  Not to mention, the better their first language, the better their second language.  I always encourage my students to keep learning in their first language, not only because it supports them in second language acquisition, but also because it’s an important part of who they are.
  • Make connections between L1 and English.  In one of my higher level classes, I get the students to create a presentation about their first language, teaching the class about it, including a few words in that language and making comparisons between that language and English.  When looking at learning grammar at a higher level, this shows students what supports or transferences their L1 allows in learning English and what hindrances – what things they probably need to work on.  Here’s an example of a chart I made to show the differences between Arabic and English.

arabic english chart

Students love this assignment, show pride in their languages and enjoy learning about each other’s languages and trying them out.  Students also enjoy how badly I pronounce some of the words they teach in their languages or have difficulty remembering them and begin to feel good about their own learning and struggles.  Furthermore, it helps me, as the teacher, to see those language differences and the things my students will have to work on in learning English depending on how close their L1 is to English.


  • Personal Narratives.  One of my favourite lessons is in one of my higher level classes where I give the students an assignment to write a personal narrative about their journey to Canada.  I give them the freedom to format the piece however they want to (as it’s about them and their experiences so it should be their decision), but ask that they include some imagery (the five senses) in their writing and make the reader really feel their experience.  I then get the students to type up the narratives and make them look like a magazine article. (We look at some samples to get ideas.)  They can add personal pictures or search royalty free picture sites to find suitable pictures to go with their narratives.  I have learned so much about my students from these and many students are much more comfortable writing about themselves than talking.  I make sure to put a lot of effort into marking them and give them not only grammatical and structural feedback, but I make comments or ask them questions about what they’ve written.  My students have taught me so much from this. From the excitement of going on an airplane for the first time to the sadness in leaving family and friends behind, to being reunited with parents they haven’t seen in years or the challenges in adjusting to a new country and language, as well as our very cold climate.  They all write about that!
  • Comparison Paragraphs.  Another writing assignment I get students to do is write a comparison paragraph between school in Canada and school in their home countries.  I do this with intermediate students.  We go through the writing process, starting with a Venn Diagram comparing the schools.  I teach the students paragraph writing skills and build their vocabulary through learning compare and contrast transition words and phrases.  (ESL Library has a great lesson on writing comparison and contrast essays.) I always like to do some peer editing with this assignment.  Check out the Peergrade site for a fun and useful way to do peer editing and feedback.  Knowing about the differences and similarities between school in their home countries and school in Canada also really helps me to better understand and support my students.  They’ve taught me about school punishments (holding books in front of the class, being detained or being hit); how teachers move from class to class, not students; standing to answer questions; maintaining school gardens or having cleaning duties; wearing school uniforms, the pros and cons; having fences surrounding the school and guards; paying for education; having longer school hours and more subjects; and even expectations of teachers and parents.  After completing the paragraphs, I’ll have students read them to the class.  This provides good reading fluency practices, an opportunity to share with each other, as well as practice speaking in front of the class in a safe environment so they can become more comfortable with it, as they will have to do this in other mainstream classes.


  •  Potlucks and Multicultural Days.  Although some  would frown on these as focusing on statistics and stereotypes about a culture or country, the students love them.  Put the planning in their hands so that they can share with us what they want to about their culture.  I’ve had students put on class potlucks as well as potlucks for the entire staff.  The students love seeing the teachers trying their food and telling them about it.  The looks of pride on their faces as the teachers enjoy the food they brought from their cultures is priceless.  Multicultural days can also serve to enlighten other students about where EAL students are from, setting up booths, putting on concerts of cultural dancing, or playing popular music from a particular culture can not only help non-EAL students learn about their fellow classmates, but open up opportunities for conversations and questions, getting EAL students more involved and comfortable within the school community.  Most of my EAL students tend to stick with students from their home countries or other EAL students (especially when new to Canada), which is understandable, but kids learn well from other kids and getting to know native speakers is a great way to improve English language acquisition, as well as make connections.


Finally, getting students comfortable and connected with their new school and community is important in not only improving second language acquisition, but fostering future successes in their new country.  Their teachers and the relationships students have with them are often the gateways to a greater connection and level of comfort within their new environment.


Barton, D. & Hamilton, M. (1998). Local literacies: Reading and writing in one
community. New York: Routledge.

Tips for Working With EAL Students

As an EAL teacher at a Canadian high school, I do more than just teach English to my students.  I try to give the students tips and strategies for surviving in their regular English classes, something that can be quite difficult when they are new to learning English and thrown in a regular Social Studies or Math class at the high school level.  In addition, I’ve tried to provide a list of tips for my fellow staff members who have my students in their regular classes.  I’ve tried to make a list full of adaptations that are quick and easy to do, as it isn’t easy to support students learning English in classes of 25 to 30 (or more) students, while trying to get through the curricular outcomes and support  and manage all of the students in the class.  Not to mention, all that planning and marking!

tips and tricks

So, here’s my list.

  • Provide students with vocabulary a day or two before you teach a lesson to allow them to become familiar with it.
  • Encourage students to use their L1 (first language) to assist them in their studies. For example, if you are teaching about Global Warming, allow/encourage EAL students to first read about Global Warming in their native language so that they understand the topic and are still learning.  From there, students should pay attention to which key words and phrases they don’t know in English and find out what the translation is.  For instance, a student might be reading in his/her first language and realize that he/she doesn’t know what “Climate Change” is in English, which would be important to know in understanding Global Warming.
  • Use visuals if possible, including Google images – or encourage students to look up pictures of things you are discussing.
  • Model new or difficult vocabulary by using them in a sentence and have students turn and talk practicing using the words in sentences.  This can be helpful to all students, not just those learning English.
  • Use gestures and examples to explain ideas and concepts explicitly.  I’ve become quite an actress in my classroom.
  • Encourage EAL students to keep a personal dictionary of new words that they learn.
  • Put on English subtitles when showing a movie or video if possible, and allow EAL students to sit closer to the front.
  • Pair students with native speakers of English to work with them and assist them (or with those who speak their first language if they are still new to learning English).
  • Use graphic organizers when possible.
  • Allow for some non-verbal responses (hands up, thumbs up or down, minhands-220163__340i whiteboards, etc.) so that EAL students can participate.  Check out my The EAL Connected Educator blog post for some technology tools for this.
  • Encourage students many times to ask for help if they don’t understand, as many of them won’t or are too shy.
  • Encourage students to circle/highlight words or phrases that they don’t know/understand, make notes in the margins of readings and write brief translations or key words in their L1.
  • Allow students time to practice paraphrasing paragraphs of a reading with a partner and ask them questions.
  • Encourage students not to use google translate for entire sentences….it usually doesn’t end up making sense and the students don’t necessarily learn the words that they’ve translated.
  • Be aware that many of the students merely cut and paste things off of the internet when working on reports and essays. Encourage them to write things using their own words.  They could first write it in their own language and then work on translating it themselves.  They should always be looking up a few new words to include in their writing assignments so that they are always learning new vocabulary.
  • Don’t be afraid to correct their grammar on occasion when they are speaking – we learn from our mistakes.
  • But don’t be too picky about every little grammar mistake.  Maybe pick out some key mistakes for them to work on in their writing or look for when self editing.
  • If a student doesn’t understand you when speaking to him/her one-on-one, you can try to speak a bit slower, but it may be even more effective to speak with a bit of a break between each word, so they don’t run all together, confusing the student.  In addition, try to say things in a different way, using different words if a student still doesn’t seem to be understanding.
  • Cross out wordiness in instructions.  Often when a student comes to me for help with an assignment for another class, I butcher the instructions.  We are wordy in English, so I take the assignment, cross out unnecessary words that don’t impede understanding.  I often write the question in a simpler way or change some of the words as well.  This can be a pretty quick and easy thing to do and, at least, the student will be able to participate.
  • Put the google translate app on your phone.  Although (as mentioned earlier) translating entire sentences isn’t always effective in google translate, it’s better than nothing with beginner students.
  • Make the students feel as comfortable as possible in the classroom.  Of course students focus and learn better when they feel welcome and at ease.

Below is a chart I made based on information from the article referenced in the caption below it.  This is a nice chart to provide teachers with so that no matter the English level of the student, they can participate.  If students are too shy, teachers can provide them with one or two questions in advance and ask them one-on-one or to tell a partner or write down an answer.

asking questions chart
“Asking the Right Questions,” by Jane D. Hill and Kathleen Flynn, Journal of Staff Development, Volume 29, Number 1, Winter 2008, pp. 46-52.


On Teaching Vocabulary to ELLs

I though I’d write a blog post on teaching vocabulary to ELLs (English Language Learners).  Building vocabulary is one of the main tasks that EAL students have when developing language acquisition in English.  There are a number of ways that I’ve worked on vocabulary building with my students, as well as understanding vocabulary in context and reading comprehension (which I’ll talk about in a later post).  In this blog post, I’ll discuss a little bit of background on teaching vocabulary to ELLs that I’ve come across in the scholary world of English Language Acquisition and then move into explicit vocabulary teaching techniques I use in the classroom.


Vocabulary Research and English Language Learning

First and foremost, there are two types of Oral Language.  Many of you have already heard of BICS and CALP.  They are as follows.

BICS – Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills: Face-to-face conversational fluency, language used in everyday activities, and mastery of pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar (Cummins, 2008).

CALP – Cognitive/Academic Language Proficiency: Language proficiency associated with schooling, abstract language abilities required for academic work, and includes more complex, conceptual, linguistic ability (analysis, synthesis, evaluation…) (Cummins, 2008).

So, students learning English in school need to learn both BICS and CALP in order to be successful.  This brings me to the three tiers of vocabulary.  Below is an example of the different types of English vocabulary students need to learn.  The first tier includes BICS words, the second and third contain CALP words.  Beginner EAL students will be working in Tier 1 and moving into Tier 2 as intermediates, with Tier 3 being reserved for subject specific areas.


So, how do EAL students learn vocabulary?  Well, there are two ways: explicitly (where the teacher purposefully works on students learning specific vocabulary words) and implicitly (where students tend to pick up vocabulary without intentionally working on it just from being around the language).  In my experience, both are necessary, but it is important to work explicitly on vocabulary with beginner and intermediate students, whereas intermediate and advanced students can also really benefit from implicit learning once they have a decent grasp of the language.  I’ll give more ideas on tools for teaching vocabulary explicitly in the next section.

One method of learning vocabulary in English is to focus on the most commonly used words in English or high frequency words.  You can easily search online for lists of these. For interest’s sake:

  • 3000 high frequency and general academic words cover “a high percentage of the words on an average page” (Hunt & Beglar, 1998).
  • 3000 words = necessary for the university level (Laufer, 1992).
  • 5000 words = academic success (Laufer, 1992).


Finally, in readings I’ve done about vocabulary, here are some things I’ve learned.

  • 5 to 7 new vocabulary words is enough for students to learn in one lesson. It is difficult to keep more than that in one’s mind if they are brand new words.
  • Although we often teach vocabulary in themes (and I still do this), such as parts of the body or types of illnesses, I have read articles that research shows a person is more likely to remember a list of words if they aren’t related. The jury is still out on this one for me.  I like to mix it up!

Vocabulary Pre-Assessment

Something I’ve tried recently is giving my students a pre-assessment to see which words they already know, how well they know them and which words they still need to learn.  Recently, I chose academic words from the first two resources listed in the next section and created a Microsoft Forms survey.  This worked great and gave me quick and easy data.  Take a look at the pictures.

Teaching Vocabulary (Explicitly)

Next, here are some resources I recommend for teaching academic vocabulary:

vocabulary power

academic vocab for ells

academic vocab toolkit

The first two resources I have used extensively and really like.  The third one, I’ll admit, I haven’t had the opportunity to use as my school system only has a couple of copies and they are always signed out.  However, I did attend a Kate Kinsella (the Academic Vocabulary Toolkit author) webinar recently and learned a lot of great tips for teaching vocabulary and think the books would be excellent resources.

Another great resource for teaching vocabulary is ESL Library.  This site can only be accessed by paying for it, but it is well worth it.  There are so many great lessons at different levels.  There are many topics and each one picks out key vocabulary, shows the words used in a reading and allows for a lot of practice with the words.  I especially like particular lessons for building certain types of academic vocabulary such as debate language or persuasive language, as well as idioms.

More good vocabulary building sites:

Ways in which I teach vocabulary (many of which are pretty basic, but I’ll list them):

  • Cloze activities
  • Matching activities
  • Turn and talk with a partner using the word in a sentence
  • Write the word in a sentence, showing they understand it’s meaning
  • Recipe cards – pass out vocabulary words on recipe cards and students need to make a sentence using them and share it with the class.
  • Modelling – the teacher uses the word in a number of sentences, in a number of ways.
  • Multiple meanings – practicing and going over the multiple meanings of a words to fully understand them.
  • Repeating – hearing and saying the word (pronunciation)
  • Word walls and review
  • Labelling around the classroom
  • Explain what the word means to a partner
  • Synonym and antonym activities
  • Identifying words’ parts of speech
  • L1 (first language) translations and comparisons.  Be careful with this one though, especially if translating more than one word.
  • Word strips – cutting out words and then cutting the words in half and placing them in an envelope for students to assemble. This can be made into a fun competition.
  • Word sorts – getting students to sort words by parts of speech, tense, intensity, theme, whatever. It’s nice to write the words on recipe cards or bits of paper and get the students out of their desks and sticking them to the board with sticky tack in the correct category.
  • Games – one game I like to play involves a bit of preparation. Write vocabulary words on recipe cards with a basic definition of the word on the back of a different recipe card with a different word on the other side. One student begins by reading his/her word and the other students see if they have the matching definition.  The student who does, then flips his/her card over and reads the word on the back.  Who has the definition? Etc.
  • Skits – have students create skits using vocabulary words. They can read them to the class or memorize them for more practice.  They could also create a news broadcast or a talk show or podcast using the words.
  • Personal Dictionary – I encourage my students to keep a personal dictionary of new words that they learn each day. They should keep it simple though.  Too many words will be overwhelming.  3 to 5 words a day is enough.
  • Images – lots of pictures
  • Cognates – Are there any similar words in the students’ first language?
  • Collocations – How are the words used in different ways with particular words.

Using Technology to Assess and Practice Vocabulary Words.

  • Kahoot – create a Kahoot using the vocabulary words for some friendly competition and practice.  Students love this and if you don’t have one-to-one devices, they can use their phones.
  • Quizizz – create a Quizizz similar to a Kahoot or create a Quizizz that students do on their own and use it for formative assessment, matching words to definitions.
  • GoFormative – for practice or assessment. See my The EAL Connected Educator Blog post for more info. on this site.
  • Quizlet – this is an awesome site for learning and practicing vocabulary with either pictures or definitions. Students can study, practice with flashcards, practice spelling and writing words, matching and even play a live game in groups against others in the class.  My students love this!  In addition, you can get students to study and practice vocabulary words by creating their own quizlet with words they still need to learn.


Hopefully, some of this has been helpful.  In a future post, I’ll talk about how I teach unfamiliar vocabulary in context and support students with reading comprehension.  Please share any ways you teach vocabulary to your EAL students.  I’d love to learn some new activities/techniques!


Cummins, J. (2008). BICS and CALP: Empirical and Theoretical Status of the Distinction.

Hunt, A., Beglar, D. (1998). Current research and practice in teaching vocabulary. The Language Teacher 22, (1).

Laufer, B. (1992). How much lexis is needed for reading comprehension.  In H. Bejoint and P. Arnaud (Eds., Vocabulary and Applied Linguistics (pp.126-132). Macmillan.