Curriculum, Elementary, ell, High School, Junior High, school

Understanding English Language Learner Teaching Strands

There are four main strands used when acquiring any new language: reading, writing, listening, and speaking.

Here, I will break down each strand when we’re teaching English language learners in our classroom. What it looks like and ways to assess and build these skills.

Sme of these strands may seem more difficult to understand and assess than others, but when we really understand them, they can all be really fun to create assignments for!

Without further ado, here we go!


Reading is one of the easiest things to assess for English language learners because it’s fairly tangible. We can easily pull out levelled books and graded comprehension questions and see where students best align. However, it’s always important to remember that these kiddos aren’t as straightforward to assess as our native English speakers. Plus, the tools we’re using may not always take into consideration English language learners.

When working on reading with English language learners, there are a few major things teachers need to keep in mind.

First, fluency and decoding are important, but can also make ell students appear to be either further ahead or behind where they actually are with reading. For example, Filipino students are famously skilled at decoding and often sound completely fluent when reading aloud. However, their understanding is very often not as advanced, which can cause problems when teachers believe they are more advanced than they really are.

Additionally, some students may be fairly skilled at reading slowly in their heads, but have difficulty using proper pronunciation, intonation, and speed. This may cause teachers to give them significantly lower texts than necessary, instead of working on the skills of reading out loud.

Reading comprehension is also a major consideration when working with students on reading skills. Often when assessing ell students, I’ll find they miss major marks when scoring because they are unfamiliar with culture or things considered “common” where I live. For example, I have had students “fail” because they didn’t know what a skunk was and that it smells.

Therefore, it’s really important to work on vocabulary development while you work on reading. I like to give my ell students new vocabulary before we read a story, chapter, text, and so on. Or, while other kids are answering more in-depth questions, I’ll ask ell students to highlight and look up unknown vocabulary.

Biggest takeaway: don’t forget that English language learners are missing a large amount of base vocabulary knowledge that can deeply impact their understanding. Try to focus on vocabulary acquisition and summarizing short readings when other kids are doing deeper content work.


Personally, I find writing the easiest thing to assess when working with English language learners. It’s tangible and very progressive. Of course, my background is also senior high English and I have a Bachelor of Arts in English literature. I recognize this can be a bigger struggle for teachers with different backgrounds.

I find the most important thing to keep in mind when working with ell students on writing is what level they’re working at. Obviously, a beginning English language learner is going to produce something far different than a bridging student will.

Make sure you’re not assigning work that’s either too easy or too hard. If it’s too easy, your student will be bored and may assume you think they’re “stupid” simply because they’re learning a new language. If it’s too difficult, students will become frustrated and disengaged from learning.

Students who are first learning English may only be able to produce a word or drawing about something you’re learning. Soon, this will become a sentence, then a paragraph. Eventually students can work their way to summaries, simplified essays, and finally the full writing assignments you’re giving to the rest of the class.

Also be considerate of what it is you’re correcting and having students fix on writing assignments. Focus on the top one or two things you want that student to develop and improve and work on those before you move on to something more challenging. If a student receives a writing assignment back that’s absolutely bleeding with red corrections, they’re going to feel defeated and overwhelmed; they either won’t want to or won’t know how to progress.


Speaking can be quite difficult to assess in English language learners for a few reasons.

First, beginning English language learners are often so quiet they almost come across as mute. Can you blame them? If someone stuck me in a classroom in India or Kenya or Japan (I could continue here, but you get the point), I’d be in absolute culture shock.

When a student doesn’t speak or does so infrequently, it’s extremely difficult to figure out their ability. Keep in mind that students take quite a while to feel comfortable enough to speak in a new culture, language, and classroom. This is totally natural and indicative of their ELL level.

The second major reason it can be difficult to figure out what speaking level a student is at is that they naturally begin to understand and speak in slang and colloquialisms before academically.

We often think students are further ahead in speaking that they actually are because they are vocal in chatting informally with us, or we hear them carrying on long conversations with friends about their weekend plans.

However, these same kiddos may not be able to orally answer questions about curriculum or properly use academic terms.

It’s important to chat with these students about both informal and academic topics to get a better understanding of where they’re at. Encouraging academic conversations with peers in class is also a great way to build these skills.


Listening tends to be the most difficult English language development strand to build and assess. This is because it seems so intangible and it’s impossible to know what’s going on in a student’s mind.

However, there are definitely ways to work in this skill and to better understand where kids are at. In fact, it’s become one of my favourite skills to work on.

When students are first beginning to learn English, it’s difficult for them to understand even the most basic of single step instructions. Try starting kids out with single word tasks and build from there.

Instructions like “sit” will become “sit down” and then “please sit in your desk” and so on as kids progress.

To both build and assess you English language learners’ listening skills, start just by giving them instructions. Have them circle detain words and highlight others. Have them point to places on maps or things in the class.

As kids get stronger, they can begin to listen to more complex instructions, texts, stories, and so on. Ask specific questions about these to get a better understanding of how kids are doing.

I find these types of activities so much fun because you can be so creative with them. Don’t be afraid of the ever intangible listening strand; it’s not as daunting as it can seem!

Well, do you make sure to hit al these strands when working with English language learners? Are some easier to work with than others? Let me know!

Enjoyed this? Here are some other blog posts on Katie is a Teacher you may like:

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