Lessons from behind the scenes of ESL

ELL students are a unique challenge for many teachers. The older the student, the bigger the challenge it seems. Young students pick up a new language quickly the more they are immersed in the language. As many of their peers are also learning and experimenting with language and meaning, the have the opportunity to practice in a safe and differentiated environment.  When you reach high school, content is key and process is focused. There isn’t time for students to learn a language and curriculum.

The question then becomes how to best support those students. When I first started in my role this year, I searched for the magic solution to support my students and my colleagues. After many frustrations, I realized the answer isn’t so simple.

Key factors to student success seem to be:

  • Instructional organization
    • Not just small class sizes or pullout groups but a multi-faceted and flexible collaborative environment tailored to the different needs of the individuals.
  • Teacher Knowledge
    • Teachers don’t have all the answers but they need to be open to learning and trying new things. They also need to be open to being wrong. Solutions are rarely straight forward and I have yet to see the same strategies work for multiple students.
  • Patience
    • Research shows that students first need to develop the Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills that lead to socialization before they can develop Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency. It is also found that students take 5-7 years to develop these skills and can often appear to be “stuck” in different phases of their development.
  • Relationships
    • Students need to know that you care, that you understand, and they need to know they can trust you. This MUST come before they are willing to take the risk of learning a new language.

So what do we do? Well, there is no magic answer. This year I developed a pyramid of interventions and strategies for my colleagues to help support them with this journey. I offer my colleagues support and mini-workshops on using the benchmarks, and I read – A LOT! Still, I do not have all the answers. The ESL gurus (such as Larry Ferlazzo) are always learning and growing in their practice. In one of his latest posts, he writes “We’ll see for how long it’s effective, but it certainly can’t hurt….”

Patience, always learning, trying new things, and tenacity are my super secret tips I can share with you for now. Context is key and adaptability is a necessity.

How do you support ELL students in your classroom?


Teaching second languages through inquiry and project based learning.

I am given a curriculum to teach French as a Second Language to my grade 5 students that looks something like this:

My Elementary School
Our Friends—The Animals
My Home


Le Festival du Voyageur*
Four Holidays and Celebrations*


and other areas of interest.


Now I don’t know about you, but the last time I talked to a 10 year old, they did not consider animals their friends, they do not care about how to count in French and they most definitely do not want to to learn Valentines’ Day vocabulary so that they can do a word puzzle for any other reason than to waste a class period.

I realized this when we started our animal unit and looked at the worksheets I was given by our provincial government that would supposedly teach my kids all about animals. Since I had a sub, they started them and we essentially threw that out the window quickly. I went down to Calgary and walked around their zoo, talking to them about their rebuild after the flood and activities they did with students to help redesign parts of the Zoo. I also learned about why the penguin habitat looked like I was at one of the magnetic poles. This inspired my project to create a Grade 5 redesign of our local and rather boring zoo. Thanks to my amazing team member, she took my idea and helped organize it on paper.


Redesign the enclosure at the Edmonton Valley Zoo for one of the animal residents. The new enclosure needs to reflect the animal’s natural habitat in the wild. Your newly redesigned enclosure needs to include signs written in French that explain to the zoo visitors the following:

  • the parts of the animal
  • what the animal eats
  • where the animal can be found in the wild
  • what predators the animal has or what animals your animal preys on
  • the size, lifespan (in the wild and in captivity) of your animal, the number of babies it has and how often
  • the other types of animals that can be found in the same area as your animal

You will be presenting to your classmates the newly designed animal enclosure for your animal.


My students have never been so excited to learn or work on a project. I loved this quote from one of my girls who will tell it like she sees it:

“French hasn’t been my favorite subject but it is getting fun because we get to choose an animal and label it in French!”

I’ve started working with my French 7s on the vocabulary through using things like sports, designing their own Alberta based ice cream flavour, and soon we will be designing a restaurant, learning to order off a menu and cooking the food. We’ll rotate through the roles so they can all eat, serve and order.

I am starting to love going to French 7 and they are starting to hand in their work a little bit more often. By engaging their interests and giving them something to work towards, both of my grades of French are starting enjoy the class a lot more. Listening to myself and their reactions to things, I find I am going back to my love of the French language and the fun things that I got to do as an Immersion student. Bringing that to my students now makes me love what I do even more.