Quick Reference Handbook for Adapting Lessons for English Learners

Bonnie Piller, Ed.D.
California State University, San Bernardino

Funded by the U.S. Department of Education
Preparing Tomorrow's Teachers to Use Technology (PT3) grant program (2006)


Recognizing that the number of language diverse learners has increased in schools and that researchers predict this trend to continue for at least the next two decades (Thomas and Collier, 2002), classroom teachers are looking for ways to improve instruction so English learners benefit, while aligning their instruction to the state and local academic content standards. This handbook is a quick reference for teachers, intern teachers and student teachers to use as they prepare lessons to ensure that all students, including English language learners, will find the lesson comprehensible and engaging.

What is presented in the handbook is not a model that focuses primarily on the learning of English. It is rather, suggested adaptations that can be made to most lesson plans in regular classrooms. The teaching strategies included in the resource can be used by teachers across grade levels and across curriculum content areas. These adaptations to lessons can be made regardless of the instructional method or program model that may be used, whether it be a more formalized model such as Cognitive Academic Language Learning Approach (CALLA) or the more informal implementation of what is known in California as Specifically Designed Academic Instruction in English (SDAIE).

The adaptation strategies included in this handbook, come from evidence based sources and practicing teachers, specifically the Language Arts and Humanities teachers at Villegas Middle School who helped start this bank of strategies. Villegas Middle School is in the Alvord Unified School District located in Riverside, California. This list is by no means comprehensive or exclusive, nor is it meant to convey the perception that these adaptation strategies have a stronger evidence base than strategies that may not be on the list. In fact, in educational settings, it is difficult, if not impossible, to conclude that any individual lesson adaptation is superior to another. We generate research evidence based on survey, case studies, correlation studies and sometimes control-group studies. While this research based evidence, measured by student achievement outcomes does matter, we still recognize that teaching is a complex human event and that teachers make on the spot decisions in each teaching situation. Therefore, the purpose of this handbook is to give teachers an easy to use tool that supports their decision making in planning lessons.

Purpose of the Quick Reference Handbook

You will find that the adaptations to lessons in this handbook are divided into five categories or stages. This reflects theory and research in the field of second language acquisition and education of English language learners. Current theorists (Krashen,2002, Cummins,1996, Swain, 1995) support the concept of a continuum of learning, with predictable and sequential stages of language development, progressing from little or no knowledge of English to the proficiency of native speakers. The stages used in this resource tool match the stages of the California English Language Development Test (CELDT). All students in California who are identified as English learners are tested at the beginning of the school year with the CELDT instrument. The results on the test place the students in one of the categories; Beginner, Early Intermediate, Intermediate, Early Advanced, and Advanced, or move the student from being an English learner to being classified as Fluent in English Proficiency. Classroom teachers receive information telling them which students fall into each of the categories from Beginner to Advanced.

It is not uncommon for classes to have several students in more than one of the stages. At Villegas Middle School where this project began, 17% of the students during the academic year 2002 -2003 were identified as English Learners and teachers had CELDT reports that showed which students were in the stages; Beginning, Early Intermediate, Intermediate, Early Advanced and Advanced. For instance, Mrs. Grote, a sixth grade Language Arts teacher, with a class of thirty-four students, could have English learners identified in the following stages; two at Beginning, one at Early Intermediate, one at Intermediate, two at Early Advanced and one at Advanced. Therefore, when she considers adapting the lesson to meet the needs of English Learners, it may take more than one adaptation strategy to recognize the continuum of learning of these students. This does not mean that Mrs. Grote needs to specifically include an adaptation for each of the five stages. Instead, while developing the lesson plan, she will peruse the handbook, and select one or two adaptations that meet the needs of her students based on what she knows from formal and informal assessment.

Pre service teachers, as they read their textbooks and articles related to course work, become aware of ways to improve instruction for English learners. A narrow set of strategies appear most frequently; using realia, cooperative learning, pre teaching of vocabulary and using graphic organizers. While these strategies are research based, there are many more ways to increase comprehensibility, increase interest, improve thinking skills and study skills. This bank of adaptation strategies can aid pre service teachers in lesson design. Experience teachers can find this useful, as well. Effective teachers find that over time they inadvertently abandon strategies that work. Hopefully this tool will be useful in broadening their repertoire of frequently used techniques.


  • Cummins, J. (1996).Negotiating identities: Education for empowerment in a diverse society. Ontario, CA: California Association for Bilingual Education.
  • Krashen, S. D., & Terrell, T.D.(1983).The natural approach: Language acquisition in the classroom .Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • Krashen, S.D. (1981).Second language acquisition and second language learning .New York, NY: Pergamon Press.
  • Swain, M., & Lapkin, S.(1995).Problems in output and the cognitive processes they generate: A step towards second language learning. Applied Linguistics, 16 (3), 371 –391.
  • Thomas, W. P., & Collier, V.P. (2002).A national study of school effectiveness for language minority students ’long-term academic achievement .Santa Cruz, CA: Center for Research on Education, Diversity & Excellence.