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Adjust Your Teaching Styles for English Language Learners (ELL) in ESL/Bilingual Classrooms

Connecting ELLs to Accessible Texts
Tobey Cho Bassoff

Now that I’m at the Middle School Level, I have more of an appreciation for the difficulty confronting our content language classrooms at the upper levels of public education today.  Many teachers are faced with teaching science, writing, social studies, and literature with textbooks and texts that are much too difficult for our English Language Learners.  As teachers, we want to prepare our students to be lifelong learners, yet the texts that we use are utterly incomprehensible. What’s the answer?  Fortunately, there isn’t just one way of looking at it.  The following article discusses one successful approach that’s gaining more appeal across the country.

What is an accessible text?

Cris Tovani’s book, Do I Really Have to Teach Reading, makes the case for accessible texts, or texts that are “interesting, well-written, and appropriately matched” to the level of students (Tovani 2004, p. 39).  Texts that capture a student’s attention because they are high interest and often found outside of school appeal particularly to students with a limited vocabulary.  Accessible texts are written to engage the reader and offer them a range of options based upon interest and background knowledge (Allington 2002).

Why use accessible texts?

Many of our English Language Learners struggle in classes and the achievement gap between English Language Proficient students (ELPs) and ELLs is staggering and tragic.  In my own experience, I see some of my best and brightest former students failing at high school social studies and literature because the vocabulary used in textbooks or novels is too difficult and has little to no meaning for them.  If we can find meaningful ways to engage students and give them an avenue for reaching the texts, then we may be able to build upon their skills so that they can be successful in some of the more challenging classes.

What are some examples of accessible texts?

The following is a list adapted from Cris Tovani’s work (Tovani 2004, p. 45).

articles menus poems short stories
companion pieces newspaper articles quotes song lyrics
diary/journal entries photographs with commentary reviews student writing 
letters   picture books short non-fiction selections teacher writing

I’ve used many of these examples effectively in my own classes.  I find that the more I can connect with my students’ real life experiences, the better the result.  For example, when we were studying the reasons for immigrating to the United States, I brought in quotes from immigrants who represented countries from where my students had cultural roots.  As we explored themes of religious and political oppression, I watched the students’ interest level rise.  The lesson continued with poems about the promise of freedom and journal entries about what it felt like to be a stranger in a new land.  Not surprisingly, many of my students had personal accounts that they could share.  In one class, I had two students bring in (and share!!!) journal entries from their own experiences.

Some advice

This article offered a basic overview, but there is so much more to the concept and application.  If you’re interested in finding out more about accessible texts, please explore Do I Really Have to Teach Reading and begin a discussion about the use of this strategy at your school.  Good luck and please e-mail me me your thoughts, successes, and challenges.


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