Modifications for ELL Students in Language Arts

Jennifer Garcia O'Neill

Jennifer has taught ELL classes more than 10 years and has her Master's of Education in ESL.

Expert Contributor
Sasha Blakeley

Sasha Blakeley has a Bachelor's in English Literature from McGill University. She has been teaching English in Canada and Taiwan for six years.

Looking for ways to help English language learners (ELLs) succeed in your classroom? In this lesson, you will learn about a variety of modifications for ELL students that can be used in language arts and examples of how to implement them.

Overview of Modifications

Modifications are changes teachers can make to their instruction to ensure that all students can access the material. These are effective strategies that help ELL as well as other students in your classroom. When choosing a modification, be sure to consider the English language ability of the student. Beginning level ELL students will benefit from different types of modifications than those used with intermediate or advanced ELL students.

Instructional Modifications

Prior Knowledge

Before you start teaching a new concept it is important to help students activate their prior knowledge. This means that students discuss their connections with the topic before learning about it. If students have no prior knowledge they can develop knowledge by listening to others' experiences.

Some simple ways to implement this strategy include:

  • starting a whole class discussion
  • having students write a short reflection
  • completing a KWL chart

A KWL chart is a graphic organizer with three columns titled ''know'', ''want to know'' and ''learned.'' Students complete it throughout the course of the learning activity.

Reading Comprehension Modifications

Differentiated Texts

When possible, provide a differentiated version of the text. In a differentiated text, the content remains the same but the sentence structure and vocabulary have been changed, depending on the reader's ability level. Differentiated texts can make the content easier to understand. Some texts have versions specifically for ELL students while other texts may be available at different Lexile levels. Lexile levels indicate the difficulty of a text.

If it is not possible to provide a differentiated text another option is to modify the length of the text. Only assign the most important part to an ELL student. This could range from a couple of sentences to pages or a few chapters, depending on the length of the original text and ability of the student.

Vocabulary Development Modifications

Content & Vocabulary Instruction

In addition to explicitly teaching the key vocabulary and academic terms, identify any idioms that may be present in the text. Idioms are phrases that cannot be understood literally - such as it's raining cats and dogs - and can be very confusing for ELL students.

Vocabulary graphic organizers help students develop a deeper understanding of a word or phrase. A 4-square vocabulary chart is extremely easy to implement. All students have to do is fold a blank sheet of paper into four squares and complete a component in each box. The four components are:

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Additional Activities

Write A Lesson Plan

You now have several useful strategies for helping ELL students to thrive in Language Arts lessons. Below are three scenarios. For each one, write a plan for how you would incorporate what you've learned into a lesson to help your ELL student or students to succeed. Be as detailed as possible. While you should draw heavily from the content of this lesson, don't be afraid to do your own research to find other ELL resources, or to use your imagination!

Scenario 1

You are teaching a class of 8- and 9-year old ELL learners. These students have been learning English in an immersion context for two or three years. You have been assigned to read through several simple short stories with them (around the level of fairy tales or parables). The content is age-appropriate, but there is a lot of new vocabulary and the syntax of the text is a challenge for many of your students. How can you use what you've learned to break down and recontextualize the lesson?

Scenario 2

There is one ELL learner in your otherwise native English-speaking grade 10 class. The students have been assigned a writing task. They have to write an essay about their happiest memory. Your ELL student understands the assignment, but is struggling both with the length and structure of the essay, and with the vocabulary required to explain his or her topic. How can you alter the assignment to make it fair and educational for your ELL learner?

Scenario 3

Your ELL learners are just starting to learn English, and many of them are mixing up vocabulary words that sound alike, like "chicken" and "kitchen." What activities or elements can you add to your classroom to help your students remember the difference between similar words? Consider visual aids, discussions, and games in your response.

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