suggestions for adapting for ESL students

  • Adapting for ESL Students

          Each ESL student needs a different amount of support in the general classroom. In addition to the assessments below the classroom teacher may want to consider the students placement in the classroom - buddy them with a native speaker you feel may be good support for the ESOL student, provide copies of notes given in class so that student may listen to the new material without worrying about trying to take notes, with newer arrivals, understand they may be reluctant to speak in class and wait for them to be comfortable enough to volunteer before calling on them.

    There are three components to adapt for an ESL student:

    1 • Content (the curriculum, essential ideas, key understandings, vocabulary, terms, etc.)

    2 • Instruction (the method of presentation, classwork expected of the student, and materials provided to the student)

    3 • Assessment (the manner in which student knowledge is evaluated and graded)

    Some ideas as to how to adapt in each of these areas are provided below.  

    1. Adapting Content for ESL Students:

    Depending upon the level of English proficiency, your ESL student will be able to manage a certain amount of material in your class. Remember...ESL students are intelligent and really want to learn what you are teaching! They want to learn some or all of the content of the class. The suggested guidelines might help:

    Early Beginner:  identify two or three essential ideas for students to learn and several background words that would be helpful for students. For example, if you are teaching a unit on the properties of fluids, these new students might be able to learn words such as: water, solid, fluids, liquid, soft, hard, wet, and so on.

    High Beginner / Intermediate: Identify several essential ideas for students to learn and a concentrated list of core vocabulary. These ESL students would benefit from a shortened list of the vocabulary that you've identified as important for this unit.

    Advanced: These ESL students should be expected to learn the majority or all of the content that you teach to regular education students. However, they may need more time to complete assignments, demonstrate their knowledge, and more support and structure during lessons and assignments. 

    2. How to Adapt Instruction and Materials for ESL Students:

    Many teachers feel overwhelmed at the prospect of adapting their classroom instruction for ESL students. They may assume they should prepare a completely alternate lessons, or find very different materials for these students. That simply is not true! A few simple strategies will help you change the existing lesson so that the ESL student can make progress too. Remember: the definition of 'adapt' is to simplify something that already exists, not to create something new.

    The key to success in adapting instruction and materials is PRE-PLANNING!!! If you can adapt your materialsBEFORE the lesson, the ESL student will be able to make the most of the existing instructional time.

    Early Beginner:  these students can be the most challenging to reach, as their communication skills are not well developed. Try to write out as many simplified directions for them as you can. Provide graphic organizers , Pre-copy the class notes and give students the notes before the lesson. Use highlighters and sticky notes to identify the material you expect them to focus on. think...LOTS OF VISUALS.

    High Beginner / Intermediate: Identify several essential ideas for students to learn and a concentrated list of core vocabulary. These ESL students would benefit from a shortened list of the vocabulary that you've identified as important for this unit. 

    Advanced: These ESL students should be expected to learn the majority or all of the content that you teach to regular education students. However, they may need more time to complete assignments, demonstrate their knowledge, and need more support and structure during lessons and assignments. 

    The trick to working with these students is to continually check in with them regarding how much they understand. Because these students have strong social language skills, it is easy to assume that they understand much more than they do and/or that they have the background knowledge needed to make good progress. 

    Since these students have spent the past few years learning English, they may not have the same background knowledge as your other students

    3. How to Adapt Assessments for ESL Students:

    We recommend identifying the way in which you will assess the ESL student at the outset of the unit. Depending upon the ESL student's level, you might choose one of the following levels of assessment:

    Early Beginner / Beginner students: Alternate assessments

    High Beginner / Intermediate students: Simplified and/or Adapted assessments

    Advanced Students: Adapted and/or Accommodated assessments

    Descriptions of each type of assessment are below. Please note that all ESL students may receive extended time to complete assessments and also use their bilingual glossaries/electronic translators. These accommodations are recommended by the NYS Department of Education.


    Alternate Assessments:  Allow the ESL student to demonstrate their knowledge in a completely different format. Generally, for beginning students with limited proficiency in English, pictures, drawing, and short verbal explanations work best. At this stage, the student is generally only graded on content, and not on spelling, grammar, or stylistics.

    • Label a picture or diagram

    • Draw a picture that demonstrates a key idea

    • Explain an idea orally

    • Answer a few questions orally

    • Draw lines between vocabulary terms and pictures

    • Allow students to submit a project in lieu of an in-class test. The project might take a week or more for the student to complete.


    Simplified Assessments: Develop a short assessment that evaluates only the essential ideas and core vocabulary that the ESL student was required to learn.

    • True/false

    • Multiple choice with two answers

    • Matching with a limited number of choices

    • Word banks provided


    Adapted Assessments: Use the same test that you've prepared for regular education students, but shorten it and focus on essential ideas and core vocabulary.

    • Require students to complete only certain portions of the test

    • Provide a word bank (write it on the test)

    • Allow students to choose to answer 5 of 10 questions

    • Provide multiple choice answers for questions that would normally require students to create an answer

    • Turn short answer into multiple choice or a math problem

    • Shorten the length of the required answer

    • For multiple choice, cross out one or two of the incorrect answers


    Accommodated Assessments: Use the same test as used for regular education students, but also allow NYS ESL testing accommodations such as extended time and the use of bilingual electronic translators/dictionaries.