Supporting ELLs in the Content Area Classroom

Teachers know that they are responsible for helping all the students in their classrooms, but they may not have all the tools they need or the time to learn and implement them when it comes to teaching English listening speaking, reading, and writing.

Often teachers don’t know specific strategies to help their ELLs, or they think that ESL students need too much scaffolding to help them successfully. They may even be overwhelmed thinking that these students need their own curriculum or too much individualized instruction.

However, many strategies that support ELLs’ English listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills are much easier to insert into the regular curriculum than most teachers think. Listenwise has some supports built in to assist teachers in creating those scaffolds, like vocabulary help, slower reading speeds, and graphic organizers.

Carol Salva and Anna Matis offer excellent advice for content area teachers supporting ELL students in their classrooms. In their book, Boosting Achievement: Reaching Students with Interrupted or Minimal Education , they advocate five suggestions for regular classroom teachers (p. 60):

  1. Seek out high-quality professional development that teaches specific strategies for teachers to implement.
  2. Encourage students to “verbalize to internalize” information within the lesson.
  3. Incorporate choral reading as a regular part of the curriculum.
  4. Teachers should refer to anchor charts and visuals throughout the day to reinforce instruction.
  5. Encourage students to speak in English every single day – even if it is just one sentence.

Each mode of communication – both interpretive (listening and reading) and expressive (speaking and writing) – is represented in these suggestions.

Listening comprehension tests sign up

QSSSA Strategy

The QSSSA script, created by John Seidlitz and Bill Perryman, is a strategy to encourage teachers to make questions and activities that support ELL students’ English language learning. It promotes the full spectrum of communication skills for English listening, speaking, reading, and writing.


The strategy begins with a whole-class question to activate background knowledge and focus on the lesson objectives and goals. It’s a great way to get students used to hearing academic language while getting them to deliberately, purposefully, listen to the teacher.


After giving students the question, provide a signal and a stem (see below). How will they show that they have an answer? They could write it, indicate with a thumbs up that they have a response, or respond in any way the teacher may have already established in their classroom procedures.

This serves two purposes.

Listening is a primary method of gathering information, but while hearing the information may not be a challenge, understanding the meaning may take ELLs additional time. It can feel awkward for a teacher to give the time students need to process the question, and signaling can provide the necessary wait time.

It can also provide students the opportunity to ask for clarification, a moment to look up or translate a word, or a chance for the question to be repeated.


Teachers need to provide students with a way to signal that they are ready with an answer and a method to provide it.

To encourage students to speak in class, a sentence stem given verbally and reinforced in writing on the whiteboard can provide a security layer for students. They are not only putting themselves on display with an answer in front of their classmates but are doing it with a language they are not as familiar with.

Here are a few options:

  • “I’m listening for ______ when you respond.”
  • “I want you to respond in this format: ‘______’”
  • “When you share with your partner, here’s how it should sound: ‘_____’”

Students are listening and reading in English while gaining support for speaking the answer in English.

Providing an answer stem can also give the teacher a chance to insert some choral reading into class time. Have the students read the question stem before allowing them to think or share. Making it fun and part of the classroom routine can enable older students to benefit from the strategy when they might otherwise roll their eyes at the activity’s childish nature.

Listening comprehension tests sign up


In the regular, in-person classroom, asking students to share their answers with a partner provides a low-stress and low-risk chance for students to compare their responses with their classmates’. It also gets nearly 100% of the students talking, which helps to take the individual pressure off of ELLs.

Taking a moment to listen and respond with a partner is definitely more challenging in an online or remote environment. However, Laura Jackson has an excellent suggestion for implementing this classic classroom strategy in a virtual environment. And here’s another idea!


Once students have shared their answers and compared them, the teacher can either ask everyone to write their replies or select students to share their responses.

If the teacher aims to get the full range of English communication from their ELL students, then writing the answer may be the method of choice.

Regardless of the communication mode, all of the previous steps help to scaffold ELLs through the process and make sure that they are prepared when asked to take responsibility for their answers.

Encouraging English listening, speaking, reading, and writing in a content area class

The key to utilizing the QSSSA strategy in the classroom is to recognize how the teacher’s actions support ELLs.

Teachers can use the strategy in its entirety to engage all students with background information at the beginning of a lesson with built-in supports to help ELL students practice their English listening and speaking skills. But each step is, on its own, a scaffold.

Anchor charts can provide additional practice or reinforcement of answer stems and important lesson material, continually reminding them of information they gained before.

Establishing answer stems with choral practice, even encouraging the students to be silly with their speaking, encourages students to both hear and speak necessary academic vocabulary in English. But that choral reading can be done with sentences from a story the class reads together. It could be done by reviewing the learning objective at the beginning or end of class. It could be repeating directions they must follow.

Any opportunity to “vocalize to internalize” information without the risk of standing out is helpful.

And finally, if no other strategies are used to support an ELL on a particular day – and it happens – teachers can always ask for a spoken English sentence on the way out the door. Students could write it first if need be, and it could be derived from a question the teacher poses or a reflection from part of that day’s assignment.

There’s nothing wrong with keeping it simple!

Because expressive communication like speaking and writing are based on interpretive actions (listening and reading), remembering to add a language goal for ELL students in regular ed classrooms encourages the growth of their English language skills exponentially.

Listening comprehension tests sign up


Using Podcasts to Teach Academic Language

What is Academic Language?

Have you ever wondered how to teach academic language using podcasts? Before we begin talking about academic language, or academic uses of language, it helps to first define social language.

Social language is the manner of speech used in casual conversation. It’s less formal and develops naturally through conversation with family and friends. Academic language skills, however, require intentional development and are therefore more complex to teach.

The definition of academic language is language that is required to learn in school, including vocabulary words used commonly in informational content. Examples of places where K-12 students often encounter academic language include textbooks, subject-specific lessons, and tests. Most of the academic vocabulary students will encounter falls into one of two categories:

  1. Words that are used frequently across subjects and sometimes have more than one meaning (Tier 2)
  2. Subject-specific vocabulary (Tier 3)

Why is Academic Language Important?

Teaching academic language is key to the development of higher-level skills. Broadening students’ academic vocabulary promotes deeper understanding of curriculum content, as the specificity of language helps to clarify and differentiate meaning.

Imagine trying to study the water cycle without knowing the definitions of the terms evaporation, convection, precipitation, and collection. It would be difficult to imagine how effective the lesson would be for a student without prior knowledge of those academic terms. This highlights the importance of developing academic uses of language for all students to meet curriculum standards across subjects.

Listening comprehension tests sign up

Academic Language and English Learners

We’ve discussed why academic language development is important for all students. Now let’s take a moment to focus on the importance of academic language in the instruction of English Language Learners (ELL).

While acquiring social language generally takes ELL students about two years, academic language development can take between five to seven years. Now consider the belief that developing academic uses of language is one of the most important factors in the academic success of English Language Learners. If academic language is pivotal to the long-term success of ELL students and it takes the longest to develop, the need for effective instruction in academic language becomes clear.

Teaching academic language with engaging, high-quality podcasts offers opportunities for students to build vocabulary and background knowledge about a wide variety of topics. Gradually building knowledge and academic vocabulary through exposure to authentic language motivates students and provides the foundation they need to continue improving their reading skills.

Download our Whitepaper: Is Listening a Missing Link to Academic Language Acquisition in Today’s Secondary Schools

Research indicates that for many students, especially those who are not yet proficient readers, listening to a passage often results in better comprehension than reading the same passage. Increased comprehension often leads to more active participation in discussions by those students. By listening to academic language, students can focus on developing comprehension strategies without the cognitive load of decoding. These strategies include making inferences and identifying the main idea, which can be applied to building speaking, listening, and reading skills.

“One of the top benefits of the Listenwise platform is the access it provides my students to academic language… Students need to hear spoken academic English, and they need to hear a lot of it…They need to hear it from multiple voices and about a wide range of topics. My students, who are primarily Spanish speakers, have great social language skills, but do not have the vocabulary, background knowledge, or exposure to academic English that their peers have.”
– Minnesota ELL Teacher Coordinator

How to Teach Academic Language With Podcasts

Students need to be proficient with academic uses of language across all literacy domains (listening, speaking, reading, writing). Natural acquisition of academic language often has students listening before reading academic vocabulary fluently. Providing opportunities for students to hear academic uses of language (particularly Tier 2 vocabulary) are critical to student success. Examples of opportunities in the classroom where students might need to access their academic vocabularies while listening are class discussion, lectures, and debates.

Creating opportunities for students to regularly practice listening to academic language is an important part of the acquisition process. Listening to podcast stories is a great way to do this. Podcasts expose students to natural speech, including different speeds of talking and various accents. Podcasts are also typically informational “texts” that are current and can be very meaningful and engaging content for students.

By playing a podcast straight through without pausing, you mirror the situation an EL student may encounter in the outside world. If you add brief pauses, you can create an opportunity to check for understanding. In addition to supporting academic vocabulary and content knowledge acquisition, listening to podcasts can sharpen listening skills. Detailed comprehension of a 5-minute podcast with academic language requires sustained, close listening, a habit that must be taught, supported, and regularly practiced.

Listening comprehension tests sign up

Sample STEM academic language podcast: The Perfect Measuring Cup

One example of how podcasts can support academic language acquisition is with teaching Tier 2 academic vocabulary. In the Tiered Vocabulary language acquisition schema, Tier 2 refers to high-utility words that are less common in everyday speech but are critical to ELs gaining a command of academic uses of language. While Tier 1 words can be acquired through social language and academic language, students can struggle with Tier 2 vocabulary due to less frequent exposure. Examples of Tier 2 words include obvious, informed, required, fortunate. While there are many resources for teaching Tier 2 words through reading, there are fewer tools designed to teach that level of academic vocabulary through listening.

Sample Tier 2 vocabulary-filled podcast: Young Inaugural Poet on Her Journey

One of the strengths of Listenwise is that our platform provides EL students with opportunities to encounter Tier 2 vocabulary words through listening and reading. Moreover, listening to podcasts gives students the added benefit of exposure to Tier 2 words used in authentic-sounding language.

“It’s hard to find authentic sounding listening content for ESL, especially once our students are working on academic language. I use Listenwise to work on academic vocabulary since it’s presented in context, both orally and written. We practice with language directly from the stories, focusing on the Tier 2 word list. We go through multiple listens and include one of each the regular speed and slower audio.”
– Florida ESL Teacher

Many educators who use Listenwise report that our Weird News podcasts are a great way to support the acquisition of academic vocabulary. Our Weird News segments are less-than-30-second current event podcasts about unusual current events, making them topical and accessible for ELLs. Listenwise includes the academic vocabulary words featured in the stories into the accompanying comprehension and discussion questions to help students engage deeper with the content. In particular, this approach works especially well for elementary students and English learners.

Try Our Weird News: Weird News: The Richest Person in History

Listenwise’s library of over 2800 lessons provides students and teachers with a vast academic language resource in podcast form. Regardless of a student’s reading level, language proficiency, or subject matter, Listenwise offers audio content that will help build those academic language skills in students. Additionally, Premium users are able to assign quizzes to assess comprehension and ensure that students are understanding the lesson’s concepts and vocabulary. If you’re not already a Premium user, learn how to get started with a free Listenwise Premium Trial.

“Over the past couple of school years, Listenwise has expanded their lessons library to support elementary English Learners as well, and as a result we have been able to expand our adoption to our elementary schools as well. Their scaffolded supports for ELs, including slowed audio and a read-along interactive transcript help adapt the lessons to meet the changing needs of students over time. We find Listenwise to be an effective way to support English-language acquisition and literacy skills through the power of listening.”
– Baltimore Education Specialist/ESOL

Listening comprehension tests sign up

Teach Academic Language With Our Podcast Collection


Current News