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Helping students practice their English listening, speaking, reading, and writing outside the ESL classroom

Supporting ELLs in the Content Area Classroom

Helping students practice their English listening, speaking, reading, and writing outside the ESL 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.

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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.

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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.

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