Originally posted on Colorin Colorado by Diane Staehr Fenner, Claire Rivero

ELLs bring many linguistic and cultural strengths to the classroom. However, when you have ELLs in your classroom, it can sometimes feel like you need to create two different lessons for every class period – one for native speakers of English and one to help your ELLs follow along. However, while differentiation is essential for ELLs and certainly worth the extra effort, creating a separate lesson for ELLs may not be the best strategy. Creating separate lesson plans may also have the unintended consequence of isolating ELLs from fluent speakers of English.

Instead, it’s important to look for ways to scaffold your instruction for ELLs. To help you fully integrate ELLs in your instruction and save you some time, you can use many free resources for teachers of all students available at Achieve the Core is a website run by Student Achievement Partners, a non-profit founded by some of the lead writers of the Common Core State Standards. The organization is committed to supporting all students in their efforts to become college and career ready. While it may seem that giving ELLs easier work helps them, it actually reduces their opportunity to engage with rigorous grade-level content and is not an equitable approach. Yet with proper scaffolding and support, ELLs can be successful with grade-level work – including lessons aligned to the Common Core!

This blog post highlights three resources developed by Achieve the Core that you can use to provide support to your ELLs. They are:

  1. The Academic Word Finder
  2. Text Sets
  3. Fluency Packets

For each resource, Claire Rivero from Student Achievement Partners will first describe what the resource is and why it’s useful for all teachers. Then, ELL expert Diane Staehr Fenner will give you some suggestions on how you can integrate that resource so you can use it successfully with ELLs.

The Academic Word Finder

Regular practice with complex text and its academic language is one of the three shifts for English Language Arts/Literacy associated with Common Core and is critical to reading comprehension. Academic vocabulary, also known as Tier 2 Vocabulary, appears frequently in written texts; however, it is less common in spoken conversation, so these words will likely be unfamiliar to many students, especially struggling readers.  Tier One words are the most basic words and tend not to have multiple meanings (e.g., book, dog). Tier Two words, however, are more complex, tend to be used across disciplines, and may have more than one meaning (e.g., synthesize, volume). Tier Three words are low-frequency words which appear in specific disciplines (e.g., isotope, photosynthesis).

While educators may quickly recognize some of the more challenging words in a text that will require extra attention, it is important to remember that certain Tier Two words may appear simple to decode yet are still difficult to comprehend because they have multiple meanings. Take the word “relative,” for example. It is not a particularly challenging word to sound out, and many students may be familiar with what it means to have a “relative” in their family, but they may not have heard the term used to compare two things.

To help you identify Tier Two vocabulary, you can copy and paste any text into Achieve the Core’s Academic Word Finder, select the grade you teach, and generate a list of the tier two vocabulary words that are at-, above- and below-grade-level for your students. The Academic Word Finder also generates parts of speech, definitions, and sample sentences for each Tier Two word to facilitate vocabulary practice.

Using the Academic Word Finder with ELLs

When I took the Academic Word Finder for a spin, I entered a two-paragraph long text for sixth graders, and eighteen words were generated. Seven words were below grade level, nine were on grade level, and two were above grade level. All the information (color coded, even!) provided in the Academic Word Finder was extremely helpful. However, I would not pre-teach or teach eighteen words in a two-paragraph text since that is too many words for ELLs to learn and retain with one exposure. I would definitely use this rich resource, but I’d be judicious about which words to teach my ELL students, depending on their level of proficiency, and I would also focus on how to teach ELLs the vocabulary words I had narrowed down from the generated list.

Teaching Academic Content and Literacy to English Learners in Elementary and Middle School is an Institute of Education Sciences practice guide published in 2014 that contains evidence-based strategies for teaching ELLs. This guide, which I draw from often in my work, recommends teaching a set of academic vocabulary words intensively across several days using a variety of instructional activities, and that recommendation is supported by a strong level of research evidence. Further, teachers need to choose the words to teach wisely. Criteria for choosing words for an in-depth focus are:

  1. Words key to understanding the text that are likely unfamiliar to students
  2. Words frequently used in the text
  3. General academic vocabulary that students will see across disciplines (e.g., approximate, clarify)
  4. Words with multiple meanings (e.g., volume)
  5. Words with affixes (prefixes & suffixes)
  6. Words that have cognate relationships across languages

Text Sets

Background knowledge is critical to reading comprehension. Achieve the Core’s Text Sets can help build students’ background knowledge through a high volume of reading on different topics. Research[1] shows that students with background knowledge on a given topic outperformed their peers with less background knowledge in reading comprehension even if their peers were stronger readers. Having additional familiarity with the content and vocabulary essentially boosted students’ reading levels on particular topics.

Text Sets are strategically developed collections of texts that are ordered so as to gradually help students build vocabulary and understanding. The goal is that by the culmination of the text set, students can read grade-level- appropriate texts with ease. Each text set includes not only links to written texts, but also videos, infographics, websites, and more to help build students’ content knowledge in engaging, interactive ways. Most importantly, text sets are on engaging topics designed to spark students’ curiosity such as zombies, starting a business, and the history of television.

Using Text Sets with ELLs

While Achieve the Core’s Text Sets will definitely help provide all students background knowledge and multiple exposures to topics, teachers of ELLs should approach the use of the Text Sets keeping ELLs’ strengths and needs in mind. Two areas that teachers of ELLs should consider when using the Text Sets are determining how much background knowledge to provide ELLs and scaffolding the Text Sets.

In terms of background knowledge, the Text Sets were designed to support all learners – especially those with gaps in background knowledge and vocabulary that may impact comprehension. As such, Text Sets provide ample opportunities to provide ELLs background knowledge on a variety of topics while working toward specific Common Core State Standards. However, depending on their experiences and prior schooling, ELLs may need Text Sets supplemented with additional instruction to concisely fill gaps in background knowledge. Four questions that teachers of ELLs can ask themselves when deciding whether to teach background on a topic are:

  1. Do non-ELLs have background knowledge on the topic?
  2. Does the background provide information in place of what the author is going to provide in the text?
  3. Is the background knowledge about big issues that will help students make sense of the text?
  4. Is the background knowledge you’d like to provide concise?[2]

In addition to possibly supplementing the Text Sets with instruction of concise background knowledge, teachers may also need to scaffold the Text Sets. The Scaffolding Instruction for English Language Learners: Resource Guides for English Language Arts and Mathematics explain how to scaffold curricular materials for ELLs at different levels of proficiency. The table below, adapted from the resource guides[3], can provide a starting point for scaffolding. Please note that English language proficiency levels are categorized at the more general beginning, intermediate, and advanced levels to apply to a national audience instead of a specific state’s proficiency levels.

Proficiency Level Scaffolds for Instruction at this Level Scaffolds for All Levels
  • Access to text, video and/or instructions in home language as well as in English
  • Sentence frames to help ELLs respond to text-dependent questions posed throughout the lesson
  • Word banks
  • Scaffolds that provide multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement
  • Concise background knowledge
  • Vocabulary instruction
  • Graphic organizers
  • Text in home language as appropriate


  • Sentence starters
  • Word banks


  • Word banks

Fluency Packets

Students face a variety of challenges when they’re struggling to read fluently. They may have trouble decoding words, understanding the implications of different punctuation, or dealing with new vocabulary. Achieve the Core’s Fluency Packets contain approximately 40 passages per packet (enough to use one passage per week throughout the year) for grades 2-12. The intent of the Fluency Packets is for students to work with a single passage for a week, re-reading approximately three times a day to work on different elements of fluency. They may start by hearing a fluent reader read the passage, then they may work on understanding new vocabulary, then they may start working on skills such as expression and pacing. By the end of the week, students will have read the passage 15-20 times, increasing the likelihood of them reading it fluently and comprehending its meaning.

Using Fluency Packets with ELLs

Native English speakers who are fluent readers tend to recognize words and comprehend what they’re reading at the same time. However, the notion of fluency with ELLs may be misleading. ELLs may appear very fluent when reading aloud due to transfer of home language literacy skills and/or strong decoding skills, but they may in fact not understand what they are reading. To address the unique challenges ELLs bring in fluency, teachers should balance fluency instruction with supporting ELLs’ comprehension of texts.

In her article Reading 101 for English Language Learners, Kristina Robertson suggests the following strategies:

  • Do not focus primarily on developing students’ reading rates at the expense of reading with expression, meaning, and comprehension
  • Provide independent level texts that students can practice again and again
  • Read a passage aloud and have students immediately read it back to you
  • Have students practice reading a passage to focus on one aspect of fluency, such as reading with a certain emotion or to emphasize either expression, intonation, or inflection based on punctuation
  • Allow students to practice reading along with a pre-recorded text

Final Thoughts

Achieve the Core’s Academic Word Finder, Text Sets, and Fluency Packets are three rich resources that teachers of all students can incorporate into their instructional repertoire. Teachers of ELLs can also utilize these resources to integrate them into their instruction. With a few considerations and tweaks, ELLs can benefit from using these rich resources to provide them access to grade-level content.

You can find more free resources on the Achieve the Core website and learn more about the topics discussed here on Achieve the Core’s instructional materials blog, Aligned. You may also be interested in Diane Staehr Fenner’s series of posts on the Aligned blog about implementing the CCSS with ELLs!