Create a Dynamic ESL Programme Using Research and Best Practises – A Guide for Educators

Create a Dynamic ESL Programme Using Research and Best Practises – A Guide for Educators

Today there is growing interest in the best use of the school ESL teacher, especially when ESL students (or bilingual and multilingual learners – BMLs) now make up a large proportion of the student body in many English-speaking schools. Teachers and administrators are increasingly focused on creating real impact and this is driving development plans in many schools. Yet how can schools be sure that their model of service is going to equate to better results for students? How can they be sure they implement the best model?

The good news is that we can turn to research to provide information about the approaches that will bring about good impact. I want to share this knowledge-base with you so that you can evaluate whether the approaches you currently use are likely to create impact or, if you’re currently developing a new ESL programme, you can use this information to design your model.


First of all, let’s look at what the research says about language acquisition. Professor Jim Cummins has coined the terms ‘BICS’ and ‘CALP’ to describe the stages of language proficiency that BMLs go through as they acquire English. ‘BICS’ refers to ‘Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills’ and is essentially the social or conversational language that BMLs acquire initially. This first stage can happen relatively quickly, anywhere between 6 months to 2 years. During this time, learners are picking up a large vocabulary of (mainly) high-frequency words/phrases that are easy to acquire from their immediate environment. At this stage, BMLs may appear as though they have already ‘learned English’ because they can seem ‘fluent’ and might even use the accent of those around them. However, they are by no means close to acquiring the academic language skills that are required for studies. CALP, or Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency is the second stage that BMLs go through as they advance in their English acquisition. At this stage, they are growing their academic language and are learning to apply this through more advanced discussions, reading and writing. This stage can take between 5-7 (or even up to 10) years to acquire, especially because of the vocabulary load needed for communicating at this level. Students working at this stage must be able to use mature or advanced language in order to communicate a range of higher-order concepts and thoughts. This phase is characterised by the acquisition and use of mid and low-frequency vocabulary words (see below image for examples). At the BICS level, high-frequency words can represent around 2,000 or 3,000 words but at the CALP level, the number of words students need to learn are over 6,000. Considering that all learners acquire roughly 1,000 words per year, this represents many years of vocabulary learning! Have a look at the graphic below to see a conceptualisation of this: 

You can imagine what this means for your BMLs, many of whom come to you brand new to English or in the early stages of acquisition. It can seem like a journey of a thousand miles for students, their parents and teachers alike. Language acquisition is a long-term process as you’ve already seen but you can help students view their progress as incremental; like rungs on a ladder. With growth, they move closer to the top, one rung at-a-time. In order to support BMLs to make good progress at every stage, it’s important to invest in the approaches that are recognised to bring about real impact. These approaches will empower students to not only access rigorous learning but to maintain one of their greatest assets-their home languages


Below is a description of high-impact elements to include within your model. These incorporate the understandings of English acquisition and make use of approaches that enable access to the curriculum. Keep in mind that it’s ideal to differentiate learning to enable BMLs to participate at their ‘instructional levels’ rather than need to ‘help’ students digest lessons and information that is well-beyond their level of accessibility. Encouraging BMLs to work as independently as possible with the learning is key.

BMLs should not be ‘exited’ from supports after a set timeframe but should instead be listed on a shared register that recognises them as a bilingual or multilingual person who may require additional support at any stage (even at advanced stages of proficiency) since bi/multilingualism can be a lifelong journey. For example, BMLs can often struggle with ‘metaphoric competence’ in upper secondary school and they may benefit from specific instruction to support this complex concept. Not ‘exiting’ students leaves the door open for them; enabling them to access supports even if they might not have required them previously.

Teachers must make literacy a top priority. There should be a daily focus on individual/guided reading for all students, and this should include use of reading materials that match BMLs’ current abilities (e.g. levelled readers for younger learners and graded readers for older students). There should also be opportunity for daily writing practise. This can be accomplished using a response journal (free-writing or subject-specific responses) to allow students to express their ideas at their current levels; but they should also be encouraged to read through their work and self-edit according to their own targets. Conferencing with students goes a long way in supporting and scaffolding their literacy development at every age.

Vocabulary development is a key pillar of learning and comprehension. The old method of giving students vocabulary lists and testing them at the end of the week is not ideal. Rather, introducing students to target words through explicit teaching is the first step. These should especially include: mid-, low-frequency words and high-frequency academic words. Next, modelling and embedding these words within natural learning contexts will increase recognition and develop comprehension. Assessing whether students are actively practising and using the target words in reading, writing and speaking is critical to the vocabulary teaching cycle. Keep in mind students need multiple exposures of words in order to commit them to memory and use them independently. This can mean 12 or more repetitions, so think about how you can build target words into your academic programme. 

Use of the mother-tongue/home languages of students should be supported since they not only contribute to the natural ways that students think about and learn information but they’re also an important part of students’ identities. Use of ‘translanguaging’ within the classroom not only helps students’ better understand information but it is also a good way of helping them maintain their home languages. When students have strong home languages, this helps them develop new languages, like English, more easily. Even including home language classes within the school day is  an excellent strategy to ensure students continue to develop their home language and literacy. 

Understanding all of these important facets, how can you now design your programme? Where can you focus your time and effort in order to include these into BMLs’ academic programmes? 


From the image below, you can see that bilingual education models yield the greatest achievement results but in English-speaking schools, an ‘enriched’ approach is best. Incorporating the elements we’ve outlined above will help create your enriched approach and will better enable student access to rigorous academic experiences. 

Looking at 3 of the specific models that are frequently used in schools, we can assess how they measure-up in terms of their capacity for enrichment:

PULLOUT MODELS    (3rd Place)

As you can see from the graphic, the research shows that traditional pullout ESL programmes did not do very well in supporting student achievement over time. One of the reasons for this is that many ESL classes do not emphasise or focus on enriched experiences. They frequently aim to ‘remediate’ or ‘teach English,’ often doing so without a clear plan that leads to measurable outcomes. Merely scheduling ESL teachers to ‘help’ students acquire English or ‘catch up’ with content work is not preferable. In most situations, work can be differentiated to make it more accessible for BMLs to complete independently or with minimal support from class teachers. While it is possible that short-term, focused support can be given to BMLs in a pullout successfully; it’s preferable to support language and content through the regular academic programme. Pullout models should not be the ‘go to model’.  In many schools though, they simply represent what’s always been done or they’re utilised because there is a lack of support for providing differentiated learning for BMLs.  These are often reasons why pullouts continue to be used without a clear purpose, goals or evaluation of their success. 

If you are an ESL teacher using a pullout model, think about the reasons why this is the best option. Is it the go-to model in your school because: it fits the timetable, has always been done before or is there a lack of time/resources to create strong literacy and/or differentiated experiences for BMLs? Is there an opportunity to develop a more enriching model? 

PUSH-IN MODEL  (2nd Place) 

Many schools apply ‘push-in models’ for BMLs and these can be very impactful. They can make better use of teacher time and resources, especially if ESL teachers are supporting classroom teachers to provide an enriched and rigorous academic programme for BMLs. This can include focus on implementing literacy programmes or project-learning, for example. In this case, the ESL teacher may help to implement differentiated experiences through the learning process or product or may provide additional background information for learning. Co-teaching can take different formats and can allow for a great degree of flexibility, depending on the specific needs of the students, teachers and the academic programme. Impact can be measured by authentic evaluation of student performance and independence with tasks.

If you are an ESL teaching making use of a push-in model, how can you support teachers and BMLs with the most-impactful parts of the academic programme? Are you seeing results with your approach? If not, what might you do differently?


The ideal model for ESL teachers is a consultant model. Let me tell you why. First, it requires a highly-skilled ESL teacher who possesses a strong understanding of the theories and best practises for BMLs. This model makes use of the ‘ESL teacher’ as a specialist who is able to work with multiple approaches, key people and in flexible ways to help BMLs reach their potential. It takes into account the reality that one-size-does-not-fit-all and the understanding that different school contexts might require various initiatives/approaches at different times. In this model, the ESL teacher ensures the right information is gathered about the student body so that BMLs can be correctly identified. They also work with/through teachers to support BMLs’ ongoing monitoring and development-not necessarily with every student but in ways that benefit all students. These teachers must have the freedom to set their own schedules so they’re able to organise key meetings and attend classes as determined by their identified priorities.

In this model, teachers ensure all BMLs are registered as being bilingual or multilingual and they collate information about this in a shared folder or information system. They highlight students’ home languages in addition to reading and writing levels so that all teachers working with BMLs are aware of the information/resources they can use to support them with learning. Ensuring BMLs are correctly identified (and don’t fall through the cracks) is an important element. These ESL teachers are also aware of the ‘hot spots’ (e.g. the ‘fourth grade slump’ or ‘metaphoric competence’) when BMLs may have particular challenges and they know how to implement specific initiatives to ameliorate these. In this model, there is no such thing as a student ‘entering’ or ‘exiting’ support because it’s recognised that BMLs may require support at different stages along their bilingual/multilingual journey and ‘support’ can take on many different forms. In a way, the consultant model takes a ‘birds-eye view’ of all the BMLs in their school (or in their charge) and aims to make impact on a bigger scale, based on what the specific needs of the students and the school are. At all times, they have a focus on enrichment. They may provide services in these different ways: 

Working directly with classroom/subject teachers to plan and differentiate for BMLs. This can mean unpacking language and finding entry points into content so that learners are able to access concepts in a way that’s challenging, yet motivating. Two heads are better-than-one and in this model, planning can be a key focus so that multiple needs are met through the academic programme itself.

Understanding and analysing data should be given a high priority. This allows the ESL teacher to monitor the information collected by teachers about learners. This means monitoring the ongoing reading levels of BMLs to ensure they’re progressing and stepping in when needed for additional assessment, recommendations or training. ESL teachers can implement short and long-term initiatives, even working closely with the school administration to target whole-school objectives like literacy, for example. They frequently work in collaboration with key departments and literacy specialists. They use student data to inform the development of specific programmes like a university preparation class for secondary students or even a parent programme to enhance home language literacy, for example. In this case, the ESL teacher should be proficient with assessment data and their work should be focused on achieving the ‘bigger picture’ through targeted initiatives.

They may develop or support home language classes for BMLs. Knowing the value of home language maintenance and literacy for BMLs, ESL teachers may collect information about existing home language classes in their community (sometimes called ‘heritage language’ classes)  and ensure the information is passed onto families. They may also deliver parent information sessions about the value of home languages or work with parent groups to develop home language classes for students. 

If you are an ESL teacher using a consultant model, how can you make the biggest impact for your students and teachers? How best can you provide enriched programming to BMLs while keeping an eye on the bigger picture? 



Through our work with schools and teachers, we often receive the following questions below: 

Where should we direct our resources, especially if we only have one ESL teacher for our whole school? 

If you can utilise a consultant model, that would work best and allow you a greater degree of flexibility in terms of the kinds of services you can offer throughout the year (based on the needs of your students and school). Identifying your learners accurately and finding out about their home languages will allow you to tap into the natural resources they already possess. If your ESL teacher can gather information about BMLs’ reading levels and help implement daily literacy programmes, that would be a great use of time and resources. The impact of this can also be easily monitored in terms of student progress. They might also dedicate their time to planning with department heads or teachers and can often make more impact for a greater number of students in this way.

Which is the best ESL curriculum to teach our students English?

Within the school environment as opposed to a foreign language setting, I would highly-recommend your existing academic programme as the basis for teaching English. Embedded with rich academic discussion and supported by a daily literacy programme (with levelled books, vocabulary focus and writing opportunities), this will provide your learners with the ‘enriched’ learning environment they need to grow their language AND cognitive skills. Keep authentic and enriching experiences at the heart of your work with BMLs. 

We’ve just received new students and many of them don’t speak English at all. Their teachers want me to take them out to run a special English class for them. What do you suggest?

I can understand the challenge that this presents to teachers, especially if they have a large intake of new students they want to help. Don’t forget that many of them may not know about the best approaches, or may not be familiar with how to help beginning students cope with their new learning environment.  In this case, support for both teachers and students is needed. I would start by pairing students up with ‘buddies’ who speak their language if possible so that they can feel supported during this often-difficult transition time. If there’s no student who speaks their language, you can still set them up with a buddy who will help them and take them under their wing. Help teachers understand that BMLs don’t need a structured lesson to ‘learn’ English-the best teacher is all around them. Being in the natural environment will allow them many concrete opportunities to hear and try out new words and phrases. Help them understand that some of the students may not speak right away and this might continue for up to 6 months. During this time, don’t pressure students to speak. They will need hands-on tasks, visual learning experiences and opportunities to demonstrate what they can do. Teachers may benefit from support sessions to help them plan and differentiate for their new BMLs. If you and the teacher feel that some students need more emotional support or monitoring, come up with ways that you can do this. For example, do you have a school counsellor or staff who speaks the student’s language? Are there liaison workers to ease transitions for BMLs? Maybe you can fit in some additional visits to work with small groups of new BMLs in their classrooms at the early stages. There are many things you can do but try to get to the bottom of what the teacher and student really need. Is it really ‘English help’ or could it be support to assist the teacher to plan, differentiate or learn new strategies? Could it be more emotional supports for BMLs to transition into their new school and English environment? It’s always worth taking a close look at, and sometimes even simple things go a long way to help both teachers and students cope.

Do you have any other questions or ideas about designing your ESL model? Or would you like to share your personal approach with us? Feel free to get in touch. 

Are you an educator interested in learning more about enriching approaches for BMLs? Our highly-recommended, 8-week online course, ‘Bilingual and Multilingual Learners from the Inside-Out’ will teach you the theories, the best practises and give you over 50 new strategies to use with your BMLs. Learn more about it here. 



Collier, V. & Thomas, W. (1989). How quickly can immigrants become proficient in school English? Journal of Educational Issues of Minority Students, 5, 26-38.

Cummins, J. (1979). Cognitive/academic language proficiency, linguistic interdependence, the optimum age question and some other matters. Working papers on Bilingualism, No. 19, 121-129.

Cummins, J. (1981a). The role of primary language in promoting educational success for language minority students. In California State Department of Education (Ed.), Schooling and Language Minority Students: A Theoretical Framework. Los Angeles: Evaluation, Dissemination and Assessment Center California State University.

Nation, I.S.P. & Meara, P. (2010). Vocabulary. In N. Schmitt (ed.). An Introduction to Applied Linguistics. Edward Arnold. Second edition. pp. 34-52.

Nation, I. (2001). Learning vocabulary in another language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schofield, A. & McGeary, F. (2016). Bilingual and multilingual learners from the inside-out: Elevating expertise in classrooms and beyond. Charleston: CreateSpace.

Thomas, W. P., Collier, V.P. & Center for Research on Education, Diversity & Excellence (2002). A national study of school effectiveness for language minority students’ long-term academic achievement. Washington, DC: Center for Research on Education, Diversity & Excellence.






Mediating BMLs’ Language and Learning Burdens with the Mother-Tongue

Mediating BMLs’ Language and Learning Burdens with the Mother-Tongue

By: Francesca McGeary

“Continue to speak your language at home and we will work on improving your child’s English at school.”

This is the mantra that should roll off a teacher’s tongue when speaking to parents of new BMLs joining English schools. Although many of these learners seem to be starting at a disadvantage—with beginning proficiency in English and high academic standards-the mother-tongue or home language can be an excellent support for BMLs.

How the Mother-Tongue Language Supports BMLs’ English Development

The maintenance and ongoing development of BMLs’ mother-tongue or home language(s) is so important to both their academic AND English development.  Once BMLs are immersed in an English school environment, they begin to acquire conversational English relatively quickly. Common words and social phrases can be easily grasped by new students since this is the language of social interaction and ‘everyday’ communication.

Yet for academic purposes, it’s necessary that our BMLs ‘catch up’ in their English proficiency as much as possible, especially when academic demands continue to grow more and more challenging. While it can take our BMLs approximately 5-7 years to acquire academic language skills, this can be greatly supported when students already have a strong mother-tongue(s). For example, if a German child enters a year 8 class as a new English speaker, they will have a much easier time coping if they already have strong literacy and German language skills. They’ll be able to read about new concepts through their German language and this can be especially helpful when they aren’t comprehending their English textbooks or lessons. Also, when they’re learning new academic vocabulary, they can link a new English word to the equivalent word in their already-existing German vocabulary. This ‘transfer’ of knowledge and vocabulary from one language to another is what professor Jim Cummins has called the Common Underlying Proficiency or CUP.

His theory highlights the advantage that a bilingual or multilingual learner has when learning a new language like English. These students are in a good position to understand concepts in English if they’ve already learned the equivalent in German. A BML who knows how to read and write in German doesn’t have to relearn how to read or write in English, they just transfer that knowledge base through English.

Implications for English Development and Academic Learning

Depending on the age of our BMLs and whether they’re continuing to acquire their mother-tongue alongside of English can have a big impact on their learning trajectories. While young learners entering English primary school might seem to have all the time in the world to catch up with their native-English peers academically, they’ve actually not fully mastered the complexities of their own language yet. This can create difficulties, especially if parents switch to English once the child begins English school. Vocabulary gaps can have these learners consistently struggling to keep up. This is why it’s so important that families continue to maintain their child’s language(s) while they’re learning English. While older BMLs might have fully mastered their thinking and written expression in their own language(s), they often struggle to cope with increased pressures and academic demands that graduation and external exams present. During this critical time, they can greatly benefit from using their mother-tongue to support complex thinking and learning tasks.

Learning as a BML in an English school is quite different to studying a language in a foreign language centre. Our BMLs have an additional challenge compared to those simply learning a new language.  They are required to learn new concepts and skills through English.  The important difference here is that this student has to continue their learning even though they are not fully proficient in the language of instruction yet. They need to do two very demanding tasks simultaneously: 1) learn English as a language and 2) master the curriculum content. They might need to learn the concepts of physics but they also need to learn the language (vocabulary) of physics in English. This is a challenging goal!

Teachers need to recognise this linguistic and academic burden that our BMLs face when attending English schools and they must be a strong advocate in helping parents understand the value of maintaining their home language(s). When BMLs are  young, they need parents to continue to provide them with a strong foundation in their home language, this will support their developing English and will be a great support to their learning. Ultimately, it will also grow their bilingualism/multilingualism.

Both teachers and parents want the very best for their BMLs – that goes without saying.  Sharing the right information with parents and explaining why maintaining their home language is beneficial to their child’s English proficiency, cultural identity and academic success will help them understand how to better support them. Continuing to speak their language at home, discussing academic concepts through the home language and even enrolling their child in weekly mother-tongue language classes will have many positive returns.

How does your school support your BMLs’ home languages? We’d love to know!


How Myths about Bilingual and Multilingual Learners have Turned into Bad Practises

How Myths about Bilingual and Multilingual Learners have Turned into Bad Practises

I was chatting recently with a very experienced primary teacher about teaching bilingual and multilingual learners (BMLs) in the classroom.  She had such a wealth of knowledge and experience and it was clear that she was a high-achieving teacher in her school.

One of the interesting things she told me was that we didn’t really need to be too concerned about supporting BMLs since most of what they needed to learn about English would naturally happen while they were outside on the playground with their peers.

Now I know what she meant—natural interactions with other children do offer a great deal of value to BMLs, but I feel that this is often the point at which many good, even outstanding- teachers’ knowledge of BML issues begins and ends.

The reality is that the widespread lack of teacher-training in language acquisition and additional language acquisition has contributed to many myths about “best practices” being perpetuated through our profession. And while the rate of BMLs entering English mainstream classrooms around the world continues to grow exponentially, we really can’t afford NOT to train teachers about BML issues.

In fact, there are many lingering myths that translate to inappropriate practices in schools and classrooms and they can have very detrimental effects on our learners.  Here are just a few examples:


The belief that BMLs can learn and become “fluent” in English quickly by playing on the playground with other English speakers. 

Truth:  There is some element of truth to this belief to be honest.  New speakers can learn what is called “Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills” (BICS) fairly quickly. This is essentially conversation skills or social language. This kind of language is learned primarily through interactions with others and can usually be acquired anywhere from 6 months to around 2 years.

This kind of language is largely made up of “high-frequency” vocabulary words and is easily heard and picked up around the playground, in the classroom and out in the community—anywhere that an individual is likely to engage in conversation with others.

Schools on the other hand, demand much more of their students than to simply engage in conversations. School requires them to become proficient in the language of academics and critical thinking.  To be able to think, read and write abstractly in a language requires that the individual possess what is called “Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP).”  CALP can take anywhere from 5-7 years to develop if the student is strong in their own mother-tongue language, but can even take up to 10 years to master if they do not have a strong grasp of their own language and literacy.

When people say that students can learn English quickly, they simply mean “conversational” English or BICS. But once the student is placed in the English mainstream class, they are required to go above and beyond BICS—they are required to think, analyze and reason through the language and that will take them several years to develop.


Once BMLs have received support at school for around 3 years, they are now “fluent” in English and no longer need support.

This myth is one of the most widespread beliefs that has more to do with money and funding than anything else.  In most school boards/districts and even in most international schools, students are given support for 2-3 years and then they are often “exited” when they seem to be proficient in English.  From what we’ve learned above, we now know this is likely based on the fact that BMLs seem really proficient in the spoken or social language (aka BICS).  They may speak with the accent of their region, they may seem fluent in their pace and rate of speech, and they may even have good confidence when speaking to others.  However, when these students are “exited” from the ELL/EAL department at their school, it is very likely that their need for continued academic support will be unrecognized. In fact, because “bilingualism” and “multilingualism” is a lifelong process, BMLs are likely to experience many different types of challenges all along the way to graduation, even when they are “fluent” and have been learning through English for several years.

Since the research shows that BMLs are often 2-3 years below grade-level, this means that reading materials, high-level writing and communication will be a particular challenge. If BMLs are not kept on the ELL/EAL register of their school, their teachers may not recognize these seemingly “fluent” students’ struggles with academics are a result of their language acquisition and not a learning disorder.

Also, even BMLs with high levels of proficiency in English still struggle with academic writing and reading. In secondary school, idioms, metaphors and academic genres are now required to much higher levels. Many BMLs lack exposure and can struggle with these tasks.

So while BMLs may not require the intensive support they might have needed previously, they will still require focused support and teaching to help them transition to CALP or help them develop more advanced knowledge of English literature and linguistic features. This can happen at different stages anywhere along a BMLs’ journey, whether they are beginners or advanced English learners.

This limited notion of a 3-year support model needs to be put to rest.  Bilingual and multilingual learners often need a great deal of support once they move from BICS over to CALP since there are more demands on “thinking” in English and they are not able to rely as much on context clues and visual supports and work is much more demanding.

Schools need to redesign their support models for BMLs so that the whole school taps into the high-quality information about how BMLs go about learning English and how whole-school policies can support these processes.  As many teachers go about their work in schools where a large number or even a majority of their students are BMLs, it is extremely important that they receive the right training on how to build and create supports that are built-into the school and policies that help educators maximise their time and effort with BMLs.

The more knowledge that teachers are empowered with, the more these longstanding myths will be extinguished. This will ultimately lead to greater awareness, access and provision of services for our bilingual and multilingual learners.

Alison Schofield is an author, educator and international education consultant. She provides support and training to schools and teachers working with bilingual and multilingual learners.  She can be contacted at: