The 6 Pertinent Puzzle Pieces for ELL Lessons


Melissa Campesi is a dedicated English as a second language educator in New Jersey, having worked with both ELL children and adults from all over the world. Growing up in a bilingual household has inspired her admiration of language and culture. She seeks to promote culturally responsive pedagogy in schools. Her first children's book will launch this fall titled, "I am an English-Language Learner."  This book shares the true and personal stories of immigrants in America. Visit her online at  

This blog is also posted on LinkedIn at

Writing a lesson plan for English Language Learners (ELLs) is like staring nervously at hundreds of colorful pieces of an intricate puzzle.  Where do you start? What’s your strategy; and how do you concisely relate and explain what might appear as madness to others? How do you make sense of it all?  Most importantly, will the puzzle you ultimately put together benefit the linguistic and academic process of your ELL student in the end?  

Lesson planning can be overwhelming, because as language educators we want to be sure our teaching pedagogies will enhance learning on a daily basis; at the same time, not be overwhelming for the student. YIKES, talk about PRESSURE!!!!

Once I became an ELL mentor for other aspiring ELL teachers; I needed to reflect upon my own practices on what an essential ELL lesson plan should contain in order to be pertinent for ALL students at ALL levels.  The first question I would be asked was, “How do you create engaging lessons directed at all your ELL students?” My immediate response would be, “Trial and error.” This, then, was my main motivation to logically craft a lesson plan outline for myself, and other ELL educators.  My desire was to provide a clear and concise lesson that was filled with both the fundamentals of language and content learning relevant for all ELL students.

As ELL educators, we have to address two major objectives for each lesson:  Content standards & Language Standards. The Language Standard component is broken down into four developmental domains: listening, speaking, reading, and writing.  Listening and Reading are partnered together as receptive language skills. Speaking and Writing are bonded together as expressive language skills. Depending on the student’s previous educational exposure, some may be stronger and/or weaker in one or more language areas than others.  This is why pre-assessments are critical when a student enters your classroom. We want to focus our lesson plans to improve student weakness while simultaneously highlighting their strengths as well.  

Here are my 6 Pertinent Puzzle Pieces for ELL Lesson Planning:

  1. Theme- Pick your theme!  I love teaching with themes.  Teachers can get very creative with them.  The theme is the overall background and inspiration to your lesson.  Each activity you choose for your lesson should support the theme you picked.  Allow your theme to be relatable to the current season and holiday(s), or perhaps events in the school community such as character pillars and school climate.  Thematic units are a great way to build vocabulary and concepts which connect with the real world.  
  2. Content Standards- Gather your content goals!  What academic area are your students going to be exposed to in this lesson?  Perhaps Language Arts, Math, Science, Social Studies, etc. Language facilitating is our main purpose, but so is addressing academic content by implementing language acquisition strategies. Refer to your state, district, or school curriculum content standards for guidelines on content objectives.
  3. WIDA Performance Level- Evaluate the WIDA Performance Standards!  WIDA (World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment) has assembled two forms for performance standards.  If you are in a WIDA Consortium state or international school refer to these tools. If you use a different system, you should consult those performance levels OR try out the WIDA ones! The first one is for Listening and Reading (K-12) and the second one is for Speaking and Writing (K-12).  Each form contains three sub-areas for language: (1) Linguistic Complexity, (2) Language Forms and Convention, and (3) Vocabulary Usage. In addition, there are 6 different levels: Entering, Emerging, Developing, Expanding, Bridging, and Reaching. I utilize this form as a pre-assessment rubric and for lesson planning.  Once you have tested your student and know which level they are at in the 3 sub-areas for language, you can then figure out their comprehensible input level for teaching objectives. For example, if the student is assessed at level 2 (emerging) for Listening and Reading in all three language subareas, then their comprehensible input level for teaching would be at level 3 (developing).  In other words, your lesson plans should reflect the objectives and goals stated in level 3 (developing) because you want them to reach one level above their current one. Using the WIDA Performance level chart is a concise way to know where the student is and the next step they are moving towards.
  4. Bloom’s Taxonomy- Select Bloom’s Taxonomy Verbs for writing appropriate objectives!  When creating my lesson plans, I always have a chart of Bloom’s taxonomy verbs right in front of me.  This helps in forming proper objectives for the different levels in my class. The levels of Bloom’s taxonomy I refer to are remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating.  Since there are probably so many learning levels in your classroom, this is a simple way to differentiate and demonstrate what they learned. (If you prefer Webb’s Depth of Knowledge, check out some ideas for using DoK for ELLs here.)
  5. Multiple Intelligences- Identify all your different learners!  How lucky are we to have a classroom full of different learners and learning styles. It is very helpful to know the distinct learning styles of all your students to plan appropriate activities and assessments. Howard Gardner’s theory of 8 multiple intelligences are: naturalistic, linguistic, visual/spatial, musical, interpersonal, interpersonal, logical, and kinesthetic. Distinguishing which learning style(s) your student strives in is a major factor with how they process their learning and exhibit it.  We want them to feel confident and successful. Reflecting on each student’s strength through multiple intelligences is an indisputable way to produce an effective lesson for them.
  6. Culturally Responsive Teaching- Link a cultural connection! In my college classes to become an ELL teacher, the one instruction my professors constantly reiterated was to ALWAYS include a cultural component in your lessons.  Re-imagining Migration UCLA has created a phenomenal CRT checklist based on fundamental research to help guide teachers in lesson planning. The checklist consists of 4 levels of incorporating CRT into lessons:  (1) Contributions Approach, (2) Additive Approach, (3) Transformation Approach, and (4) Social Action Approach. Essentially, this is a rubric for teachers to be sure cultural and multiple perspectives are being supported in their lesson plans.  I believe without CRT, content and language learning will not be achieved successfully. This is truly an important element to lesson planning for every student. (Learn more about this great tool and others from our collaboration with Re-imagining Migration here.)

There are my 6 pertinent puzzle pieces of ELL lesson planning.  Initially, these pieces may seem like a lot to manage, but use them as guidelines.  Start off with what you are comfortable with, and then add the other pieces little by little. Also, focus your attention one week at a time…even if it’s one day at a time.  Keep your lessons simple and always leave extra processing time for your English Language Learners. No lesson should ever feel rushed. Lastly, the biggest secret to ELL lesson planning is to get to know your students FIRST.  This initial time of building a relationship with them is imperative. You want your students to feel safe and secure so their affective filter is low and their social and academic confidence for learning is high. (For further research on building the foundation of learning partnerships, refer to Zaretta Hammanond’s book, “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students”.) No perfect lesson plan can ever replace the importance and influence of the teacher-student bond.  This is the invisible, but most valuable puzzle piece in your lesson plan.

Melissa Campesi  - ELL Educator, Multicultural Author & Advocate

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