Caroline Maguire

ESL teachers often struggle to balance language and content teaching. This article contains ideas for bringing a grammar focus into content-based instruction that will be useful for all teachers, but especially for teachers of middle and high school multilingual students.
Key words: Content-Based Language Teaching, Grammar, Focus on Form


In the early days of the TESOL profession, most teachers pulled their students out of mainstream classes or offered English instruction in a self-contained, language-focused classroom. Teachers often focused on learning about language in these settings. It wasn’t unusual to see explicit grammar explanations and drills in these ESL classrooms. In the last twenty years, however, things have changed. Due in large part to the underwhelming results of these early models, programs began shifting to push-in, co-teaching, and sheltered models. These models are thought to offer a form of content-based language instruction (CBI), a research-backed (Grabe & Stoller, 1997) approach to language teaching in which language and content are taught concurrently. A central idea of CBI is that language is best learned when used to make meaning, and academic language is best learned when heard and used in academic settings (Brinton, 2010).

As more ESL teachers push into content classes, their focus has shifted from teaching about language to scaffolding the content so that it is accessible to the multilingual students in the class. However, to be most effective, teachers must balance the emphasis on language and on content in a content-based class (Cammarata, Tedick, & Osborn, 2016). As to the correct balance, Nation (2007) suggests that approximately 25% of class time should consist of language-focused learning in which students are attending to, processing, and discussing language features that they will use in the other 75% of the course time.

In their teacher education programs, most ESL teachers are taught to achieve this balance by identifying two kinds of learning objectives: content objectives and language objectives. This practice is directly connected to a content-based approach to language instruction and the need to focus on both content and language. If we are to teach language through content, it is important to articulate both the content that is to be taught (the content objectives), and the language to be taught (the language objectives). Language identified in the language objectives is related to the content and will help students better understand and interact with the big ideas of the content.

After nearly fifteen years of working with new and experienced ESL teachers, my overwhelming experience has been this:

Achieving this balance is hard!

As a profession, we are good at scaffolding. We use many strategies to help our multilingual students access the content, which is, of course, very important. However, teachers often stop there. Furthermore, when they do focus explicitly on language, teachers often limit themselves to vocabulary or to the use of sentences starters or frames, which often help students develop useful chunks of academic language such as “in my opinion,” “in summary,” “for example,” or “in conclusion.” The development of vocabulary and the use of discourse markers such as these is extremely important, and teachers should feel good about using these strategies and should continue to do this. If we are aiming for 25% of our instructional time to be language focused, these kinds of activities certainly count as language-focused. However, at some point we also need to focus on the deeper morphosyntactic structures of language—what we often think of as “grammar.” We need to help students learn the structures that allow, for example, for the creation of complex sentences and the control of the English verb system

I am not advocating a return to the drill worksheets and disconnected grammar lessons of the past. To be effective, the grammar focus should be deeply connected to and blended into the content lesson. This is something that many ESL teachers find difficult to do. It is my hope that this article will acquaint teachers with a few big ideas and introduce some evidence-based strategies that can help them get some new ideas for blending more grammar into their instruction.

Big Ideas

Explicit versus Implicit

An ongoing debate in the research on second language teaching is whether grammar should be taught explicitly at all. There are those who believe that explicitly teaching grammar is a waste of time, as grammar will be acquired implicitly when learners are exposed to comprehensible input. In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, quite a bit of research examined whether overtly focusing on language forms helped learners acquire grammar forms. The majority of this research showed that explicitly teaching grammar forms can help lead to better acquisition of the forms (Ellis, 2002; Norris & Ortega, 2000). Most researchers working in the field now believe some explicit focus is necessary for the development of high levels of proficiency (Ellis, 2008; N. Ellis, 2017). Thus, if teachers wonder, Should I be teaching grammar? the answer, simply put, is yes. The more difficult question, however, is how. Grammar instruction needs to be woven into the other, meaning-focused activities in class. We must always strive for a balance between a focus on meaning and a focus on form. The following ideas are key to achieving this balance.


One of the most important ideas that ESL teachers should internalize is the importance of raising the level of salience of a language feature. Salience refers to how noticeable something is in the input. Language learners will focus on the pieces of language that provide meaning (lexis) before they will focus on the grammatical aspects of words or sentences. One well known grammar challenge that L2 English speakers have demonstrates this point. The “s” on the end of third person singular verbs adds no meaning to an utterance. Thus, a learner will focus on the part of the verb that has meaning. The “s” has little salience and makes no or little impression in the mind of the learner, going in one ear and out the other, so to speak, as they focus on meaning. Think, too, about the “ed” on the end of a verb to mark past tense. Usually, the context in which such words are found already make clear that the events occurred in the past, so attending to the “ed” isn’t necessary. This is compounded by the fact that “ed” is pronounced as [t], [d], or [id] depending on the final phoneme on the verb. These multiple pronunciations make the form less salient—it doesn’t “pop out” to the learner. They don’t even notice the form.


Schmidt’s (1990, 2001) noticing hypothesis is another helpful idea for ESL teachers. This theory is related to the idea of salience, in that Schmidt posited that in order for a learner to acquire a new language form, the learner must first notice that form in the input. In the examples given above, I demonstrated how learners can pull the meaning from language without ever attending to grammatical structures such as the 3rd person singular “s” or the past tense “ed.” It is important to remember, too, that much language is learned in oral/aural interactions and in such interactions, morphosyntactic features often become unclear, swallowed up in oral language. For example, ing becomes in’ or the article a becomes a schwa sound attached to the previous word (e.g., “read a book” becomes “reada book”). Our learners likely aren’t acquiring these forms because they aren’t even noticing them (Roberge, Siegal, & Harklau, 2009). 

Here are three examples of sentences written by a college student who spent his entire K-12 career in the United States. They demonstrate how features of language that aren’t salient are often not acquired fully. (The emphasis was added):

…like every other course that I have been taken.
…the Math professor assign homework
After few days of class

When we look at sentences like these, it is easy to see how grammatical parts of language, like the difference between “ing” and “en”, the “s” or the article “a” are simply not heard or noticed by L2 English speakers, and thus not fully acquired.

Therefore, as teachers decide how they will bring an explicit focus on grammar to their teaching, it is wise to begin by helping learners to notice the forms. We do this by making the forms more salient so that they stand out to learners.

Strategies to Help Develop Grammar/Forms

There are a number of strategies that teachers can use inside of a content-based lesson that will help students first notice and eventually acquire grammar forms. This section goes through a sequence of activity types that can be blended into content lessons and will lead your students to greater proficiency in the targeted grammar form.

Input Flood

One useful approach to helping students notice a language feature is to raise the number of times the feature appears in the learner’s input. According to Nassaji and Fotos (2011), providing learners with frequent incidences of a target form may help draw learners’ attention to the form. Gass and Selinker (2008) noted that “[s]omething which is very frequent in the input is likely to be noticed” (p. 45). When we manipulate a text that our students are reading or the oral input that we are giving our students so that a targeted form appears more frequently, this is called an input flood. This is an excellent place to start if we want to work on a grammar form. Imagine, for example, that you are targeting a certain verb form. You could write a short summary of a text which reviews an important content concept and use the targeted form far more often that it would normally appear. You might also add sentences to a PowerPoint presentation that all use the targeted form. Finally, you could consciously adjust your speech to use the form more often that you naturally would, to help expose students to the form. While it is possible that some students might acquire the form just from this increased exposure, it might be better to look at an input flood as “priming” students to learn a form. The input flood can help them “get a feel” for the form, but more will still be needed if students are to learn the form.

Here’s an example of an input flood I created for multilingual students learning about landforms.

Figure 1: Modified text with input flood.

In this case, I noticed that the participle clause form was used twice in the text to show cause and effect. I also knew that this was a form that the students had not mastered, so I decided that this would be the language objective. The input flood was included in a summary of the main text. It helped the students review the content while also providing an entry point for discussing the language form.

Noticing and Awareness Activities

Lyster (2007) recommended that teachers provide their students with activities that help them notice forms and then become consciously aware of how the forms are made. There are a number of ways that you might help your students notice a specific language form you have targeted.

Input enhancement or textual enhancement is an instructional strategy in which a teacher bolds, highlights, or changes the text of the targeted form in some way to make it more noticeable (Sharwood Smith, 1993). If you have created a modified text to provide an input flood, like the example above, you might also bold or highlight the targeted form. The teacher can also enhance input given orally by adding stress to or pauses around a targeted feature. These kinds of strategies make the feature more salient and help students notice the form.

Here is an example of a PowerPoint slide from the same landform unit. Notice how the target form is bolded:

Figure 2: PowerPoint slide with input enhancement

Students should also be asked to be more active in their noticing of the form. Asking them to find and highlight the forms in a text is an excellent way to help them become more aware of a form. Creating other activities that require that students attend to the form is also important. For example, in the landform unit, students were given an envelope with a number of slips of paper with partial sentences that they were asked to assemble into full, accurate sentences. In order to accomplish this task, they had to pay attention to the language form as well as how the form fits into a sentence. They also, it is important to note, had to use the content knowledge they were acquiring about landforms to successfully complete this activity.

Figure 3: Sample activity.

Gibbons (2015) suggests that using a side by side partner dictation activity can help students attend to form. In this activity, each student has the same text but different pieces of the text are missing for each partner. They take turns reading the text out loud, supplying the missing piece for their partner. Students must attend carefully to the forms, both when they are the reader and the writer of the form, so that the correct form of the word can be filled in. Note that once again, this activity focuses on both language and content.

Creating a Student-Friendly Rule

Ultimately, teachers will move beyond these noticing activities and talk with students about the form. Talking about language helps develop students’ metalinguistic awareness, something that is important for language development. Asking students to describe what is happening in the language and helping them to name the forms and create a student-friendly “rule” is appropriate.


Even if students have been guided to notice forms and articulate explanations for how the form works in language, they will still need to practice if we want them to acquire it as part of their repertoire. Thus, it is important to include activities that ask students to practice producing the form. Practice activities should become more complex and communicative as you move through the unit. As an early practice activity, it might be appropriate to include something very controlled, like a fill in the blank worksheet to practice the form, as long as it requires the students to understand what they are writing. The problem with such exercises isn’t that they are inherently bad. The problem is that teachers have too often overused them or never asked students to go beyond such activities and use the form communicatively. Used in the context of a progression of activities as described here, they can be appropriate and helpful. Ultimately, however, a final product at the end of the unit, perhaps a poster, a presentation, or an essay, should include the form being used in a communicative, creative way by the student.

Fitting It In

The beginning of this article described the changing face of the ESL teacher’s classroom setting. In push-in and co-teaching settings, teachers often have a hard time knowing how to fit grammar teaching into instruction. If the grammar form you are working on is focused mostly on complexity—that is, forms that help students build longer, more precise sentences such as participial phrases, embedded clauses, or complex sentences joined with a subordinating conjunction—these are likely forms that all students in the class could benefit from examining. If the grammatical form focuses more on accuracy—or the avoidance of nonnative-like errors—these are usually not forms that all students will benefit from addressing and should be handled with the multilingual students in the class by using different grouping strategies.

When working in a content class, I recommend building a “language detour” into the lesson. A target form could be included on a PowerPoint slide, used by the teacher in an oral discussion, or present in a text that is being read in class. Ideally the form has shown up multiple times, as the teacher has created an input flood. At some point, the ESL teacher can turn the class’s attention away from the content to the language form, taking a few moments to explicitly discuss language. The ESL teacher might say…

“I keep seeing this certain kind of sentence in the book, let’s look at that together.”
“Do you notice how this certain kind of sentence has appeared in this PowerPoint several times? Let’s stop for a moment and look at that.”
“Mr. Co-teacher, you just said the most interesting sentence. I’d like to take a minute to write it on the board and look at it.”

Ideally these “let’s-stop-and-look-at-that-sentence” moments will be followed with a content activity where the students need to use the form to complete the activity.

Providing a language-focused warm up or bell ringer activity is another excellent way to bring a focus on the language form and bring some practice time to the class before shifting to the content focus.

A final way that a focus on grammar can be easily added into a content lesson is by pausing when working on a text to do a form-focused close read of a paragraph or two of the text where a targeted form appears. This would be a good time to highlight or circle the form as it appears in the text. This might happen when the ESL teacher is working with a small group inside a mainstream class. When doing a language-focused close read, it is always good to review other language features you have talked about previously with your students as well.

Revisit, Review, and Reenter

It’s important to remember that language is never learned quickly and completely after a few language-focused lessons. Learners need multiple encounters with words and forms before they internalize them. Heilenman and Kaplan (1985) described different levels of control over language forms that learners pass through as conceptual control, partial control, and finally, full control. Depending on the range of language abilities of your learners, your goals might be for some learners to develop full control while trying to move others into conceptual control.

Teachers should bring forms back and call attention to forms you have already examined over and over throughout the year. Many classrooms have “word walls” where new vocabulary is displayed. Why not have a “writing wall” where specific language forms you have examined together are also displayed?

Right-Sized Language Objectives

Finally, it is important to remember to keep the language learning goals manageable. I will often see teachers describe their language objective as “the past tense” or “complex sentences.” These objectives are far too large to be taught at once and as such, can’t really guide instruction. What part of the past tense will you teach? Regular “ed” forms in affirmative sentences? The pronunciation of the “ed” form ([d], [t], or [id])? A few irregular forms that appear in the content you are focused on? Negation in the past tense? All of these might be part of a cluster of language objectives related to the past tense. In a content-based history class, for example, you could focus on different aspects of the past tense for months. If we return to the example in the landforms unit, it is important to note that after that focus on participle clauses, I certainly didn’t think that students had mastered using participles. In the landform unit, they were used to show cause and effect. Of course, this form is used in English to accomplish many other functions, and the form will need to be reentered and reviewed multiple times to help students move toward acquisition.


Balancing the teaching of language and content is a challenge faced by all language teachers. In push-in and co-taught classes, the balance is too often lost and the content focus dominates. Purposeful and explicit focus on language forms should, however, be woven into these content-based classes. Teachers should work to make language forms more salient and draw their students’ attention to forms in order to help students notice and acquire these language features. A well planned progression of practice activities that move from controlled to communicative can blend content and language teaching, as learners use the targeted form to talk about content.


Brinton, D. (2010). Two for one? Language-enhanced content instruction in English for academic purposes. In Proceedings from A TESOL Symposium: Teaching English for Specific Purposes: Meeting our Learners’ Needs. Alexandria, VA: TESOL. Retrieved from

Cammarata, L., Tedick, D. J., & Osborn, T. A. (2016). Content-based instruction and curricular reforms: Issues and goals. In L. Cammarata (Ed.) Content-based foreign language teaching: Curriculum and pedagogy for developing advanced thinking and literacy skills (pp. 1-21). New York: Routledge.

Ellis, N. C. (2017). Implicit and explicit knowledge about language. In J. Cenoz, D. Gorter, & S. May (Eds.) Language awareness and multilingualism. Encyclopedia of language and education (3rd ed.) (pp. 113-124). Springer, Cham.

Ellis, R. (2002). Does form-focused instruction affect the acquisition of implicit knowledge? Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 24(2), 223-236.

Ellis, R. (2008). Principles of Instructed Second Language Acquisition. CAL Digest. Retrievable from

Gass, S., & Selinker, L. (2008). Second language acquisition: An introductory course. New York: Routledge.

Gibbons, P. (2015). Scaffolding language, scaffolding learning: Teaching English language learners in the mainstream classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Grabe, W., & Stoller, F. L. (1997). Content-based instruction: Research foundations. In M. A. Snow & D. M. Brinton (Eds.), The content-based classroom: Perspectives on integrating language and content (pp. 5–21). White Plains, NY: Longman.

Heilenman, L. K., & Kaplan, I. M. (1985). Proficiency in practice: The foreign language curriculum. In C. J. James (Ed.), Foreign language proficiency in the classroom and beyond (pp. 55-77). Lincolnwood, IL: National Textbook Co.

Lyster, R. (2007). Learning and teaching languages through content: A counterbalanced approach. Amsterdam Philadelphia: John Benjamins Pub.

Nassaji, H., & Fotos, S. (2011). Teaching grammar in second language classrooms: Integrating form-focused instruction in communicative context. New York, NY: Routledge.

Nation, P. (2007). The four strands. Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching, 1(1), 2–13.

Norris, J., & Ortega, L. (2000). Effectiveness of L2 instruction: A research synthesis and quantitative meta-analysis. Language Learning, 50(3), 417–528.

Roberge, M., Siegal, M., & Harklau, L. (2009). Generation 1.5 in college composition: Teaching academic writing to U.S.-educated learners of ESL. New York: Routledge.

Schmidt, R. (1990). The role of consciousness in second language learning. Applied Linguistics, 11(2), 129-158.

Schmidt, R. (2001). Attention. In P. Robinson (Ed.), Cognition and second language instruction (pp. 3-32). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sharwood Smith, M. (1993). Input enhancement in instructed SLA. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 15(2), 165-179.


Liz Hanson

Graphic organizers, think-pair-share, defining fiction and nonfiction, and summarization strategies are all common practices in many classrooms. Liz Hanson, an educator in ISD 196, analyzes how the use of these practices has changed throughout her career from a classroom teacher to a teacher of English language learners. Liz acknowledges EL colleagues, Bridget Coleman and Alena Hyams, and co-teacher, Jennifer Faber, for the collaboration that led to the changes in practice described in this article.
Key words: literacy, ELLs, critical thinking, graphic organizers, discourse

Over the course of my nearly two-decade career, literacy practices have come and gone, evolved, or cycled back around again. I continually do what I think is best for learners, based on my current understanding, but wonder if I am sometimes just going through the motions and not using some instructional practices to their highest capacity.

There are four common practices I have used since the early stages of my profession. These practices are the use of graphic organizers—visual representations used to categorize or show the connections between different pieces of information (Zwiers, 2011); think-pair-share—the process of pausing within a lesson and allowing students to organize and communicate their thoughts about content being taught (Lyman, 1981; Zwiers, 2014); defining nonfiction to distinguish it from fiction; and summarizing. Initially, as an elementary classroom teacher of grades three through six, I utilized these practices with my students in order to assess understanding of content. More recently, as an educator of English language learners (ELLs), my perspective has changed. I now see these practices as ways to support language acquisition. In addition, I’ve begun to wonder:

How might I use these educational practices to their full potential to support the development of academic discourse and critical thinking for my intermediate ELLs?

Graphic Organizers: Mapping Thinking for Academic Discourse

As a classroom teacher, graphic organizers were ever present scaffolds for my students to organize ideas within multiple content areas. These tools, which often times were copied for students to fill out, provided a place to stop and jot down ideas, and for me, as the educator, to check for student understanding of content.

My third graders were able to independently compare people, events, or concepts with a Venn diagram, show a sequence with a flow chart, or show cause and effect with a T-chart. For them, it was a simple task completion. Unknowingly, I taught them that this was all graphic organizers could do: show understanding.

Several years later, my thoughts about the purpose and intent of graphic organizers shifted from a tool to show understanding to a tool to prepare for discussion and writing (Fisher & Frey, 2018). Now, with my fourth grade ELLs, I demonstrate a box and bullets (Ehrenworth, 2013) for students to organize their ideas for a paragraph with a main idea and supporting details. Instead of giving them a printed graphic organizer, I show them how to create the box and bullets in their reader’s notebook, so they may transfer this organizer to other contexts. The students then take the phrases and sentences they have constructed in their box and bullets and turn them into a paragraph with a topic sentence and supporting ideas.

Additionally, my third graders use a double entry journal to show a quote from the text in the first column and what the text made them think of in the second column in order to extend their responses from the literal meaning to more of the inferential implications. I confer one-on-one with individual students to have them practice sharing their thinking with me orally. Finally, this graphic organizer grounds them in their conversation when they share with a partner at the end of our Readers Workshop.

There is much greater cognitive demand and linguistic complexity within the synthesizing of information and transforming the notes on the graphic organizer into sentences and paragraphs (Zwiers, 2011). For our intermediate ELLs, the power is not in the note-taking of single words or phrases, which is how I had previously utilized this tool; rather, it is within the higher-level thinking of writing simple, compound, and complex sentences around a topic in one or multiple paragraphs. Figure 1 shows a student preparing to write and speak about how the sun helps the earth.

Figure 1. Third Grader Studying Graphic Organizer

Think-Pair-Share: Tailoring Language Supports for Learners

Within a whole group lesson, it is fairly easy for the teacher to do all of the talking. Think-pair-share provides opportunities for students to participate in the lesson in a meaningful way (Zwiers, 2011, 2014).

I have always known that speaking was important for learning (City, 2014; Nichols, 2006; Zwiers, 2011) and that think-pair-share was a strategy I could incorporate to foster more talk in my classroom. For numerous years during whole group lessons, I modeled a new strategy or skill, asked my students a question, encouraged them to sit facing one another, and simply talk. During the conversations, I meandered around listening in and prompting students to elaborate. In the end, I selected one or two pairs to share out their ideas to the class.

What I was not always aware of was how unproductive these conversations could actually be. If I really looked closely, often times they involved one student monopolizing the entire conversation, students speaking in short phrases or utterances, both students sitting in silence, or a conversation that was completely off topic.

Through careful observation of students and conversations with other teachers of ELLs, I’ve concluded that:

  1. I cannot assume that all students know how to carry an academic conversation, native English speakers included; and
  2. that just stopping and asking a question does not provide enough linguistic support for students developing academic English.

As argued by Walqui and Heritage (2018), “teachers must find meaningful ways to provide students learning opportunities that engage them in productive talk and then listen carefully to the language they use in order to support their continued growth” (p. 20).

In order to investigate this further, my English Language (EL) colleagues and I participated in a lesson study where we co-planned a fifth-grade reading lesson together in February 2019 with the emphasis of listening to paraphrase or clarify meaning (Zwiers, 2011) during a think-pair-share. For this lesson, we used the text One Green Apple by Eve Bunting and Ted Lewin (2006), a text in the fifth-grade author study unit, and embedded several language scaffolds of intentionally pairing partnerships, providing sentence frames for clarifying, paraphrasing, and explaining, a demonstration of the process, and opportunities for oral rehearsal before writing.

As a team, we analyzed the fifth-grade benchmarks in order to brainstorm a question that was elaborate enough to foster a conversation (Billings & Roberts, 2014; Fisher & Frey, 2014), yet simple enough that it would not involve too much new content. We knew that teaching a new structure for talk would provide enough cognitive demand, so the question should be as accessible as possible (City, 2014). We created a visual card for the listener and the speaker so each had sentence frames to support their oral response with their partner (Zwiers, 2011). In addition, we planned the partnerships so that an ELL would have a native English speaker as a model. We structured the think-pair-share so that the native English speaker spoke first, giving the ELL an opportunity to borrow words or phrases from their peer (Bondie, Gaughran, & Zusho, 2014; Fisher & Frey, 2014; Zwiers, 2011). Finally, we carefully thought out how we would demonstrate the conversation for the students so they could see what the process would look like and sound like (Fisher & Frey 2014; Wright, 2016). After participating in the think-pair-share, we then asked students to put their thoughts and ideas into writing while we walked around and conferred.

As a result of this lesson study, we found that incorporating multiple language scaffolds supported ELLs in their ability to listen, speak, and write using the academic discourse of language arts to discuss the question: How is the main character feeling? How do you know? The classroom teacher and one of our colleagues who observed three ELLs noticed an increased amount of engagement and academic discourse produced compared to many previous lessons.

Through research and the experience of this lesson study, I’ve discovered that the key to think-pair-share is taking the time to intentionally think about what language you want students to be able to produce and what language supports will aide students in meeting that objective. Setting up the necessary scaffolds for all learners, especially ELLs (Billings & Roberts, 2014), will make for more targeted and productive conversations. Examples of language supports are in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Think-pair-share Language Supports

Defining Fiction and Nonfiction: Laying the Foundation for Academic Thinking, Reading, and Writing

During my first few years as an educator, a majority of my reading instruction revolved around fiction texts, unless my students were in a social studies or science unit. My guided reading books, read alouds, and book clubs were nearly all narratives. Then, with the introduction of the Common Core standards (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010), I was much more intentional about including more nonfiction text into my whole group and small group instruction. My students could nearly always identify which books were fiction or nonfiction, but could not always defend their thinking with a reason, or their rationale was extremely limited. Additionally, my students were not always using what they knew about genre to support their understanding of the text or their construction of a piece of writing.

Beers and Probst (2015) encourage teachers to co-create a definition of nonfiction with their students. A noticing of theirs, and a practice I have also been guilty of, is the perpetuation of the misconception that fiction is fake and nonfiction is true or real. I’ve heard this countless times from students while administering diagnostic reading assessments. By students thinking that nonfiction text is real or true, they tend to believe everything they read, which makes it more challenging to critically analyze the text to find out whether it is valid, the author is credible, and what the purpose of the writing may be. A sample definition of nonfiction I use now is, “in nonfiction text, an author teaches the reader facts and information about a topic based on his/her research and perspective.”

Beyond just identifying fiction and nonfiction, I also make sure that my ELLs can determine the subgenres of fiction and nonfiction and that they are able to justify their claim with evidence. We carefully study books of fiction from realistic fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction to nonfiction books which are expository, biographical, persuasive, procedural, or narrative nonfiction. Students read and hear several books within each genre throughout the year.

I often ask my students questions like:

“Does this text have facts and information about a topic or is it about a character who solved a problem? Are these characters and settings realistic or are these characters and settings you would not meet in our world? What topic did this author want to inform us about? What facts and information did this author most want us to know?”

These questions can help students to distinguish the genre and the purpose of writing the text. They are also especially helpful when parsing out the difference between the subgenres of realistic fiction and narrative nonfiction, which tends to be more challenging to differentiate for several students.

In my EL co-taught class, all fourth graders are expected to explain their thinking about the genre of a text and support their thinking with evidence. Students use a checklist (Calkins, 2015) and sentence frames, created by my co-teacher and me to assist their writing or speaking (see Figure 2). They then self-assess, peer assess, and receive a final grade from us. We have found that by studying the characteristics of genre in addition to stating a claim and defending that claim with more than one reason has solidified our students’ understanding of an author’s use of genre.

Figure 3. Checklist and Sentence Frames

Being able to identify the genre of a text goes beyond just fiction and nonfiction. Students can analyze the text for subgenres, compare and contrast the choices of different authors writing about the same topic, read widely across genres and within genres, and critically read works of nonfiction instead of believing the printed word as being true.

How Text Structure, Text Features, and Signal Words Support Determining Importance in Expository Nonfiction

Retelling, a precursor to recounting and summarizing (Common Core, 2010), is the practice of telling events in order from the text. There are several ways this has historically been done in primary grades. One method is using the sentence frames of: In the beginning, In the middle, In the end (Reading Rockets, n.d). Another way this is introduced is telling the events from a story in order across five fingers, with each finger representing an event from the text (University of Pittsburgh School of Education, n.d). A final way is a story map (Reutzel, 1985) which may include the sentence frames of beginning, middle, and end, or a sequence of steps similar to telling across five fingers. The challenge I’ve found is taking students from the concept of retelling events of a story to determining importance from that text as a summary. Often times, students think they should retell when in fact they are being asked to summarize (Beers & Probst, 2015).

Summarizing, a way to state the important information from the text in a concise way (Fountas & Pinnell, 2017), is a skill that I have explicitly taught numerous times to intermediate students. One method I have taught general education students is by using a 25-word summary where students write about the character and what that character did in the chapter or episode of the text. Students carefully revise their word choice to keep the summary brief. Many students start out with 40-word summaries and would have to continue to narrow down and weed out events and ideas that were unimportant. Another method I’ve utilized was the Somebody wanted, but, so, finally. Unfortunately, neither of the methods necessarily helped the students decipher which parts were important and which parts were details. In addition, the strategies I used to summarize fiction didn’t necessarily transfer to nonfiction. And, in some cases, we floundered when trying to summarize a fiction text that didn’t have a traditional story structure.

Therefore, in addition to identifying and providing evidence to support their claim of the genre, my students and I also spend a lot of time looking at how the author organizes the text, or the text structure, in order to determine importance and summarize (Ouellette-Schramm, 2015). While fiction texts have mainly one text structure, nonfiction texts can be organized in many different ways. The nonfiction text structures we would expect to see in nonfiction are categorical, description, sequential, comparison, cause and effect, problem and solution, and question and answer (Fountas & Pinnell, 2017). The skill of summarizing nonfiction texts is beneficial for students in order to be college and career ready and is one that requires a lot of synthesis (Schwartz, Mendoza, & Meyer, 2017).

In my fourth-grade guided reading group, my English language learners think about the text features by looking at clues like the title or heading, bold words, and visuals on the page before they read so they can anticipate the knowledge the author might share or some of the concepts or ideas that may be introduced. When students do this, it seems to frame their thinking and they are actively able to modify or adjust their understanding of the text based on new clues as they read. They have also found it much easier to determine the important parts after reading (Kim & Clariana, 2017). In addition, we analyze the text structure, which supports the student in organizing their summary like a comparison, description, or problem solution. Figure 4 contains a writing sample demonstrating a student anticipating what they will read based on text structure, organization, and features before reading, along with their summary after reading.

Figure 4. Student Prediction Before Reading with Summary after Reading

Signal words were integral in a flash fiction unit I launched this spring with third graders. These students wrote a 100-word fantasy story within their astronomy unit based on a narrative text structure with a problem and solution. Students were asked to use signal words like but, however, unfortunately to show the problem in the text. With the emphasis on writing with text structure, and the utilization of signal words, the act of writing made explicit how writers use text structure and signal words so that it is clearer to them how important these structures are to notice as a reader.

Refining Our Practice

My previous ways of using graphic organizers, think-pair-share, defining fiction and nonfiction, and summarization strategies may have unintentionally had students speaking and writing in general words or phrases instead of the complex academic discourse we expect from our intermediate ELLs. It also potentially stifled critical thinking skills to analyze and determine importance in nonfiction text.

Readers use what they know about how texts work in order to predict, infer, summarize, and synthesize important information. Writers use what they know about texts while writing text in a specific genre. By taking this time to use graphic organizers in preparation for speaking and writing, utilizing think-pair-share with language supports to allow for more productive conversations, defining fiction and nonfiction to support more critical thinking, and explicitly teaching about how readers and writers use text structure, text features, and signal words, it lays a solid foundation for knowledge of genre, research, and critical analysis of all texts. The refinement of these practices has been paramount in my career as an educator of ELLs. I have witnessed countless students take on some of these strategies and make them their own. I am continually impressed by how the use of these practices has lifted the level of academic speaking and writing discourse for my ELLs.


Beers, K., & Probst, R. (2015). Reading nonfiction: Notice and note stances, signposts, and strategies. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Billings, L., & Roberts, T. (2014). From mindless to meaningful: Whole class discussions can be valuable rituals that students look forward to. Educational Leadership, 72(3). Retrievable from

Bondie, R., Gaughran, L., & Zusho, A. (2014). Fostering English learners’ confidence. Educational Leadership, 72(3). Retrievable from’-Confidence.aspx

Bunting, E., & Lewin, T. (2006). One green apple. New York: Clarion Books.

Calkins, L. (2015). Reading pathways, performance assessments and learning progressions: Grades 3-5. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

City, E. A. (2014). Talking to learn. Educational Leadership, 72(3). Retrievable from

Ehrenworth, M. (2013). Evidence-based argument: Raising the level of logic, critical thinking, and argument writing in classrooms across a school. Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. Columbia University, New York, NY.

Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2014). Speaking volumes! Educational Leadership, 72(3). Retrievable from

Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2018). The uses and misuses of graphic organizers in content area learning. The Reading Teacher, 71(6), 763-766.

Fountas, I. C., & Pinnell, G. S. (2017). Guided reading: Responsive teaching across the grades. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Kim, K., & Clariana, R. B. (2017). Text signals influence second language expository text comprehension: Knowledge structure analysis. Educational Technology Research and Development, 65(4), 909-930.

Lyman, F. (1981). The responsive classroom discussion. In A. S. Anderson (Ed.), Mainstreaming Digest (pp. 109-113). College Park, MD: University of Maryland College of Education.

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, & Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010). Common core state standards. National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School: Washington D.C.

Nichols, M. (2006). Comprehension through conversation: The power of purposeful talk in the reading workshop. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Ouellette-Schramm, J. (2015). More than a “basic skill”: Breaking down the complexities of summarizing for ABE/ESL learners. Journal of Research and Practice for Adult Literacy, Secondary, and Basic Education, 4(2), 52-57.

Reutzel, R. (1985). Story maps improve comprehension. Reading Teacher, 38(4), 400-404.

Reading Rockets. (n.d.) Story Sequence. Retrieved from

Schwartz, A. I., Mendoza, L., & Meyer, B. (2017). The impact of text structure reading strategy instructions in a second language: benefits across languages. Language Learning Journal, 45(3), 263-281. doi:10.1080/09571736.2013.837092

University of Pittsburgh School of Education. (n.d.) Five finger retelling. Retrieved from

Walqui, A., & Heritage, M. (2018). Meaningful classroom talk: Supporting English learners’ oral language development. American Educator, 42(3). Retrievable from

Wright, W. E. (2016). Let them talk! Educational Leadership, 73(5). Retrievable from!.aspx

Zwiers, J. (2011). Academic conversations: Classroom talk that fosters critical thinking and content understandings. Portsmouth, NH: Stenhouse Publishers.

Zwiers, J. (2014). Building academic language: Essential practices for content classrooms. Newark, DE: Jossey-Bass.