Bonnie Swierzbin

Demonstratives (this, that, these, those) are pointing words: In conversation they typically point to people and things but in written expository text, they often point to ideas, events, and situations. ESL teachers need to help their students gain familiarity with the functions of demonstrative reference beyond simple pointing and contrast.
Keywords: demonstratives, reference, elementary, middle school, secondary, teacher education

Figure 1. Demonstratives in 4th grade science (adapted from DiSpezio et al., 2017b, p. 79)

Imagine you are working with your fourth grade English Learners (EL) as they read a science unit on the engineering process. You’ve worked with them on figuring out what noun phrases with articles refer to (the answer, the lesson) in written texts, and they’ve mastered demonstratives (this, that, these, those) for pointing to people and objects, but as you preview their textbook science lesson (see Figure 1), you see a need to bring these two topics together: How do demonstratives in written expository texts refer to entities?

The text in Figure 1 provides some helpful examples to start us on our way to answering that question.

This robot is riding a bicycle, just like a human, and not falling over. How is this possible?   

In the first example, the demonstrative determiner this before the noun robot tells the reader to look nearby for a salient referent. Even if the word robot is not familiar to the reader, the white thing on the bicycle is a very obvious nearby choice for the referent since it is foregrounded in the image. In the second example, the demonstrative pronoun this also tells the reader to look nearby for a referent, but in this case its referent is less obvious. This refers to the whole previous sentence, the idea that a robot can ride a bicycle and not fall. Referring to ideas is a common function for demonstratives and one that they perform far more efficiently than noun phrases with articles. Imagine what the question How is this possible? would look like without the demonstrative (1).

(1) How is the robot riding a bicycle possible?
     How is it possible for the robot to ride a bicycle?
     How is the situation where the robot rides a bicycle possible?

Long phrases and complicated syntax can result from using a structure other than a demonstrative to refer to an idea. In contrast, demonstratives provide a concise and efficient way to refer to ideas, which is one reason they are important in the English system of reference. Clearly, ELs need to be able to figure out what demonstratives refer to as they read academic texts as well as being able to use them appropriately in their own writing. The purpose of this article is to provide English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers with information about how demonstratives are used in written academic texts in order to inform their teaching. Basic information about English demonstratives is presented first, followed by a review of typical ways that demonstratives are used in expository academic texts, drawing on examples from 4th and 5th grade science textbooks and a high school history textbook.

Basic info about demonstratives

The words that and this are considered part of a basic 2000-word English vocabulary, and they are, respectively, the tenth and thirty-fourth most frequent words in the Cambridge International Corpus of spoken and written English (O’Keefe et al., 2007). That occurs more frequently than this because it has additional functions such as introducing adjective clauses (the dog that ate a banana) and noun clauses (I think that Eric’s doughnut fell in the dishwasher). In this paper, only the demonstrative uses of this and that will be discussed. But the relative frequencies of that and this are not just due to the additional functions; in conversation, the pronoun that occurs far more frequently than this (more than 10,000 occurrences per million words while this is <2000; Conrad & Biber, 2009). Specifically, that is used to evaluate an idea or validate the correctness of a claim (that’s right, that sounds better). In academic writing, this has about double the use of that (more than 2,000 occurrences per million words for this compared to about 1,000 for that; Conrad & Biber, 2009). Similar to that in conversation, this in academic writing often refers to an idea that was just stated; the next section describes how this is done and the complications that arise.

The usage of demonstratives most commonly taught in ESL textbooks is the basic, common one of pointing to people and objects while speaking (Schiftner & Rankin, 2012). Typically, such textbooks focus on the near/far distinction of this and that (Cowan, 2008); some advanced textbooks (e.g., Larsen-Freeman, 2007) cover the reference usage of demonstratives in written text, but as the bicycle-riding robot text shows, ELs are likely to encounter demonstrative reference in writing well before they reach an advanced level, and teachers need to be prepared to teach this topic across a range of grade and proficiency levels.

What demonstratives do in written academic expository texts

Just as demonstratives and their accompanying gestures in conversation tell the listener where to search for the referent in terms of distance, so too do demonstratives in academic texts. However, in writing, the distance becomes more abstract and the referent harder to find with no physical gesture and only a demonstrative pointing the way. This section starts with examples where the referents are easier to find and moves on to more abstract ones.

Referring to current context

In the sample texts reviewed for this article, the demonstrative determiner this is often used to refer to the context in which its sentence is embedded (2) and to help students organize their learning.

(2) As you read these two pages, underline…
     Find the answer to the following questions in this lesson.
     As you read about the rise of democratic ideas in this prologue, think about…

Examples as in (2) are relatively easy to spot since they a) are quite similar to oral “pointing,” b) always show nearness (this, these), and c) include vocabulary that names parts of the text (pages, lesson, prologue) and directions to the reader (underline, find, think). In addition to referring to their written ‘container’ (these two pages, this chapter), such demonstratives may also refer to their time ‘container’ (this week), although the latter usage is more common in speaking (Maes et al., 2022).

Similarly, this and these are frequently used to refer to a nearby image or part of it, as shown in Figures 2 and 3. In Figure 2, several visual and verbal clues make the referent of these round disks relatively obvious: The left-pointing arrow, the nearness of demonstrative and image, the adjective round, and the plural disks all work together to identify the referent.

Figure 2. Demonstrative referring to an entire image1 (adapted from a high school history textbook; Beck et al., 2012, p. 9)

In contrast, the demonstrative this in Figure 3, which is adapted from a science textbook, has somewhat limited clues as to its referent. The proximity of the verbal and visual texts is again important, but the arrow points unhelpfully to the verbal text. Previous pages in the science textbook presented multiple examples of technology and the needs they meet, so the reader will need to recognize several types of technology in the image (helmet, watch, shoes, skateboard, etc.) and identify the one that is “a lot of fun.”

A teaching strategy for demonstratives referring to images could be implemented when teachers draw students’ attention to the visual features of a text as part of a during-reading activity. Specifically, teachers can help students identify the verbal and visual cues for referents, and connect this to a good reading strategy of using the surrounding context to make sure information is understood.

Figure 3. Demonstrative referring to part of an image2 (adapted from a 5th grade science textbook; DiSpezio et al., 2017a, p. 83)

Implying contrast

Most of the demonstrative examples in the sources for this study are this/these, showing nearness, and when that/those are used, it is often (but not always) for an implied contrast. In the fourth grade science text in (3), those is used to contrast failing design features with good ones, without any use of these to make the contrast explicit.

(3) Redesign takes advantage of all work done before. Good design features are kept, and those that fail are discarded.

Similarly, in the history text (4), those, referring to reformers, implies a contrast to a group of people who did not want reform, but without even mentioning them.

(4) The Reformation was a religious reform movement that began in the 16th century. Those who wanted to reform the Catholic Church were called Protestants, because they protested against the power and abuses of the Church.

It’s also important to note that in both of these cases, the full noun phrase that those modifies is implied (those design features, those people), potentially causing some difficulty.

Teachers can connect these implicit contrasts with explicit ones that students are familiar with from classroom talk. It would also be helpful to model how implicit contrasts are used in conversation, for example, how those are yours may imply the existence of some others that are not yours.

Tracking and labeling

Like the definite article the, in the sample texts demonstratives are used to track referents, which means that a noun phrase is introduced, then the head noun is repeated with the or a demonstrative. In the history text in (5), a brilliant cultural movement is tracked with the phrase this movement, using this instead of the to add focus to the referent.

(5) In the 1300s, a brilliant cultural movement arose in Italy. Over the next 300 years, it spread to the rest of Europe, helped by the development of the printing press. This movement was called the Renaissance.

Instances of tracking are relatively easy to follow, given the noun repetition. Slightly harder to follow are cases in which an author uses a synonym or general noun with a demonstrative to refer to objects or people just mentioned (6).

(6) When coal burns, harmful ash and gases are produced. The potential harm these substances can cause leads to negative feedback.

The use of the demonstrative determiner these signals to the reader that the referent is nearby; using the substances would not signal nearness and may cause readers to wonder what substances the author means. In addition to movement and substances, other general nouns that were used for tracking in the science and history sources for this article include ideas, things, practice, act, groups, knowledge, devices, process, items, and tasks.

The cases that are hardest to follow are where demonstratives are used to label stretches of preceding text in order to discuss them further. Labeling is common in academic texts because it gives names to ideas and events that are presented (Francis, 2002), thus stressing their importance. Such a discourse label (using Francis’ terminology) also creates a link between the description of an idea or event (likely long and complex) and the surrounding discussion of it. For example, in (7), the discourse label this event names the action in the second clause of the preceding sentence and links it to a timeline of Judaism that the history text is developing.

(7) The Bible states that God gave the code to the Israelite leader, Moses, in the form of the Ten Commandments and other laws. This event is believed to have occurred sometime between 1300 and 1200 BC.

Understanding text with discourse labels is complicated. First, the reader needs to understand that the referent is not just one object or person named by a concrete noun, rather it is an abstraction. Second, the reader needs to find the stretch of text describing the abstraction. That text may be a sentence or part of it as in (7), or it may be more than one sentence as in (8).

(8) Cell phone technology changes fast, and some people switch to new models after just a few months. More resources are used up, and the old phones sometimes end up in a landfill. This risk is environmental.

Another possible difficulty is that the referent is not clearly stated in the text but has to be inferred (Cornish, 2018). An example of this is shown in (9), an excerpt from a fourth grade science textbook unit where students are being introduced to the design process for engineering.

(9) It has been said that necessity is the mother of invention. But once you find a need, how do you build your invention? That’s the design process.

The demonstrative pronoun that refers to the as-yet-undescribed steps for building an invention to meet a need, as implied in the question.

In addition, a discourse label can also tell the reader how to interpret the referent, like (8) does, where this risk guides the reader to view the situation stated in the previous two sentences as a problem. Example (8) also illustrates another complication with discourse labels: They are often used in text where the author is building an argument (Francis, 2002), meaning that the reader has to determine how the event or situation fits into the bigger picture. 

The circumstances where teachers refer to facts, ideas, etc., with demonstratives in oral classroom language can be a jumping-off point for explicitly teaching how demonstratives in written academic language are used to track and label referents. Teachers should compare that in speaking with this in writing and explicitly point out that demonstratives often refer to ideas stated in clauses, sentences, or even more than one sentence rather than to something represented by a noun alone. They should also point out clues in demonstrative + general noun phrases (these substances, this process) that help identify the referent. In post-reading activities, when students are highlighting pronouns and then drawing chains of reference, as in Figure 4, they should be working with the visual and verbal texts together and including demonstratives to create a more complete picture of reference.

Figure 4. Drawing chains of reference3 (text adapted from DiSpezio et al., 2017b, p. 65)

Although demonstratives are not used nearly as often as articles for referring, they occupy a unique spot in the English reference system because they so frequently refer to ideas, events, and situations––a topic that is not covered by teaching demonstratives for contrast in oral language. Teachers should also recognize that while the pointing function of demonstratives is the same in oral and written texts, the choice of demonstrative is related to the text genre, such as expository or narrative (Maes et al., 2022), so that teaching demonstrative usage with a variety of text types, both oral and written, is vital for ELs’ understanding.


I thank the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and Steve Wicht for his thought-provoking questions.


  1. This image, which was originally posted to Flickr, was uploaded to Commons using Flickr upload bot on 27 August 2009, 12:42 by Dorieo. The image and licensing information are available at 
  2. Public domain image downloaded from 
  3. Public domain image downloaded from 


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Cowan, R. (2008). The teacher’s grammar of English: A course book and reference guide. Cambridge University Press.

DiSpezio, M., Frank, M., Heithaus, M., & Ogle, D. (2017a). Science fusion: Fifth grade student edition. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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Larsen-Freeman, D. (2007). Grammar dimensions 4: Form, meaning and use (4th ed.). Thomson Heinle.

Maes, A., Krahmer, E., & Peeters, D. (2022). Explaining variance in writers’ use of demonstratives: A corpus study demonstrating the importance of discourse genre. Glossa: A Journal of General Linguistics, 7(1), 1-36. 

O’Keefe, A., McCarthy, M., & Carter, R. (2007). From corpus to classroom: Language use and language teaching. Cambridge University Press.

Schiftner, B. & Rankin, T. (2012). The use of demonstrative reference in English texts by Austrian school-age learners. In Y. Tono, Y. Kawaguchi, & M. Minegishi (Eds.), Developmental and crosslinguistic perspectives in learner corpus research (pp. 63-82). John Benjamins.



Aliza Fones

School administrators can effectively support English Language Learner programs and teachers through the CRAFT framework that emphasizes collaboration, responsiveness, advocacy, framing, and trust.
Keywords: secondary education, emergent bilinguals, ELL programs, administrators

The role of school leadership, specifically administrators, is critical in the effective education of students designated as English language learners (ELLs) (Reyes, 2006) or emergent bilinguals (EBs). Specifically, a building principal can have an impact on issues of equity, social justice, and the success of an ELL program over time (Scanlan & López, 2012; Theoharis & O’Toole, 2011). (The term “emergent bilingual” has emerged in scholarship as an asset-based description of the students and their abilities, rather than focusing solely on their status as learners of English (e.g., García, 2009). In this article, I use “EB” to refer to the students, and the term “ELL” to refer to teachers, programs, policy labels, and instruction as it is more widely used and familiar in public education policy and settings. However, districts are increasingly opting for more inclusive terminology, including “EB,” “multilingual,” or “multilingual language learner.”) It is now well understood that EB students have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the educational disparities between these students and their native English-speaking peers continue to grow (Lazarín, 2020). School administrators are in a position to address and remedy these disparities through their approach to ELL instruction. This article presents a framework for administrator support of ELL teachers and programs called CRAFT: Collaboration, Responsiveness, Awareness, Framing, and Trust. CRAFT provides guidance for administrators to address the changing policies regarding ELL education, and the needs of the ever-changing population of ELL students, in a way that promotes the integration, rather than isolation, of ELL students, teachers, and departments. Below is a brief description of these issues, followed by examples from two administrators who were exceptional in their leadership of ELL programs.

ELL education: Changing populations and changing policies

As noted often (e.g., Migration Policy Institute, 2019), this population of students in the United States is rapidly increasing and diversifying. At the same time, federal accountability policy is also changing, and the recent implementation of policies such as the Every Student Succeeds Act have presented both greater inclusion of ELL education in the policy and greater challenges vis-à-vis academic standards and measures of accountability (Hopkins et al., 2013). However, what these federal policies mean at the district and building level for EB students and teachers is open to interpretation and subject to local capacity and available resources. This is where building administrators come in: principals and assistant principals who work with ELL departments are important agents and advocates for their ELL teachers and EB students.

Improving the integration of ELL departments and opportunities for students

The integration of EB students into the mainstream school environment (including their placement in courses) is visible in the way that ELL departments and teachers are recognized and positioned in the building. ELL programs, teachers, and students tend to be marginalized within schools (Harklau, 1994; Olsen, 1997; Valdés, 2004), and segregated through enrollment practices, curricular tracks, access to extracurricular activities, and social and physical segregation (i.e., separate physical classrooms and spaces in the school). This isolation of EBs from monolingual, native-English speaking peers increases the potential that the segregation will lead to labeling, as well as disparate outcomes and opportunities (Callahan, 2005; Dabach & Callahan, 2011).

One proposed alternative framing of ELL programs and students within schools is the idea of a “new mainstream” (Enright, 2011; Thompson, 2013) that more adequately describes the presence of non-native English speaking and multilingual students in today’s schools. This vision of new mainstream classrooms is accurate, given the realities of the ethnic and linguistic composition of today’s schools, and the students that comprise the new mainstream bring with them a “wealth of unexpected talents, perspectives, and unique experiences” (Scanlan & López, 2014, p. 113). However, simply acknowledging the presence of different demographics in schools is not sufficient; Thompson (2013) notes that once we have acknowledged this new mainstream, it is incumbent upon educators to be responsive with their instructional practices.

The framework for addressing these issues emerged from the practices of two skilled secondary administrators and their work with ELL teachers and programs. This data came from a qualitative study that examined the roles and experiences of high school ELL teachers and the implementation of district ELL program policy at two large, urban, and linguistically diverse high schools within the same district (at the time of the study, there were around 30,000 students in the district, 20% of whom were identified as ELLs, who represented over 120 languages). One aspect of this study was to interview district and building administrators who worked closely with the ELL department in each building. I interviewed these administrators twice over the course of the school year, once in the fall and once in the spring. I also observed district, building, and department level meetings related to the ELL program throughout the school year. In this research, I asked, “How do school leaders support high school ELL departments and teachers, especially as related to the integration of ELL departments into the school building and the learning outcomes of ELL students?”

Collaboration, responsiveness, awareness, framing, and trust (CRAFT)

This framework identifies five aspects of school leaders’ interactions with ELL teachers in order to promote more meaningful and equitable education of high school EB students. Each aspect has its own merit, but there is potential for positive change when all aspects are integrated. Certainly, these are not the only components of effective leadership for ELL programs, but these stood out and were even more salient given the vast differences between the two schools and their administrators. (All names of people and places are pseudonyms.)


“[My] interaction with [the] ELL department has been constant . . . as needed, whenever needed. Earlier this year, it was many times a week.” (Ms. Harper)

At Fields High, the ELL department was supervised by Ms. Harper, an assistant principal and a former high school science teacher. During the study, Ms. Harper was in her first year as an assistant principal and her first year in the district. As a vice principal, Ms. Harper interacted frequently with the ELL department. Her work included supervising and observing the ELL teachers in addition to the placement and scheduling of the EB students, a task that involved an overhaul of the classes that were offered to EB students, which classes EB students were placed in, and who taught these classes. Ms. Harper and the ELL department head worked during the months prior to the school year to reevaluate the identification and placement of every single EB student and to create courses that would better meet their needs. In addition to supervision and organizational collaboration, Ms. Harper also sought resources for the ELL department and facilitated their interaction with other departments, creating opportunities for collaboration during professional development days and prioritizing communication between departments. In short, she provided support in a way that an administrator less familiar with the needs of an ELL program would potentially be able to do.

School leaders need to collaborate with ELL teachers in a meaningful, consistent, and timely manner. Collaboration is facilitated by a clear set of topics and issues to discuss, and clear designation of roles (i.e., who will facilitate the meeting, take notes, follow-up with action items). While unconventional, at both Fields and Metro high schools, the school leader frequently attended the department’s professional learning community (PLC) meeting, and met frequently with the ELL department heads. In some instances, the presence of an administrator could have a chilling or inhibiting effect, but in conversation and interviews with ELL teachers, as well as my observation at PLC meetings, the administrator’s presence was viewed as supportive and collaborative. The presence and participation of a school leader in these meetings demonstrated the importance of ELL instruction and the work of ELL teachers, and helped to promote the integration of the ELL department and teachers.


“One big point has been our older ELL students who are aging out. For instance, we sat down with one of the counselors and the ELL teachers and myself and we went through our list of any students that was 17 and older and looked at their credits, their state assessments, whether they are really on track for graduation… How close were these students to actually being able to graduate or whether they might time out. And so we organized a trip to [local community college] to look at the program.” (Ms. Harper)

Closely connected to collaboration is the importance of school leaders’ responsiveness to the needs of the ELL department. Given the frequent changes in policies and initiatives surrounding ELL instruction, as well as the frequent changes in EB student populations, responsiveness was imperative to the functioning of an ELL program. In the example above, Ms. Harper recognized a need for resources for older EB students, and she responded by coordinating with a local community college. Other ways that school leaders demonstrated responsiveness include working with the counselor to change course offerings based on needs and strengths of EB students, implementing a co-teaching model to assist beginner students in content area courses, and providing professional development opportunities tailored to the needs of teachers.


“You’ve got kids that are coming in from all over the world with a lot, or little to no formal education, and trying not only to teach them the English language, but just survival and life skills… and our program has grown immensely. I mean, my first year here we were probably 150 ELL kids, and now we’re at 350.” (Mr. Aaron)

At Metro High School, the administrator responsible for supervision of the ELL department was the principal, Mr. Aaron, an experienced administrator who had been at Metro for over a decade and had worked closely with the ELL department for that entire time. His responsibilities ranged from the formal observation and evaluation of the ELL teachers, to frequent attendance at the ELL departments’ PLC meetings, to advocacy at the district level on behalf of ELL students and teachers. He regularly collaborated with the ELL department head and was knowledgeable about the issues related to ELL education and the experiences of the students.  

Foundational to all aspects of this framework is the awareness of school leaders about the issues germane to ELL instruction, from knowledge about students’ backgrounds and skills to systems-level understanding of the experiences of high school EB students related to academic achievement. The educational experiences of high school EB students are vastly different from their younger EB peers: many are recently-arrived students with varying levels of English proficiency and educational experience; and given their age, there is less time for them to develop English proficiency, demonstrate competence in content areas, and obtain sufficient credits to graduate.


“The ELL teachers are constantly after school with their kids, not only working with kids, but also trying to communicate with parents. [The department head] delivers professional development every other staff meeting for us around… ELL best practices, and he is highly regarded amongst our entire staff, so when he talks, everyone listens.” (Mr. Aaron)

The framing of the ELL department, teachers, and EB students by the administrator is crucial for the integration of ELL in the building, as well as how ELL teachers and EB students are positioned. In both schools, the administrators positioned the ELL teachers as experts. One way they did this was to provide structured time where ELL teachers or the ELL department head could present information to staff at meetings and other professional development workshops. In terms of how students were positioned, both administrators were inclusive in the way they described EB students, referring to EB students as “our” students, and referencing individual students by name, demonstrating familiarity despite both schools being quite large. They also used the collective pronouns of “we” when talking about the work that they did in collaboration with ELL departments, communicating an alignment and shared responsibility with the work of the ELL teachers.


“I really trust my specialists, my teachers that are ELL teachers or special ed [sic] teachers… and so when they say, this is what they need, or this is what’s going on, then you know, I sit down and really go to bat for them… it’s important that I advocate for my teachers and my kids and my community.” (Mr. Aaron)

Finally, a theme that emerged during this research was the trust that school leaders placed in the ELL teachers, both at Metro where the ELL teachers were very experienced, and Fields where the ELL teachers were novices. These administrators trusted their ELL teachers with important decision-making and sought their input for decisions ranging from curriculum adoption to the responsibilities of the ELL paraprofessionals. English language learner teachers are ultimately responsible for so many aspects of EB students’ education that the trust of their administrator is necessary for them to not only feel supported, but also empowered to make decisions in the interest of their students (Fones, 2018).

Considerations and recommendations for ELL leadership

In this research, I was able to observe the ways that building administrators interacted with the ELL department and what their roles were in supporting the ELL program and teachers. These distinct and exceptional cases offered two approaches to the implementation of district ELL program policy through their program model and services, which demonstrated the importance of local decision-making in order to best work with existing resources to meet the needs of specific student populations.

How can administrators support high school ELL departments and teachers, and how can administrators support the integration of ELL departments, teachers, and students into the school? Calling attention to the CRAFT framework, administrators can (and should) intentionally structure their interactions with ELL teachers and departments, paying attention to the CRAFT framework (collaboration, responsiveness, advocacy, framing, and trust) and the way that these components are present in their leadership practices. School leaders can identify and facilitate opportunities for collaboration between ELL and content area/grade level departments. And when schools experience growth and changes of the ELL population, administrators can be proactive and set the tone for how the rest of the building can respond. In their role as decision-makers, administrators are also poised to advocate for their ELL teachers and EB students in matters related to policy and curriculum. In addition, school leaders are in a position to frame ELL departments, teachers, and EB students in a way that promotes their inclusion in the mainstream school setting via their messaging and opportunities for ELL teachers’ participation in the school community. Finally, trusting ELL teachers as the experts they are will model interactions for other staff in the building. All of these aspects of leadership can contribute to the opportunities and outcomes for EB students, and provide steps towards a more equitable education during a critical time.


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