• by Adela Solis, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • January 1998 • Dr. Adela Solis

Effective implementation of bilingual education can be defined along a number of program dimensions, such as program goals, classroom organization and classroom instruction. It can also be defined in terms of a number of “excellence” indicators such as innovative practices, quality staff and high standards (Berman et al., 1995; García, 1988). Schools that are considered “exemplary” employ innovative practices in all program dimensions, but most importantly these practices occur in the classroom where students are most directly impacted.

Bilingual teachers who aspire to be exemplary want to know “how” and “what” the experienced, effective teachers teach their limited-English-proficient (LEP) students. Most want to view the classroom instruction firsthand, but that is not always possible (Zehler, 1994; Solís; 1989). Research and professional development literature that describes promising practices has emerged (see resources). The literature attempts to answer such questions as: What do I do? How do I do it? and How do effective teachers help their LEP students succeed?

A wide range of strategies exists. Many of the strategies are research-based, which means that their use has been systematically observed in many classrooms and/or formally and substantially described by teachers. These practices have been documented in professional literature for at least 10 years (Berman, et al., 1995; Collier, 1995; García, 1988; Solís, 1989). The strategies that have been observed or shared work effectively as generalized models because the classrooms that researchers studied serve students who are fairly typical of LEP students nationwide.

In order to show bilingual education and English as a second language (ESL) teachers what exemplary classrooms look like and how effective teachers structure and direct learning, this article describes a small portion of the instructional strategies showcased in various publications. Specifically, the descriptions focus on how teachers employ research-based strategies known to be successful with LEP students.

Collier identifies several major strategies as having impact on the language and academic development of LEP students:

  • highly interactive classrooms,
  • problem-solving activities, and
  • discovery learning through thematic experiences across the curricula (1995).

Zehler mentions these and others:

  • a predictable environment,
  • active participation in meaningful and challenging tasks, and
  • support for understanding (1994).

Both García and Collier identify first language and literacy development as an innovative (and necessary) strategy for LEP student success (1988; 1995).

Below are a few examples of how teachers use these strategies in their classrooms.

Example 1: Spanish Language Science and Math Class

Most of the students in the classroom are Hispanic from Mexico. All are LEP and exhibit Spanish skills that range from being well-grounded orally to being fully literate. The classroom is uncluttered, and furniture is arranged so that students can easily see the teacher and each other. The teacher stands at the front of the room; 24 students sit at tables of four arranged in a semicircle facing the teacher.

This is a science lesson devoted to levers. The teacher leads a discussion totally in Spanish about how simple machines work, explaining forces, fulcrums and levers. Using a wooden pole, she shows how pushing on one end enables her to raise the other and engages the class in a discussion of the principle she has just illustrated. When the discussion shows signs of lagging, she quickly goes on to demonstrate other types of levers by moving a table with the wooden pole and sweeping a broom across the floor. All of the items she uses to demonstrate the lesson are large and easily visible from any point in the room.

The teacher then makes a quick transition to the next lesson, which deals with the connection between simple machines and the body. She encourages students to talk about the jaw and to compare chewing to a nutcracker and to arms and lifting. She asks open-ended questions, and students do most of the talking. Students quickly get the point and eagerly introduce new ideas about the relationship of body motions to the principle of levers. Students who speak support ideas and respond respectfully to the views of others. All discussion is in Spanish.

Next, the teacher asks students to write. Specifically, she directs them to select one of three body parts – jaw, wrist or arm – to draw and to describe how it works, how it serves us in life, and what life would be like without it. She instructs students to use all of the scientific terms they have learned. The writing can be in either Spanish or English. The class needs a little prompting and quickly falls silent as they focus on their written work. Most students write in Spanish; some in English.

Highlights of the Lesson

Instruction, including the use of scientific terms, is conducted exclusively in Spanish. Use of the primary language enables students full access to essential scientific concepts.

  • The teacher uses demonstrations to stimulate discussion.
  • The teacher solicits student input and lets students introduce new topics related to the lesson.
  • The teacher fosters language development by incorporating writing into the science lesson (McLeod, 1996).

Example 2: Team Teaching

Second grade LEP and English-only students have worked together with this team of bilingual teachers since kindergarten. A large classroom is divided into activity areas defined by open bookshelves. There are signs in English (in black) and in Spanish (in red). The teachers are teaching the writing process with “Writer’s Workshop.”

One teacher brings together the English-speaking students for a mini-lesson on English words that begin with “spr.” He asks students to volunteer words that begin with “spr” and to define them. The other teacher gathers the Spanish-speaking students to think of English words that begin with “th.” She writes them on the board as the students respond.

Splitting students this way enables the teachers to specialize instruction when necessary. Here the English speakers study the relatively hard-to-pronounce words beginning with “spr,” while LEP students tackle the unfamiliar “th” sound, which is not used in Spanish.

Later, students pull down document boxes containing their writing materials and select the space where they want to work. They work alone, in pairs and in groups of three. Together, the teachers explain the goal: Each student is to produce a book. On a chart or on an easel, the steps of the writing process are written down:

  • Write draft number one.
  • Conference with self.
  • Conference with friend.
  • Revise copy.
  • Teacher edits, teacher signs.
  • Write final copy in book form.

Students work by themselves for 90 minutes with minimal intervention from the teachers.

Next, teachers work individually with students 10 to 15 minutes at a time, reviewing their stories and offering suggestions. One teacher helps an LEP student, alternating between English and Spanish. She clarifies vocabulary and syntax and asks the student to explain the story (for comprehension) in English and in Spanish. She then asks the student to rewrite the story in English.

Highlights of the Lesson

  • There are flexible work groups to help students accomplish specific learning goals.
  • Teaching LEP and English-only students together helps them learn from one another. Separating them for specific purposes enables teachers to tailor language learning according to needs.
  • Substantial blocks of time are set aside for writing, which permits natural writing development.
  • Teacher conferencing with individual students enables deep and meaningful interaction.
  • The writing approach, “Writers’ Workshop,” leads to highly interactive and individual learning opportunities simultaneously. It leads students to discover that writing is a form of communication, not just a skill (McLeod, 1996).

Example 3: Problem Solving

Two instructors teach ESL to students representing mixed levels of English language competency, from “pre-production” to “intermediate fluency.” The teachers use problem solving spontaneously to get students to find solutions to possible and actual problems. A problem-solving task is typically assigned for cooperative groups to work on. One teacher works with middle school students. She asks about an issue that leads to a statement of a problem: “How many languages are spoken in this classroom? What might happen if everyone spoke only in their native language? Could we communicate with each other? Is this a problem? What can we do?”

The other teacher works with upper elementary students. He culminates a series of lessons on the topic “city” by asking questions relative to the characteristics of cities: “What things are found in the city? Given what you know about cities, are these certain locations cities or not?” Students work in small groups reviewing and comparing information they learned about cities to try and solve the problem. They prepare to defend their responses to the teacher.

Highlights of the Lesson

  • Students are asked to work with real world situations, including situations in their immediate classroom environment.
  • Active participation is required in order to complete the assigned tasks.
  • Tasks are challenging since students have to apply what they learn while, at the same time, making judgments of their own.
  • Challenging tasks are sheltered since students do not have to work alone but in groups, and the teacher provides ample guidance (Solís, 1989).

Example 4: Checking for Understanding

This is a bilingual class of kindergarten-through-fifth-grade students. This teacher works with students who are mostly at a “speech emergent” and “intermediate fluency level.” A few are at a “pre-production” or “early production” level. She directs the technique of “checking for understanding” to these few students, but she feels all students benefit equally. She teaches a social studies lesson using “sheltered” techniques to make concepts comprehensible.

First, she uses pictures related to facts about California to place the information in a context. Second, she uses the technique of “checking for understanding” through “yes-no” and “if-then” questions. With these questions she asks students to respond verbally or nonverbally by raising their hands or fingers. For example, she says, “California is a state. California was first settled by the Spanish.” Then she checks for comprehension by saying: “If you live in the state of California raise one finger. If you live in the state of Mexico raise two fingers.” She then asks, “Is California a state? Is Mexico a state?”

Highlights of the Lesson

  • The lesson format has built-in strategies to ensure that input (concepts and ideas) is comprehensible.
  • The behavior students are asked to exhibit is meaningful and fun. In addition, the behavior is explicit and predictable (Solís, 1989).

I have showcased these instructional strategies because they address general and specific needs of LEP students in that they stimulate, expand, support and lead students to achieve at maximum levels of language and academic proficiency. Bilingual teachers who aspire to be exemplary are invited to examine these methods further as well as the multitude of other resources available in the literature listed below.

Effective Bilingual Education Program Checklist

  1. Vision and goals exist, are communicated to students, and guide the instruction.
  2. Program leaders are well-informed on the rationale for bilingual education and share an active commitment to bilingualism.
  3. They pro-actively involve the community and private sector in the design and development of the bilingual program.
  4. Linkages to central office staff are facilitated by clear roles and responsibilities of central staff. The central office staff provide leadership, credibility and respect for the program.
  5. Program articulation indicates that there is a common program of instruction across grade levels that has been aligned with developmentally appropriate practices and student language proficiency levels in English and students’ first language.
    Student assessment and progress monitoring uses baseline student data on language and content knowledge to plan and adjust instruction.
  6. Classroom and school organization is based on the most efficient way of maximizing the impact of instruction. It creates small organizational arrangements (e.g., families, academic teams) to increase communication among teachers.
  7. Classroom and school climate and environment communicates, in concrete ways, high expectations to LEP students, a sense of family, a high level of trust among all school personnel, and shared responsibility and decision making.
  8. The program shows respect for a diversity of cultures. All languages used for instruction share equal status. Their use is determined by students’ proficiency levels, and the students’ first language is used to teach content areas.
  9. Sufficient and appropriate books and instructional materials are available in all languages used for instruction.
  10. Instruction is interactive, hands-on, collaborative and meaningful to students. It is innovative and uses a variety of techniques that respond to different learning styles. Instruction integrates the use of technology for both languages. It uses a “sheltered approach” to gradually introduce content area instruction in English.
  11. Staff selection and development includes screening to ensure proficiency in both languages, training for teachers to become action researchers and adjusting the program to ensure that all teachers are able to serve LEP students. Teachers feel supported and free to innovate.
  12. Parents feel welcome and play different roles (leadership, decision making, resource) in the educational process. The school provides opportunities for parents who do not speak English to participate.
  13. Accountability is improved when responsibilities for student success are clear and have been shared with all school personnel.


Collier, V.P. “Acquiring a Second Language for School,” Directions in Language Education (Washington, D.C.: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education, Fall 1995) Vol. 1, No. 4.

McLeod, B. “School Reform and Student Diversity: Exemplary Schooling for Language Minority Students,” NCBE Resource Collection Series (Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education, February 1996).

Zehler, A.M. “Working with English Language Learners: Strategies for Elementary and Middle School Teachers,” NCBE Program Information Guide (Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education, Fall 1994) Number 19.

Sources for Exemplary Uses of Instructional Strategies

Berman, P., Minicucci, C., McLaughlin, B., Nelson, B. and Woodworth, K. School Reform and Student Diversity: Case Studies of Exemplary Practices for LEP Students (Santa Cruz, Calif.: National Center for Research on Cultural Diversity and Second Language Learning, 1995). Available from NCBE 1-800-321-6223 or http://www.ncbe.gwu/ncbepubs.

García, E.E. “Effective Schooling for Language-Minority Students,” NCBE New Focus: Occasional Papers in Bilingual Education (Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education, Winter 1988) Number 1.

Lein, L. and J.F. Johnson, M. Ragland. Successful Texas Schoolwide Programs: Research Study Results. (Austin, Texas: Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin, October 1996).

Reyes, P. and J.D. Scribner. Effective Border Schools Research and Development Initiative (Edinburg, Texas: Education Service Center, Region I, 1995).

Solís, A. Use of the Natural Approach Teaching Model: Application of Second Language Acquisition Research by Teachers of Limited-English-Proficient Students (Ann Arbor, Mich.: UFI [University Film International], 1989) Available from 800-521-0600.

Adela Solís, Ph.D., is a senior education associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be sent to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©1998, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the January 1998 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]