Sheltered Content Instruction: Teaching English-Language Learners with Diverse Abilities

November 1999 — Volume 4, Number 2

Sheltered Content Instruction: Teaching English-Language Learners with Diverse Abilities

Jana Echevarria and Anne Graves (1998)
Boston: Allyn and Bacon
Pp. xiv + 188
ISBN 0-205-16874-4 (paper)
US $28.00

Have you ever gotten a frantic call from a content or special education teacher wanting to know, quickly please, how to teach ESL? Or have you returned the favor by asking special education colleagues for help when confronted with an ESL student having learning difficulties? In fact, this scenario is increasingly common as the population in our classrooms diversifies to include native speakers, English as a Second Language (ESL) students, and special needs students. At the same time, according to Nancy Cloud (1990), “there is a paucity of TESOL programs which provide crossover training in special education, or Special Education programs that encourage specialization in TESOL” (p. 127). For these reasons, finding Sheltered Content Instruction: Teaching English-Language Learners with Diverse Abilities was a welcome discovery. At last, a single text that addresses teaching students who are both English language learners and need special education adaptations! Though billed as a text to prepare teachers to “deliver content area instruction to English-language learners with diverse abilities using a sheltered instruction approach” (p. xi), sheltered instruction is the primary subject of only one complete chapter. The text actually presents a concise overview of the theory and practice of teaching second language learners while also providing rationale and strategies for teaching students with special needs. In so doing, it answers many of the basic questions that teachers ask about ESL and special education.

The text is organized into eight chapters. The first two, most useful for the non-ESL practitioner, define terminology and review the historical foundations and theories of general learning and second language teaching. The basic steps of academic and conversational language acquisition are clearly laid out and are accompanied by transparent tables and figures that illustrate the multidimensional nature of language instruction and the connection between learning theory, informal assessment, and curriculum. The section on factors affecting second language acquisition is particularly helpful to practitioners who must deal with a multitude of language backgrounds and proficiency levels, while the discussion of pre-referral interventions used to determine whether a student should be tested for special education will interest ESL professionals. The excellent reference list at the end of these and subsequent chapters leads the reader to the top names in ESL, special education, and the emerging discipline of ESL for students with disabilities.

Teaching methods for special needs students and English language learners comprise the middle chapters. Chapter 3, the only chapter devoted entirely to sheltered content instruction, defines this approach by stating that the teacher “takes into consideration students’ English-language skills and modifies the delivery of instruction through slower speech, giving information verbally as well as visually, and the use of controlled vocabulary while at the same time striving for academically rigorous instruction that includes grade-level questioning” (p. 35). Sheltered instruction (first introduced by Stephen Krashen in the 1980s) is compared in detail to “effective” instruction (p. 55). Descriptions of the components of sheltered instruction and a typical lesson provide useful information for the content teacher struggling to teach language and content simultaneously. The section on adapting instruction for students with special needs will benefit both novice and seasoned language teaching professionals alike.

Next, “Affective Issues” addresses responding to cultural and personal diversity. This chapter includes discussion of a wide range of important affective issues such as making instruction relevant, actively involving learners, grouping for optimal participation, and involving family and community in schools. A cautionary note should be added to the authors’ approach to correction, however. They advise teachers “to approach error correction indirectly” (p. 82). While this method builds self-esteem and is standard practice for many ESL teachers, it may have adverse results in special education. Copeland & Roth (1998) point out that students with special needs should be overtly corrected as soon as an error is detected, since they may not pick up on the indirect correction, and practicing an error for even a short period makes reversal very difficult. This chapter is also misleading in its treatment of native language support in class. While using the native language may represent an ideal situation, the authors do not make it clear that such support is not mandatory for successful second language teaching; this omission may, in fact, discourage content and special education teachers unfamiliar with ESL from trying sheltered content instruction.

Of particular importance to both special education and second language teachers are chapters 5 and 6, dealing with learning strategies and curriculum adaptation. Specific tips are offered on how to decide which learning strategy is appropriate, how to select the best strategy for the content, and how to implement these strategies in a lesson. Since explicitly teaching learning strategies is essential to optimize learning in both second language and special education, this is a particularly important section. Also useful are sound guidelines offered to help teachers analyze and adapt material so that students learn language as well as content. However, when discussing using alternate books, the authors fail to mention the wealth of ESL content and language texts. Though ESL teachers are aware of the wide variety of material that is already adapted for second language learners, content and special education teachers may not be aware of these resources and may waste time modifying and adapting material that has already been adapted in second language texts.

Adjusting discourse, another point often a mystery to those unused to working with English language learners, is the subject of chapter 7. The authors give a detailed description of an instructional conversation model (p. 158) which should be useful to novice ESL teachers as well as content and special education teachers.

Finally, chapter 8 presents a framework for self-evaluation to “assist the reader in reflecting on the information in the book” (p. 171). The authors encourage practitioners to “engage in self-evaluation, goal setting, collaborative efforts with other school personnel” (p. 171) in order to teach more effectively in today’s diverse classrooms.

Overall, Sheltered Content Instruction should prove useful for anyone teaching students who are both English language learners and have special needs. Because it is concise, practical and easy to read, it will be the first title I suggest the next time I get the frantic request, “Tell me quickly how to teach ESL/special education!”


Cloud, N. (1990). Planning and implementing an English as a second language program. In Carrasquillo, A. L. & Baecher, R. E. (Eds.). Teaching the bilingual special education student. (Pp. 106-131). Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing.

Copeland, S. & Roth, L. (1998). ESL and special education: Reciprocal adaptation. Paper presented at the Tennessee Joint Conference on Children and Youth with Disabilities.

Linda S. Roth
English for Internationals, Vanderbilt University

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