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Early Learning English Learners

Photo by Renee Fisher on Unsplash

Effective teaching for early learning Els…In a survey about what is most challenging in education, teachers expressed more apprehension about teaching English Learners (ELs) than they did for teaching any other type of student, including those with special needs (EPE, 2013).  This survey points out struggles in planning and instructing our fastest growing student population. Almost all Early Learning Classrooms have students who are ALSO English Learners AND the easiest way to improve our instructional approach is by making more time to have CHATS!

CHATS is an acronym for a powerful research-based framework for supporting ELs that was developed by Persida and William Himmele (2009)!  Each of the letters of this instructional framework directly aligns to the Framework for Teaching AND best practice EL instruction that can be seen “in action” on  Read on, consider how you might integrate one or more parts of CHATS into your current lessons, and look-n-listen as your ELs’ language acquisition becomes the talk of the school!

C=Comprehension: Embedding tools or structures that facilitate student understanding.  The Framework for Teaching focuses on comprehension in BOTH Domain 1: Planning components’1a – Knowledge of Content and Pedagogy and 1e-Designing Coherent Instruction. It is then implemented in Domain 3: Instruction through 3a-Communicating with Students.  We know that we learn language by hearing, seeing and experiencing it in contexts that we understand. Educators should focus on comprehension to help ELs make sense of both the content and key vocabulary.  Key CHATS questions include “How might I help ELs make sense of what they hear, see and experience?” and “How might I help ELs grow academic language and be successful in purposeful tasks that require academic language?” Take a look at Sophia Dubreuil’s PreK class in the large group read aloud (@ 3:42-7:33 – Part 3). Sophia uses open-ended questions, has students clarify key vocabulary, and supports students to strategically explain their thinking and connections to increase comprehension, vocabulary and transfer of key concepts.

H=Higher-Order Thinking: Embedding opportunities and prompts that lead to deep and meaningful learning. The Domain 1: Planning Components include 1c-Setting Instructional Outcomes and 1e-Designing Coherent Instruction. These components align to 3b-Using Questioning and Discussion Techniques “in action”. Evidence suggests a common problem—Els receive fewer opportunities for higher-order thinking than their English-only peers (Himmele & Himmele, 2009, 2016). To address this problem, the teacher needs to consider in CHATS, “What are the big ideas in this lesson?” and “What questions might support higher-order thinking to guide my lesson?”  In Kim Deering’s Kindergarten Whole Group Instruction (@ 0:00-3:8-Part 1), watch as she uses purposefully determined key questions during the read-aloud that students process with thinking partners in turn-n-learn discussions.

A=Assessment: Embedding constant and consistent checks for understanding.

In the Framework for Teaching, Domain 1: 1f-Designing Student Assessments component directly aligns with Domain 3: 3d-Using Assessment in Instruction.  This part of CHATS can be an especially powerful yet challenging area for teachers and students.  Key questions that should drive our thinking for assessment include, “How will I check for understanding?” and “Which of my students need additional verbal or non-verbal scaffolds?” Join PreK teacher Amy Haffner as she shares her approach to assessment (@ 0:00-2:19) through data portfolio “look for” sheets, observation, and picture taking for ongoing, authentic checks on student learning.

T=Total Participation Techniques (TPTs): Embedding techniques that require evidence of cognitive engagement from all students at the same time.

The Framework for Teaching recommends TPT in Domain 1: 1e-Designing Coherent Instruction through activities that are embedded into Domain 3: 3c-Engaging Students in Learning. By planning activities that provide academic interaction with classroom peers woven into ALL aspects of the learning process, students are given MANY ways to link key content and vocabulary into purposeful play and learning. A guiding CHATS question could include “How will I design activities that will allow for deeper understanding of concepts, interactions, and peer modeling of language and higher-order learning?”  Listen-n-look at how Zahidee’ Marcano Kindergarteners are empowered to customize their learning (@ 11:55-17:22 Part 2) through a variety of student-to-student approaches to promote interactions and deep learning.


S=Scaffolding: Embedding nonverbal supports that can help ELLs successful.

The Framework for Teaching really calls out the importance of organizing for non-verbal scaffolds in Domain 1: 1d-Designing with Appropriate Resources which can include pictures and imagery as well as charts and key words posted throughout the learning environment.  These visual resources are used in Domain 2’s 2c-Managing Classroom Procedures and 2e-Physical Space.  CHATS’ Questions that can guide our thinking are “How can I build a bridge between what I want my students to be able to do and the way that I organize the learning environment?” and “What nonverbal scaffolds can support Els success in the classroom?” Take two learning walks that highlight how powerful nonverbal environmental supports can be in Kelly Crenshaw’s PreK-SPED Classroom AND Valeska Bass’s First Grade Classroom.  Each teacher introduces you to the “why, what, and how” of organizing the learning environment for empowering all students, including ELs!

How might you make MORE TIME for CHATS in your classroom to empower early learning ELs? Want BONUS RESOURCES for Early Learning Els? Check out Colorín Colorado,  an online resource that is specifically focused on how to help EL students succeed in school.


EPE. (2013). Findings from a national survey of teacher perspectives on the Common Core. Bethesda, MD: Educational Projects in Education Research Center.

Himmele, P., & Himmele, W. (2009). The language-rich classroom: A research-based framework for teaching English language learners. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Himmele, P., & Himmele, W. (2026). Four things that every teacher should know about English language learners. Akron, PA: Reading Matters.