Every year teachers are confronted with new challenges as new students with unique needs enter their classrooms.  Students who are English Language Learners, or ELLs, are a growing population that can present new challenges to even experienced teachers.  As of 2012, 19% of ELLs were classified as students with disabilities, compared to just 14% of their non-ELL peers.  The general consensus is that this overrepresentation is due to limited knowledge on how to effectively instruct these students.  This article describes one of the first steps in effective instruction for ELLs and students with language difficulties: ensuring that, in addition to a content objective, every lesson has a meaningful language objective as well.

What is a “language objective”?   In Explicitly Designed Instruction for English Learners (2013, pp. 69-70), Hollingsworth and Ybarra describe language objectives as statements of how the teacher will intentionally advance the use of the English language during the lesson and further students’ language development through structured listening, speaking, reading, and writing activities.  Echevarría, Vogt and Short in Making Content Comprehensible for English Learners (2012, pp. 33-34) recommend thinking about four major categories when creating language objectives: academic vocabulary; language skills and function; language structures or grammar; and language learning strategies.  In other words, language objectives describe the vocabulary students will need to understand and use during the lesson; the language skills and functions students will need to engage in during the lesson; the language structures and grammar they will be expected to use; and the meta-cognitive strategies they will need to plan and monitor their learning.

Language objectives can be conceptualized around the four language functions:

  • Listening: Listening objectives are needed when students are purposely exposed to spoken language, including vocabulary words or sentence structures. The vocabulary may be a content word (e.g. mitochondria, photosynthesis, tectonic plate) or a general academic word (e.g. analyze, formulate, statement).  An example of a sentence structure would be if the teacher is reading a text with passive voice and the teacher plans to explicitly tell students to listen to how the sentence is phrased and what it means to use passive voice.
  • Speaking: Speaking objectives are needed when there is a structured speaking activity requiring students to use new vocabulary or academic content. Structured academic talk has been shown to play a major role in language development for students and should be included in lessons whenever possible (Francis, Lesaux, Kieffer & Rivera, 2006). These objectives might include how students will use sentence frames or starters, rehearsal strategies, or language structures in conversation.
  • Reading: Reading objectives describe how the teacher will facilitate student reading of an academic text rather than how the teacher will teach reading. These might include objectives for having students read for a purpose or to identify new information and vocabulary words.
  • Writing: Writing objectives are needed when the teacher is explicitly teaching writing skills or strategies, such as the structure of paragraphs or sentences, essay writing, outlining, or editing. The purpose of the writing activity must be made explicit and intentional, and students need to be taught self-monitoring strategies to ensure that their writing achieves that purpose.

Language objectives are the first step to creating effective lessons for ELLs. They are needed for all language learners at all grade levels and in all content areas.  For English language learners, as well as for any student who struggles with listening, speaking, reading and writing, we are all language teachers and must plan accordingly. While this article just scratches the surface of this important topic, readers can use the references and the School Tools on page 3 to learn more.



Echevarria, J.J., Vogt, M. & Short, D.J., Eds. (2012). Making content comprehensible for English learners: The SIOP® model (4th ed.). Boston: Pearson.

Francis, D., Lesaux, N., Kieffer, M., & Rivera, H. (2006). Practical guidelines for the education of English language learners: Book 1: Research-based recommendations for instruction and academic interventions (pp. 27-28). Portsmouth, NH: RMC Research Corporation, Center of Instruction.

Hollingsworth, J., & Ybarra, S. (2013). Explicit Direct Instruction for English Learners. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

McTighe, J., & Wiggins, G. (2012, January 1). UNDERSTANDING BY DESIGN® FRAMEWORK. Retrieved January 5, 2015, from http://www.ascd.org/ASCD/pdf/siteASCD/publications/UbD_WhitePaper0312.pdf