Steinbeck for English Language Learners

Girl Reading
by Dr. Katya Karathanos, Associate Professor, Secondary Education, San José State University

John Steinbeck is known for writing about deeply complex themes of social justice and equity. His vivid descriptions of the landscape draw the reader to a particular place and connect that place to its people and their story. Yet in spite of, and perhaps because of his attention to such deep, universal themes, Steinbeck is an accessible author for English Language Learners.

When reading an English language text, ELLs face more than the challenge of reading in a new language. Often forgotten is the challenge of learning and understanding a new culture, its history, and its values. Steinbeck's works address themes that are universal in nature while set in a particularly American setting. English Language Learners can relate to many of Steinbeck's themes and, with effective strategies, the teacher can help the student to understand the broader cultural world in which those themes are played out.

The straight-forward language Steinbeck employs makes his works accessible for students as well. His writing is both appropriate for its time and modern enough for most young readers. English Language Learners will encounter social and historical idioms in a meaningful context; teachers can use this context to help students make sense of the idioms rather than being overwhelmed by them.

The following guide includes approaches to the lesson plans on this site which are central to helping students at varying language/literacy levels (particularly ELLs) develop content, language and critical thinking skills.

Accessing and Building Background

Begin with the content and language objectives of the lesson and consider the necessary knowledge, skills, and understandings students will need to successfully achieve the lesson’s outcomes. Consider how you will assess, access, and build the knowledge and skills of students who are at varying proficiency levels and how you can make the lesson activities culturally relevant for students of diverse backgrounds. For example, you may:

  • Review content and/or skills from previous lessons relevant to the current lesson.
  • Access students’ “funds of knowledge.” This includes using the language and understandings that students have acquired in their families and communities to bridge their current knowledge and experiences to what they are learning. For instance, ELL students may be prompted to share about their own families’ experiences with migration or their conceptions of the “American Dream" - a theme commonly found in many of Steinbeck's works.
  • Have students brainstorm, pair-share, or complete a quick write on topics/questions that will help them access and bridge their prior knowledge and skills to new material, concepts, or overarching themes.
  • Identify the vocabulary and other language structures students will encounter that will be important to pre-teach or teach during the lesson (e.g. use of idioms, related clusters of vocabulary, complex sentences with connector words to express cohesive ideas, text organization devices). Refer to the resources for each work on this site for lists of key terms and cultural references.


Consider how you can create, modify, or extend instructional activities to ensure they are responsive to the diversity represented in your classroom. Take into account the need to provide structured opportunities for students of differing skill levels to develop, practice, and extend content/language knowledge and skills in ways that are relevant and engaging. The in-depth lesson plans on this site for Of Mice and Men and The Red Pony provide many strategies to differentiate and adapt activities to fit your needs. Keep in mind that an important goal of every lesson is to promote the development of critical thinking and metacognitive/metalinguistic skills among students as they become more autonomous in their learning.

  • Provide access to the content and language of the lesson through various scaffolds such as visuals, media, demonstrations, graphic organizers, meaningful context, and supplemental materials (including text or word walls in the native languages of ELL students with low levels of English proficiency).
  • Support students in developing and producing oral and written academic language through activities such as the following:
    • Use student and teacher “think alouds” in which the teacher and students articulate the thought processes and learning strategies they apply to particular tasks.
    • Model strategies students can use for comprehending or constructing different text structures.
    • Explicitly teach vocabulary development strategies (e.g. deriving meaning from context cues, analysis of word parts, etc.). 
    • Guide ELL students to compare/contrast similarities and differences between word forms and other language structures in English and their native languages (e.g. English/Spanish cognates; linear vs. circular discourse).
    • Communicate your expectations of the style of language to be used for oral and written language tasks. For example, if students are discussing particularly difficult concepts in small groups, you might encourage them to speak in their native languages or home dialects in order to keep the cognitive load “manageable.” However, it is critical that ELL students receive frequent exposure to and explicit modeling and guidance in using academic English. They should also be provided with scaffolds that demonstrate the expected structures/features of their oral and written texts (e.g. model essays; sentence starters or paragraph frames; and word banks with academic vocabulary, transition words, etc. for students to incorporate into their writing and speaking).
    • Promote guided interaction among students through whole group instructional conversations and small group discussion and activities. Many of the detailed lesson plans on this site are easily adaptable for whole group or small group discussions. Generally, ELL students should be grouped heterogeneously (i.e. with native English-speakers and students with varying levels of language/literacy skills). However, it can be beneficial to group/pair beginning, emerging level ELL students with native language peers with higher English proficiency for assistance in understanding instructions or content. It can also be helpful to group ELL students by English language proficiency level when working on specific language development skills (where the language task is differentiated by group and proficiency level).


Ongoing, informal means of assessment should be utilized in every lesson to check for levels of understanding and skill development among students, including ELLs. In other words, assessment should be used to inform instruction and learning, not simply to measure it. The following are important “rules of thumb” in the assessment of ELL students:

  • Provide students opportunities to demonstrate understanding of concepts through multiple modalities (e.g. thumbs up/thumbs down to show whether or not they agree with an idea, hands-on demonstrations and projects, “exit tickets” addressing key ideas of the lesson and lingering questions students may still have).
  • Modify assessments to meet the linguistic skills of ELL students based on their English proficiency levels. For example, if you are assessing students’ understanding of the similarities and differences between two characters, you might differentiate the assessment as follows: Have beginning ELL’s list one or two word character traits in a Venn diagram; have intermediate ELL’s complete a paragraph frame and have advanced ELL’s write a short essay (both comparing and contrasting key character traits).
  • Provide students with clear assessment criteria and explain how their progress will be measured against the criteria. Rubrics are a particularly useful tool for achieving this.
  • Utilize assessments that allow students to show partial understanding or mastery of skills in relation to the standards/objectives being measured.
  • Differentiate your assessment based on the knowledge/skills you are measuring. For example, if you are primarily measuring students’ ability to critically analyze a published critique of a novel (and not their grammatical skills), your grading criteria should reflect this. You might create a rubric in which “critical analysis” is worth 90% of the grade and “grammar and organization” is worth 10% of the grade.
  • Use ongoing assessments to identify patterns of student errors, skills, and understandings. Provide feedback to individual or sub-groups of students based on these patterns, including specific steps they can take for improvement.

For information on ELL proficiency levels and related strategies/applications, please see the following:

  1. WIDA English Language Proficiency Standards (including a new draft aligned with the Common Core Standards)
  2. ELL standards/resources developed by your state department of education, e.g. California ELD Standards (PDF)
  3. “A Brief Guide to Working with English Language Learners” (PDF) for detailed information on ELL student language proficiency levels and appropriate language development strategies for each level.