As an educator, you know that the classrooms of the 21st century are filled with diverse learners. You tailor your teaching to meet the needs of those learners by using differentiated instruction and other strategies, such as those based on the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). One set of learners whose needs every school must address is English Learners (ELs) – students who are not yet proficient in English and who rely on instructional supports to access the general curriculum. There are about 50,000 ELs in Maryland, and of those, approximately 4,000 are students with disabilities.

A particular challenge in working with ELs who also have disabilities comes in distinguishing among the variables that can cause difficulties for those students in the classroom. For example, if an EL has auditory or receptive language problems, how do you determine how many of that student’s language issues relate to being an EL and how much to their disability? Even more importantly, how do you teach so that you know that you are giving the student what he or she needs to be successful?

It is essential that all educators better understand the particular needs and capabilities of their English Language Learners – including those with disabilities – and that they use that knowledge to create instruction that is in-line with research-based best practices.


The World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA) Consortium is an acknowledged leader in working with ELs. WIDA researches, builds, and implements standards-based educational systems designed to help ELs reach their full potential in the general education classroom. WIDA’s English Language Development (ELD) Standards have been adopted by Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) and are used by literally thousands of educators who work with ELs.

Maryland is one of 27 states to adopt WIDA’s standards and English language proficiency (ELP) assessments: ACCESS for ELs® and Alternate ACCESS for ELsTM. MSDE believes that WIDA’s wide range of tools and resources, including many created specifically for professional development, can be a great help to Maryland teachers who work with ELs. Two of WIDA’s most widely used resources include its ELD Standards and its CAN DO Descriptors.

ELD Standards

WIDA’s English Language Development (ELD) Standards are the state of the art in EL education. The standards are broken into the following categories:

  • Social and instructional language
  • The language of language arts
  • The language of mathematics
  • The language of science
  • The language of social studies

With their emphasis on academic language in content areas, WIDA’s standards go into great detail in terms of setting benchmarks for ELs. There are separate sets of standards for pre-K-kindergarten, grades 1-2, 3-5, 6-8 and 9-12. The standards include six levels of English language proficiency that are also used in WIDA’s assessment tool, ACCESS for ELs®: Entering, Emerging, Developing, Expanding, Bridging and Reaching.

ELD Standards

The WIDA ELD Standards are designed for ESOL teachers and for all educators who have English learners in their classrooms.
Can Do Descriptors

WIDA’s CAN DO Descriptors give educators and school leaders a good way to begin learning about working with ELs. The descriptors also emphasize a positive philosophy around the qualities and assets of ELs. Broken down into the same grade groupings and using the same levels of English language proficiency, the CAN DO descriptors place less emphasis on specific content areas and more on the four general language domains:

  • Listening
  • Speaking
  • Reading
  • Writing

CAN DO Descriptors

The CAN DO Descriptors are often used by ESOL teachers to demonstrate to general and special educators how to differentiate their instruction to include and support their ELs. The Descriptors can also be used by all teachers to:

  • Plan and develop lessons
  • Set language goals with ELs
  • Explain student progress to family members
  • Plan with tutors or mentors
  • Develop language goals on the IEPs of ELs who have disabilities

It is the belief of MSDE that all ELs should be valued for the assets they bring to the school setting – diversity, a broad range of cultural experiences and unique perspectives – rather than looked at solely in terms of the linguistic skills they are still working to master.

Best Practices

It is important to ensure that ELs with disabilities receive the necessary accommodations on assessments. Click here for information about Test Accommodations.


  • WIDA’s interactive tutorial is a great way to learn more about ELs and the ELD Standards.
  • Some of the nation’s largest districts are working together to write a Common Core guide for teaching ELs that will help educators select both rigorous and supportive instructional materials. Click here for the full September 2014 Education Week article.