I was a mainstream, third grade teacher in a public school in a suburb outside of Houston, Texas when I began teaching in 1997. Our school had one designated teacher that served English learners through a pull-out program. I understood my job was to teach students the general education curriculum while she taught my English learners the language. I never knew exactly what they did when they were with the ESL teacher. And I’m not sure if she knew what they were doing when they were with me.
Fast forward to 2019.
Looking back, I know that this was not a great structure for teaching content or language to our students. I can only imagine how much more and how much quicker our students would have learned language and content had we collaborated…had I recognized my own role as a language model for the students.
ALL educators, administrators, and stakeholders need to know how to serve ALL students including English learners.
The problem is that EL specialists may be preaching to the choir. Don’t get me wrong. I love my choir. We “sing” together. We gather on Facebook groups, Instagram, or on Twitter and we share information with one another. Perhaps you picked up this particular blog or article specifically because you see yourself as an EL specialist. I'm not saying that this bad. But what I'd like to propose is that we get out there and share our “songs” with others who may not have heard them yet, spread the word to our educator friends who may not see themselves as EL specialists yet.
Instead of preaching to the choir all the time, we have to go out on missions, to be missionaries!
Ways to be a missionary and advocate for English learners:
Learn all that you can about the laws and policies concerning Els in your state. How we serve English learners is mandated by Federal Law. From federal law, states build their own laws and policies. Each state has their own laws regarding serving English learners. Knowing the laws will help you to serve students and teachers. Some important questions you may want to find the answer to are:
Attend meetings that involve English learners. While attending PLCs, staffings, RTI meetings, etc., use your knowledge about laws and policies regarding English learners to advocate for students’ rights. Be a voice for students during such meetings and share these rights with families of ELs.
Volunteer to present strategies that support ELs. English learners spend most of their day in classrooms with mainstream teachers. Mainstream teachers may or may not be certified to teach English learners. Either way, ongoing professional development on strategies that support language and content will help teachers understand how to leverage language to maximize academic growth.
Ask your administrator if you can present at an after-school meeting or professional learning day. Select research-based strategies that are powerful for all students but necessary for English learners. Even if you share an article or facilitate a book study, your teachers will benefit from the knowledge.
Plan with grade level teachers. Ideally, attending grade level planning regularly is the best way to make an impact on instruction. You can support mainstream teachers on the spot with accommodations and scaffolds that meet the needs of their students. If weekly planning is not doable, try long-term planning. Meet monthly to look at the broader plan. But face to face planning is not always a reality. Virtual planning is a feasible option when meeting in real time is not possible. Some teachers use shared lesson planning templates on Google Drive or other sharable platforms.
Planning together is a great space to sneak in small bits of professional learning too. It provides a casual space for educators to share teaching techniques that can improve student achievement.
Seek out professional learning opportunities within and outside your district. Then share them with staff. Mainstream teachers may enjoy learning in a more formal setting about English learners. I worked as a professional development specialist in a suburban district that was rich in ELs. We offered to send ESL and content teachers to a Title III symposium for two days to learn about research-based information that would help them serve English learners. We had an overwhelming amount of interest in attendance. Many co-teachers attended together and were able to build relationships while learning as a team.
Professional learning is everywhere! If face to face learning is what you want, try:
Once you've identified quality learning opportunities, let your colleagues know about them too. If you are at the district level, you may consider bringing in consultants to share with teachers. English learners spend most of their day with content teachers so be mindful to include them in the opportunity. When we only train EL specialists on strategies, we limit the potential for their use and for student gains.
Reach out regularly.
Consider sending out an email regularly to highlight or spotlight an instructional method that supports English learners. This could include a video, graphic, or related article. I know a colleague who created a Padlet with resources he’s curated all tied to EL instruction. He shares this with content teachers in his district. Another EL specialist creates a Smore page where she regularly highlights 3 instructional strategies that teachers can try. She calls them Bite Sized PD and uses a 1-5-15 bulletin. She shares three strategies or resources teachers can access in either 1, 5, or 15 minutes.
Build a team.
You are not alone. However, teams don’t come together naturally especially in education. We have to be intentional about building them. No matter your role, you can gather the team. Every educator (and the parents) that works with the students on your campus is a part of their success. Stakeholders working together for a common cause create goals, bonds, and success! Read about how Ms. Sanchez built her team.
This is Ms. Sanchez’s second year teaching third grade. She feels she’s finally getting into a groove with her curriculum. She has a class of 22 students 3 of which are English learners. Last month Ms. Sanchez received a new student, Luka, from Venezuela. Luka’s English language proficiency level is at the beginning level, so he’s being pulled out of class for intense English instruction with Ms. Jones. Ms. Sanchez is struggling with how to support Luka when he’s in the classroom. She emails Ms. Jones who works daily with Luka. She asks if they can meet. Ms. Sanchez also calls Luka’s parents and welcomes them. Then she asks if they can meet in person. They, too, decide on a date to visit.
The two teachers have decided to meet after dismissal on Friday. When they meet, Ms. Sanchez brings Luka’s current classwork as well as her lesson plan book. Ms. Jones brings Luka’s language proficiency testing information, academic information from Venezuela, and a folder with strategies she can suggest to Ms. Sanchez.
When they meet, Ms. Sanchez expresses her concern. “I want to make sure I’m doing everything I can for Luka when he’s with me. But sometimes I look over at him and he seems distracted or off task. I’m not sure if he’s with me. Can you help me with strategies that I can use that will help him?”
Ms. Jones shows Ms. Sanchez where Luka is in English language proficiency in listening, speaking, reading and writing based on his entry level assessments. She shares his academic information from Venezuela and gives her three actionable steps to supporting Luka in class. “I’m glad you reached out to me. Looking at your lesson plans, I can see that you are currently learning about the planets in science and about government in social studies. Luka has prior knowledge of these topics in his primary language. We just have to tap into them. Here are three things you can try. 1. Use tons of visuals. 2. Provide opportunities for talk. 3. Check for understanding. Let’s talk about each of these. Visuals are the strongest way to convey meaning and also support recall. You can use them in all content areas. Label them with the class going over vocabulary and practicing the words in sentences. I’ll send you the instructions for Picture Word Inductive Model. Not only can you use pictures but encourage Luka to draw and use visuals if he needs to and to label them as well. He can label in his primary language and then you label in English. Soon he’ll be ready to move to English.”
“Make sure that Luka is in a group of 3, a triad, for talk opportunities. He will benefit from having one partner that speaks his primary language and one that is a model of English language. When you instruct students to talk with partners, model, model, model. Show them exactly what the talk will look and sound like. Set them up for success. Luka may need to practice ahead of time. Rehearsing what he’s going to say and how he’s going to say it will build his confidence. I know that your classroom environment is very warm and welcoming, so that’s not a concern. Luka feels safe to talk.”
“Checking for understanding comes in many forms. You will want to know if Luka is ready to move forward. Sometimes when we ask the whole class, “Does anyone have questions?” no one answers because kids are too embarrassed to say they have questions or to admit that they don’t understand. You can try ticket out on a sticky note or ask students to talk with a partner about their understanding. Listening in on their conversations will help you to know if they need more support or to clear up misconceptions. The important thing is that we check in frequently with Luka and with all our students so that we catch gaps in learning before they get too big.”
“I am working with him on sight words and phonics. But what I can do is to begin weaving in the content he’s learning with you. How about if we meet regularly to go over his progress and talk about upcoming skills and concepts?” Ms. Jones adds.
“I think meeting regularly would really be helpful. Do you think we should visit with Luka’s parents? I have an idea that they would be able to support him at home.”
The two teachers decide to set up a conference with Luka’s parents and to include Luka as well. They want to make sure that everyone is on the same page. They decide on a few non-negotiables before they meet with Luka and his parents:
The team has a higher success rate when each member recognizes that we can't do it alone. Anyone in the scenario above could have been the initiator for building the team. The important part is that someone does because our students deserve it.
What is regularly discussed and revisited is remembered. We have to bring ELs and the instructional methods that are most powerful to the forefront not just at the beginning of the school year and then again at testing season but all throughout the year to ensure that students are receiving equitable instruction. Like seasoning on dinner, we need to sprinkle it throughout and not just in one spot. I love flavor on my food! But I certainly don't want a spoonful of it at once.