Professional Development

Bringing Context To ELL Instruction

By Mary Ann Zehr — April 04, 2011 5 min read
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Not a school day goes by that Laurie Hahn Ganser doesn’t use something she’s learned in a professional development program designed to help regular classroom teachers reach English-language learners.

The English teacher at Lanier High School has received extensive training and coaching from Quality Teaching for English Learners, or QTEL, during the three years the Austin district has implemented the program. Now Ms. Ganser is poised to become a coach herself as part of the 85,000-student district’s efforts to sustain the training without the consultants it hired to launch it here.

Enough administrators and teachers at Lanier High have bought in to the program and carried out its strategies that district officials credit it for some positive academic outcomes for ELLs at the school.

For example, the achievement gap between English-learners and other students narrowed during the first two years of QTEL implementation for 10th grade English, mathematics, and science, and for social studies in all grades. An evaluation conducted by the district of the first two years of the program concludes that it was “moderately effective.”

QTEL, created by the research and development nonprofit WestEd, is intended to be an improvement effort taken up by a whole school, not just the English-language-learners department. The Austin district hired WestEd consultants to carry out the training at two demonstration schools: Lanier High, a regular comprehensive high school, and International High School, for 9th and 10th graders who are newcomers to the United States.

QTEL is what Ana Pedroza, the district’s executive director for special programs, acknowledges is a “deluxe program” because it’s intensive and expensive. Many teachers at Lanier and International have received 20 days of professional development tailored to their content areas annually.

In part through grant funding, the district paid WestEd $694,000 for each of the first two years of implementation and $450,000 for the third, according to Melissa Hutchins, the administrative supervisor of the district’s office of redesign.

“If you add up all the dissonant programs brought to schools, I assure you, it would be two times what QTEL costs,” says Aida Walqui, director of teacher professional development for WestEd. “Most schools do not have coherent programs for professional development.”

The whole-school aspect of QTEL is crucial, she adds. “It helps to builda culture of excellence in a school and allow for professional conversations among teachers. They share the same language and many of the same practices.”

Districts in New York City and San Diego have also implemented the program.

The Social Context

How to teach secondary-level content and English at the same time is a huge challenge for comprehensive high schools that have many English-learners. Nearly 600 of Lanier’s 1,470 students are ELLs. The philosophy behind QTEL is that language is learned best in a social context, so lessons should be planned to engage students in structured social interactions about the academic concepts they’re learning. In other words, students are not learning and practicing English if teachers are the ones doing most of the talking.

For each of the first two years of QTEL implementation, all teachers and administrators received at least six days of professional development. And many teachers got substantial additional training or coaching in their content areas. First, the WestEd consultants provided the coaching. Then, they trained a small group of teachers to be coaches. Next year, the teachers will be on their own.

A key part of the training is for teachers to learn how to provide scaffolding, or supports for ELLs in the classroom, with the goal of increasing student engagement in the subject matter.

A unit on poetry that Ms. Ganser recently taught to a mix of English-learners, former English-learners, and native English-speakers illustrates how scaffolding works. One of the unit’s learning goals was for the sophomores to write a poem about their own identity. Ms. Ganser gave them the first line, “I am what I am.” But before she asked them to write a poem, she guided them in preliminary steps. They practiced the use of such literary elements as alliteration, metaphor, and diction, and filled out a chart about themselves focused on such topics as personality, appearance, culture, and music.

So when it came time to sit down and draft their poetry, they already had acquired skills and material to work with.

The supports were helpful even for students who aren’t ELLs.

At first, 15-year-old Pedro Juarez, who had missed the lesson about charting his ideas, sat with writer’s block. “I don’t know what to write about,” he finally said when his teacher checked in with him. The youth’s first language is Spanish, but he’s not an ELL.

The teacher gave him a copy of the chart that the other students had filled out. For the personality topic, he wrote “real calm.” For appearance, he wrote “white T’s.” Soon he was on his way to writinga poem: “I am what I am. A calm person who just likes to kick back. The old school Texas boy with the white T’s, J’s [Michael Jordan tennis shoes], and fresh fade [a haircut style].”

Checking back in with the student, Ms. Ganser was pleased to see his creative juices starting to flow. “QTEL,” she said in a later interview, “is about tapping in to prior knowledge before you set students loose.”

Coaching Engagement

Meanwhile, Lanier High’s coaches are working to help other teachers get to the same place as Ms. Ganser.

Jennifer Smith, the social studies and English coach, spends half her time in that role and half as a teacher. Lanier has another half-time coach for math and science.

On a recent day, Ms. Smith observed Guillermo Tabasco, a third-year world geography teacher, deliver a lesson. Mr. Tabasco and Ms. Smith had met in advance to discuss the lesson, but he hadn’t participated in QTEL coaching before.

Mr. Tabasco runs a tight ship. During the lesson, his 30 freshmen were quiet and seemed to follow his PowerPoint presentation about different kinds of maps and how to read them. He used a lot of visuals, which are helpful to ELLs. After introducing each concept, he asked students to answer a question or two on their own.

After observing for about half an hour, Ms. Smith filled out a template with feedback for the teacher. In the final stage of the coaching cycle, Mr. Tabasco and Ms. Smith met to reflect on the lesson.

Ms. Smith noted that only a half-dozen students had regularly responded to the teacher’s questions.

“Have you thought about how the students could be a little more engaged—with each other or with you?” she asked.

Mr. Tabasco suggested that he call on students by name.

As they later wrapped up, Ms. Smith urged Mr. Tabasco to “slide” more interaction into his lessons and offered to set up an opportunity for him to observe other teachers.

“Maybe they are doing something that I see helping a kid,” he said. “Maybe I can steal something from them.”

Mary Ann Zehr is an Assistant Editor for Education Week. This article originally appeared, in a different format, in Education Week.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 04, 2011 edition of Teacher PD Sourcebook as Bringing Context To ELL Instruction

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