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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Professional Development Opinion

Response: Don’t Leave English Language Learners ‘In The Cold’

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 12, 2015 14 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series responding to the question)

This week’s question is from “Anonymous':

How do other ELL teachers, or maybe Special Education teachers (who also have students who need modifications in classes), work with their colleagues and their principal to ensure the legal obligation that ELL students are getting appropriate material without being a overbearing pest?

With everything that our colleagues have to deal with, it’s understandable that some would try to avoid yet another challenge. I’m lucky to work at a school where there is an institutional commitment to support English Language Learners (see The Positive Impact Of English Language Learners At An Urban School). Many others, however, are not as fortunate.

Today, educators Sonia Nieto, Alicia López, Diane Staehr Fenner, Sydney Snyder, Katie Brown, Judie Haynes, and Virginia Rojas share their suggestions on how we can encourage our colleagues to face this challenge “face-on.” You can also listen to two short BAM! Radio shows I did on this topic. In the first, Sonia and Alicia share ideas on how teachers can support other teachers; while, in the second, Diane, Sydney and special guest Jennifer Connors discuss how administrators can best provide support to teachers in the classroom.

You might also find this compilation of resources useful: The “All-Time” Best Resources, Articles & Blog Posts For Teachers Of English Language Learners.

Response From Sonia Nieto & Alicia López

Alicia López is an ELL teacher at Amherst Regional Middle School in Amherst, Massachusetts. Previously, she was a Spanish teacher at the same school and a French teacher at private schools in New York City. She is the Co-Director of the Western Massachusetts Writing Project Summer Institute. Sonia Nieto is Professor Emerita of Language, Literacy, and Culture, College of Education, at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She has written widely on issues of culture, language, and learning. She is also the very proud mother of Alicia López:

Sonia: This is such an important question concerning a common problem faced by ELL teachers, so thank you for giving us the opportunity to respond. It’s an understandable dilemma: every educator - whether ELL, Special Ed, classroom teacher, or guidance counselor - has so much to do that it’s hard to keep up with everything. But as Alicia says below, it’s your responsibility as the ELL teacher to advocate for your students; often, you’re the only one with the information, knowledge, and expertise to help them.

Alicia responds below with the perspective of a teacher; I’ll do so with the perspective of a teacher educator who looks at broader issues of institutional structures and barriers. ELL and children with special needs are often left in the cold when decisions are made concerning the education of “mainstream” students. This explains why they’re often overlooked, and although it may be unintentional, the results are nevertheless detrimental for ELL students. Given this reality, you might take it upon yourself to advocate more forcefully with your principal and other decision makers in your school about steps to increase the time you have for collaborating with colleagues. Can you be given time during all-school meetings, for example, to share some of your concerns and resources with your colleagues? You might also offer to do a workshop for your colleagues on ELL issues. You’d be surprised how many of them simply don’t know what the issues are. When included in these discussions, they are often grateful for the information and resources. Likewise, you might want to share with your colleagues what you learn at conferences and meetings you attend about ELL students. Whatever you do, know that your students and their families will benefit from your concern and advocacy.

Alicia: I completely understand your challenge. I have the same frustrations about finding the time to help my colleagues modify the work they do with their students. What may seem commonsense to me in terms of adjusting the curriculum for my students is not so commonsense for my colleagues, well meaning as they may be. Finding ways to collaborate with colleagues is even more difficult if you do not have the complete support of your administrators.

I have tried a few different methods. Like you, I disseminate information at the beginning of the year about levels and students. I also make a sheet of ELL tips for teachers, which of course work for many students who are not ELL. I offer to meet with teachers during their team meetings, and if there is a conflict, I arrange for coverage of my class. If it doesn’t happen too often, my administrators are supportive.

This year, I plan to try something a little different: I will hand out a one-sheet reference page about each ELL student for their teachers. On the sheet, I will include information about the student’s family, the ELL level, interpreter’s name, and any other pertinent information. I learned this tip from Frances Ortíz, a fellow ELL teacher who works in Greenfield, MA, in a Western Massachusetts Writing Project activity. I hope that if teachers have a handy page to look at, it will help them better understand and reach their ELL students.

Also, sometimes we have to be overbearing pests! Our students need us to advocate for them. Any feelings I have about being too annoying are canceled out when I think of them and their needs.

Response From Diane Staehr Fenner & Sydney Snyder

Dr. Sydney Snyder is a Research Associate at DSF Consulting, a small business based in the Washington, DC area that provides professional development and technical assistance around ELs for districts, states, and organizations. She was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guinea, West Africa and was an ESOL teacher in Falls Church, VA. Dr. Diane Staehr Fenner is President of DSF Consulting. She is a former EFL teacher and ESOL teacher in Fairfax County, VA. She is the author of Advocating for English Learners: A Guide for Educators and a weekly blog on the Common Core and ELs on Colorín Colorado:

We find that ESL teachers we work with on developing reconceptualized collaboration frameworks often run into similar dilemmas. We agree that ESL teachers want to ensure ELLs are given the best education possible, but they often encounter challenges collaborating with content teachers - especially if there is only ESL teacher (or less!) in the building. Here are some strategies ESL teachers can use to work with their colleagues and principal when there are time constraints:

  • Find allies who are on board with working with ELLs - perhaps team or grade level leaders who you can work closely with; share the responsibility for working with ELLs with them.

  • Work with these allies to create ELL-friendly materials for upcoming curricular units; make sure that these units are easily accessible to ELLs. Content teachers are more likely to support ELLs if materials are already developed and available. Also, content teachers may be more responsive if you have materials that essentially make their life easier.

    • For example, you can develop more general templates and checklists that teachers across grade levels and content areas can use to scaffold their own materials for ELLs. make sure that all materials developed are shared with others.

  • Talk with your allies and other teachers to determine the biggest obstacles that are standing in the way of supporting ELLs. Then, work with your administrators to prioritize and set goals. Make sure your principal is aware of all the work you’re doing!

  • If possible, work with an administrator to alter your schedule so that you can get into more classrooms and model strategies directly. You can also work with allies to have them model strategies with other teachers. In adjusting your schedule, also look for opportunities to join team planning meetings if possible (another collaborative opportunity).

  • Develop talking points that you can use when working with classroom teachers and administrators - show them you value their expertise, and consider how to make instructional recommendations in a way that encourages teachers to share their concerns and frustrations yet leaves space for you to make suggestions in non-judgmental ways.

  • Showcase ELL achievement and success as a way of highlighting the strengths of ELLs and the value that they add to the school community.

  • Finally, in your discussions with your administrators, highlight that providing ELLs access to materials is not optional, but it is their legal right, and ELL strategies can benefit other students as well.

Response From Katie Brown

Katie Brown is an ELL Specialist, Instructional Coach, and the 2014 Washington State Teacher of the Year. She currently works at Shuksan Middle School in Bellingham, Washington where she supports students, families and teachers. You can access more resources from Katie on her website:

One way ELL teachers can work with administrators and colleagues to better meet the needs of ELLs is to identify ways to improve consistency for students.

Many ELLs (and all students for that matter) often struggle in school because their day revolves around the sound of a bell dictating when and what they are expected to learn. In the secondary grades, students may take up to seven classes in one day. It makes it all the more difficult when each class has different procedures, different ways of taking notes, different ways of annotating text, different levels of language support, and different expectations for participation.

I’m not saying that every class needs to run the same, but it would benefit ELLs tremendously if there were some common attributes found every day, in every class, that we know support language development.

For example, what if everyone agreed that daily objectives will be presented visually and verbally for students? What if a visual or picture is always used when presenting new vocabulary? What if a graphic organizer is always available for students to use when writing? What if teachers agreed on the symbols they will use to teach students how to annotate text (does circling a word mean the student doesn’t know the word, or that the word is important?). What if every class used the same location in a planner to write down homework?

A productive task would be for administrators to work with ELL teachers and staff to identify three to four essential attributes of a classroom experience and/or lesson that would provide consistency for ELLs to better meet their language needs. ELL teachers and colleagues could be tasked with providing examples and modeling these attributes, but administrators would need to commit to providing the professional learning time for this work to take place.

If everyone is willing to work as a team to improve consistency, ALL students will benefit.

Response From Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes taught ESL for 28 years. She is the co-author and author of seven books, the most recent being The Essential Guide for Educating Beginning English Learners (2012):

A good relationship between ESL and classroom teachers is important to the academic success of English language learners. In 1990, I received a grant from the NJ Department of Education to provide information to classroom teachers about strategies for teaching ELLs. Despite the support from my administrators and the special materials that the grant allowed me to develop, it took several years of building relationships with classroom teachers for the program to succeed. So don’t give up. Building professional relationships with colleagues may take some time.

Have you thought about approaching your principal to change the model you are using to deliver instruction to your English language learners (ELLs)? Co-teaching is an excellent way to develop a good relationship with a classroom or content area teacher and it really benefits your students. To me, an ideal ESL schedule is a mix between co-teaching and pull-out. (I think beginning ELLs really need the pull-out in addition to the support in the content area class.)

In a good co-teaching model, the ESL and classroom teacher plan a unit of instruction together.

In fact, time for co-teachers to meet and plan their lessons is critical to the success of a collaboration (Honigsfeld & Dove, 2010). The classroom teacher teaches the content area information to the whole class and the ESL teacher focuses on how English language learners will communicate in the language of content. Together the two teachers are lowering the student-teacher ratio and providing differentiated instruction in a manner that is not possible for one teacher. The best part is that ELLs are not isolated from the rest of the class and are included in the same content instruction as their English-speaking peers.

I suggest reading Collaboration and Co-Teaching for English Learners by Andrea Honigsfeld and Maria Dove and The Essential Guide for Educating Beginning English Learners by Debbie Zacarian and Judie Haynes.

Response From Virginia Rojas

Virginia Rojas is an ASCD Faculty member who conducts professional training on effective programs and strategies for English language learners from preschool through grade 12. Using the Understanding by Design® framework, Rojas works with teachers to design high-challenge, high-support learning experiences to simultaneously strengthen English language proficiency and academic achievement:

Most ESL teachers at some point in our careers recall being ‘the only’ ESL teacher as well as the double-agent life of relentless advocate for English learners vs. overbearing nuisance to colleagues. The stark realization that the beginning-of-the school-year information session does not do much to change the struggles of English learners in their classrooms adds to our frustration until as you are doing here we ask ourselves, “Is there a better way to cultivate classroom teachers’ capacities for ESL responsive instruction?” Even as an ESL consultant, we soon appreciate that the one-shot professional development training may not sustain the day-to-day instructional mindsets needed to support English learners.

One powerful alternative for growing a ‘coalition of the willing’ is to attend a few grade-level or subject-area team meetings for the purpose of providing strategies for specific lessons. For example, a middle school science team sent an informational article on the difference between LED vs. incandescent lighting, requesting specific ways in which they could include their English learners. I went to the meeting fortified with ESL scaffolding tools: (1) translations and visual icons for the technical vocabulary, (2) YouTube science explanations to build background information, and (2) a compare and contrast graphic organizer with progressive sentence starters. Two differentiation strategies were planned: expert and home jigsaw groups for reading and discussing sections of the material and a choice of assessment tasks, including an infographic and oral explanation, a newscast, or a debate. The science teachers used all and were sold on the value of ESL strategies.

As a direct outgrowth of these meetings, the Science teachers organized our thinking on a digital spreadsheet of ESL tools: scaffolding strategies to build background knowledge and make cultural connections; literacy strategies to extend academic language development; and differentiation strategies to access content. Another benefit was now our online discussions focus on lingering questions they collectively generate. Some of these questions derive from research and have policy implications; for example, the difference between subtractive vs. additive bilingualism. Others require us to unravel instructional approaches based on research rather than assumptions such as the distinctions between scaffolding and modifying or modification and differentiation.

Perhaps the lesson to be learned is that a job-embedded coaching model may enable a sole ESL teacher to share the knowledge and skills she or he possesses as a part of daily life throughout a school not as an event but as a way of daily instructional life in all classrooms.

Thanks to Sonia, Alicia, Diane, Sydney, Katie, Judie and Virginia for their contributions!

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