English Learners

5 Ways Teachers Can Collaborate to Support English Learners

By Ileana Najarro — October 07, 2022 5 min read
Attendees to the 2022 WIDA conference participate in sessions.
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When it comes to providing English learners with an equitable education, some researchers point to the need for more-strategic collaboration between general classroom and content teachers and multilingual specialists.

About 10 percent of all public school students were classified as English learners in 2019. While only 2 percent of all public school teachers teach English as a Second Language as their main assignment, 64 percent of all public school teachers have at least one English learner in their class, according to the latest federal data available, which is from the 2017-18 school year.

At the Sept. 28 to 30 conference of the WIDA consortium—which offers language assessments for English learners in 36 states, several U.S. territories, and federal agencies such as the Bureau of Indian Education—tips and tricks were shared on how to best meet the needs of this growing student population, including the call for collaboration among educators.

Andrea Honigsfeld, a professor of teacher education for teachers of English to speakers of other languages, or TESOL, at Molloy University in New York, and Valentina Gonzalez, an educational consultant and author for Seidlitz Education, a consulting group for those working with multilingual learners, presented actionable practices that teachers can use when working with English learners and multilingual specialists in their districts.

The hope is that if all educators in a district view multilingual learners as their students, rather than just the responsibility of specialists or an add-on to their already packed workload, it prevents marginalization of these students and benefits teachers as well.

“When we collaborate with one another, we’re reducing the workload we have,” Gonzalez said.

The co-presenters shared the following five key strategies to bring about effective collaboration.

Collaborative planning

Collaboration starts at planning meetings. Schools should create opportunities for at least a weekly common planning time where grade-level teams at the elementary level, or content-area specialists at the secondary level, can work together with the English language development team or specialists. They would examine the curriculum and plan out how they will scaffold and differentiate instruction for multilingual learners and others who need the extra support, Honigsfeld said.

In an ideal world, she added, administrators would set up two of these weekly planning periods so that one could be a larger group or team meeting to focus on questions such as what are the curricular goals and grade-level standards. The second meeting would dive deeper into students’ individual and group needs.

Questions in these collaborative planning meetings should also consider: what type of academic language and literacy opportunities are embedded in the lesson; how can teachers ensure all students can be successful and participate fully; and how to use scaffolding to ensure students understand the content while being appropriately challenged.

Intentional partnership building

At some point during the school week there may be teachers who are doing exemplary work when it comes to supporting multilingual learners alongside their peers and others who are still learning what strategies work best. This is where educators can intentionally build bridges by, for example, inviting colleagues to visit during certain class periods to either observe or offer feedback, Honigsfeld said.

“Many seasoned teachers might have started out their careers with the notion of ‘my classroom, my kids, I close the door and behind the door it’s my way of reaching these students,’ ” Honigsfeld said. “And with the best of intentions, we’re creating silos or pockets of excellence.”

In cases of resistance to such partnerships or to partnerships with a specialist within the classroom, finding ways to build trust among colleagues is key, Gonzalez said.

“Sometimes just talking less and listening more offers the other partner space to contribute, aiming for parity in the lesson, aiming for parity in the classroom, or in planning, and sharing the spotlight with one another,” she added.

Content and language integration

The ability to incorporate academic language lessons into a multitude of subjects is key for supporting multilingual learners and their peers.

For instance, in math class, teachers can think about typical sentence structures that the students use in a math lesson, such as the comparative forms of “less than” or “greater than.” Within the math lesson, teachers can explore these language forms and other nuances of academic language (such as using “than” rather than “then”) as part of the content area, Honigsfeld said.

Integrating content and language also means coming up with creative opportunities for class participation like a talking activity where students articulate the thinking that goes beyond solving a math problem.

And teachers must remember that “every student, even your highly gifted monolingual, English-speaking student will be an academic language learner,” Honigsfeld added. “It’s not an add on, it is not something that now we’re taking away time from all the other students. Instead, we’re supporting all students in their academic language development.”

Technology integration

Honigsfeld and Gonzalez advocate for teachers to use technology as a tool both for collaborating with fellow colleagues (such as sharing resources on Padlet), and for better engaging all students, and particularly English learners.

Multilingual learners, for instance, can benefit from watching prerecorded lectures they can pause and rewind and then dig deeper into with the teacher in class. This is something that can benefit their monolingual peers as well, Honigsfeld said.

Tools like Flipgrid can also allow students to record themselves, so they respond orally rather than in writing and practice that aspect of language acquisition.

Coaching and consultation

Recognizing that there are school districts that struggle to recruit and retain enough specialists to support their English learners and the heavy workloads teachers already have, coaching and consultation among educators in a school is helpful, Honigsfeld said.

This can look like teachers across class periods sharing materials and strategies to support multilingual learners since they each only get about 15 or 30 minutes to work directly with these students, she added.

It goes back to the importance of all educators thinking of themselves as the teachers of multilingual learners even when that student population isn’t as sizable in their school as other groups. And district and school administrators play their own role by giving teachers the time and resources needed to make all five of these strategies work, Honigsfeld said.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 2022 edition of Education Week as 5 Ways Teachers Can Collaborate To Support English Learners

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