Teaching Profession

ELL ‘Shadowing’ Brings Instructional Gaps to Light

By Liana Loewus — August 24, 2011 4 min read

It’s a professional development tool that stems from the concept of taking a walk in someone else’s—in this case a student’s—shoes. And in one California school, it has reportedly helped close the achievement gap for English-language learners.

The technique, which second-language acquisition expert Ivannia Soto began using in 2003, is called ELL shadowing. A teacher or administrator follows an English-language learner to several classes. Neither the student nor his or her teachers know the real reason the observer in the back of the room is there, which is to look specifically at the student’s use of academic language. The observer takes notes at five-minute intervals on the student’s actions regarding listening and speaking. Soto, an associate professor of education at Whittier College in California, claims the process is “enlightening.”

What educators tend to notice first and foremost is that many ELLs sit silently through their classes. These students are given very few opportunities to develop their academic oral language—broadly defined as the language of textbooks and testing, though Soto uses it to refer to proper “vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and register.” In fact, English-language learners spend less than 2 percent of the school day improving their academic oral language, she said, even though it’s a critical foundation of literacy.

Overall, Soto added, ELLs are missing out in one of two ways: “We’ve either dummied down the curriculum so it’s too basic or easy and students stay at the basic levels of social language, or we keep the rigor but don’t provide appropriate scaffolding so students can access the content.”

Creating ‘Urgency,’ Raising Scores

Rudy Gonzalez, the principal at Morrison Elementary School in Norwalk, Calif., began working with Soto to implement ELL shadowing three years ago. Though his school, where 85 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunch, was already considered high achieving, he was concerned about a lingering achievement gap between ELLs and English-only students. And while English-language learners—who make up nearly half the student population—were doing well on grade-level academic standards, they were not doing as well with language proficiency.

The shadowing protocol clarified that teachers weren’t using enough academic language in their classes. “We were concerned about giving kids access to the core curriculum versus giving them access through knowing academic language,” Gonzalez said. “That was our downfall as a school. That’s where the achievement gap exists.”

The teachers, who had been effective by many measures, were receptive to the focus on academic language after participating in the shadowing. “It was so eye-opening that kids weren’t talking and didn’t have confidence,” Gonzalez said. “The way we structured classes, we weren’t allowing for the give and take with students.”

The “day in the life of an English-language learner” experience often creates a sense of urgency about helping these students improve their academic language skills, according to Soto, whose book ELL Shadowing as a Catalyst for Change will be released by Corwin in February 2012. “Shadowing isn’t about pointing fingers at anybody. … It’s about being reflective and seeing this as a systemic issue.”

Soto trains teachers in three concrete instructional strategies that foster academic oral language development. Think/pair/share, reciprocal teaching, and the Frayer model of using pictures and context to teach vocabulary all encourage students to converse with and learn from each other.

Some might contend the strategies are just best practices that can help all learners. But Gonzalez explained that the consequences of not using them are particularly “devastating for a second-language learner.” While English-only students will have opportunities to practice English-language skills at home and on the playground, for many ELLs, “this is it. If they’re not getting it in school, they aren’t going to get it.” Soto acknowledges that the strategies are not new, but that the difference is in using them systemically and “being intentional” about planning them into lessons.

Gonzalez said that once his teachers at Morrison began focusing on language development, benchmark test scores went up right away. Increases on state tests followed. California sets a target score for schools of 800 on its Academic Performance Index, the statewide accountability system. For the 2008-2009 school year, Morrison’s overall API was 818, while the score for the ELL population alone was 791. For 2010-2011, the overall score was 856, and the ELL score was 850. “That’s phenomenal growth in two years,” said Gonzalez. In addition, the discrepancy between ELLs and the general population is down to six points, he emphasized. “We’ve closed the gap.”

Gonzalez is adamant that every current and incoming teacher at Morrison participate in ELL shadowing and professional development around language development.

Though Morrison may have more flexibility in choosing professional development than many schools because of its high-achieving status, Gonzalez is convinced that improving academic language instruction can go a long way “regardless of where you are on the continuum of success as a school.” Soto also recognizes that schools have competing needs in the accountability era, but thinks ELL shadowing demonstrates that academic language development is a necessary component to improvement.

“We’ve taken academic oral language out of the curriculum, many times because we’re trying to meet so many standards, working through pacing plans and units,” she said. “We forget English learners need instruction modified and need more time and practice with this. [Shadowing] allows educators to experience that for themselves—and then it’s hard to turn away.”

Events

School & District Management Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table With Education Week: What Did We Learn About Schooling Models This Year?
After a year of living with the pandemic, what schooling models might we turn to as we look ahead to improve the student learning experience? Could year-round schooling be one of them? What about online
School & District Management Webinar What's Ahead for Hybrid Learning: Putting Best Practices in Motion
It’s safe to say hybrid learning—a mix of in-person and remote instruction that evolved quickly during the pandemic—is probably here to stay in K-12 education to some extent. That is the case even though increasing
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Mathematics Webinar
Building Equitable Systems: Moving Math From Gatekeeper to Opportunity Gateway
The importance of disrupting traditional American math practices and adopting high-quality math curriculum continues to be essential for changing the trajectory of historically under-resourced schools. Building systems around high-quality math curriculum also is necessary to
Content provided by Partnership for L.A. Schools

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Profession Nearly 9 in 10 Teachers Willing to Work in Schools Once Vaccinated, Survey Finds
Nearly half of educators who belong to the National Education Association have gotten at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
4 min read
Nurse Sara Muela, left, administers the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine to educator Rebecca Titus at a vaccination site setup for teachers and school staff at the Berks County Intermediate Unit in Reading, Pa., on March 15, 2021.
Nurse Sara Muela, left, administers the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine to educator Rebecca Titus at a vaccination site set up for teachers and school staff in Reading, Pa., on March 15.
Matt Rourke/AP
Teaching Profession Q&A Nation's Top Teachers Discuss the Post-Pandemic Future of the Profession
Despite the difficulties this school year brought, the four finalists for the National Teacher of the Year award say they're hopeful.
11 min read
National Teacher of the Year Finalists (clockwise from top left): Alejandro Diasgranados, Juliana Urtubey, John Arthur, Maureen Stover
National Teacher of the Year Finalists (clockwise from top left): Alejandro Diasgranados, Juliana Urtubey, John Arthur, Maureen Stover
Courtesy of CCSSO
Teaching Profession Teachers Are Stressed Out, and It's Causing Some to Quit
Stress, more so than low pay, is the main reason public school teachers quit. And COVID-19 has increased the pressure.
7 min read
Image of exit doors.
pavel_balanenko/iStock/Getty
Teaching Profession Opinion Should Teachers Be Prioritized for the COVID-19 Vaccine?
Not all states are moving teachers to the front of the vaccination line. Researchers discuss the implications for in-person learning.
6 min read
Teacher Lizbeth Osuna from Cooper Elementary receives the Moderna vaccine at a CPS vaccination site at Roberto Clemente High School in Chicago, Ill., Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021.
Chicago public school teacher Lizbeth Osuna receives the COVID-19 vaccine at a school vaccination site last week.
Anthony Vazquez/Chicago Sun-Times via AP