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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Response: Ways to Encourage Support for English-Language Learners

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 15, 2015 17 min read
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(This is the last post in a two-part series responding to the question. You can see Part One here.)

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?

In Part One, educators Sonia Nieto, Alicia López, Diane Staehr Fenner, Sydney Snyder, Katie Brown, Judie Haynes, and Virginia Rojas shared 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.

Today’s post features responses from Diane Mora, John Wolfe, Toby Karten, Armine Spoelstra, Kirke H. Olson and Rick Murry

The original question was quite lengthy and included specific concerns about teachers. Some of the guest responses comment on them.

Response From Diane Mora

Diane Mora, is an ELL Instructional Specialist for the University of Missouri-KC RPDC, where she delivers best-practices in ESL instruction to numerous K-12 districts in Missouri. She also teaches adult ELLs at JoCo Adult Education in Kansas:

Despite best intentions, I know there have been times as a teacher when I’ve perceived “help” as criticism. Now, as an instructional specialist, I’m more often on the helping side of the equation. Here’s what I’ve learned from both experiences:

Approaching building administration with “complaints of teachers” is seldom effective. Complaining destroys your ability to develop a collaborative relationship with teachers, and rarely prompts functional support from building administration. When speaking with your principal, use student data to frame your concerns. Support your recommendations for change with educational research or proven techniques that promote student achievement. When working with teachers, try suggesting one - and only one - specific strategy implementation at a time. Base your recommendation on evidence from the student’s performance on language assessments, not on whether the teacher’s materials are “appropriate”. Providing concrete evidence and offering solutions puts a forward motion on conversations for change. Your reputation will change from “over-bearing pest” to objective problem-solver.

Your passion to uphold the “legal obligation that ELLs are getting appropriate” instruction is evident.* However, a heavy-handed approach to change seldom garners more than an attitude of begrudging compliance. I’m optimistic that teachers are motivated by doing what’s best for kids, and will do so when they are offered specific evidence of how to accomplish it.

Allow me to clarify that I discourage using the term “modifications” (your word) when speaking about ELL instruction. “Modifications” are not the same as differentiation. I do advocate for increasing teacher understanding of how to differentiate lessons and activities so that all students, including ELLs, are supported in the classroom. I used to understand differentiation as if it applied only to ELLs - but by working alongside many patient general education teachers, I now understand that differentiation supports all students because that is precisely what differentiation is meant to do.

Much like you, educators across the U.S. struggle to divide time between student education and staff development. It sounds as if you are stretched thin in terms of scheduling. Might it be more strategic to offer PD to your district’s Instructional Specialists who can then integrate differentiation (ELL strategies) into the grade-level or content-specific PD they deliver? You’ll expand your impact while decreasing the strain on your schedule. Their PD will be enriched because of the introduction to differentiation. More teachers and students will benefit, and ultimately your ability to positively impact ELL achievement will increase exponentially.

*On January 7, 2015, the Office of Civil Rights restated educational intentions for ELLs in a joint publication with the U.S. Department of Education. From the OCR website “The obligation...requires public schools...to ensure that...English Language Learners (ELLs), can meaningfully participate in educational programs and services...”.

Response From John Wolfe

John Wolfe is a Multilingual Program Facilitator for the Minneapolis Public School District:

As a Program Facilitator supporting 150 K-8 ESL teachers, I hear your pain. On the one hand, you’re committed to providing ELs with meaningful access to grade-level learning. On the other hand, as a teacher among teachers, you don’t have the power to force anyone to do anything. And as you suggest, nagging is not an effective collaborative strategy.

So what do you do?

Prove you have something to offer. If you can provide ELs with powerful learning and generate clear evidence of that learning, some colleagues will want the secret of your success. If you can’t do this, then there’s no particular reason for them to listen to you anyway.

Adopt a heart of service. You know how difficult and time-consuming it is to develop the supports and modifications that ELs need. Make it your job, then, to make this easier for your colleagues. Whenever possible, give them materials to support ELs’ learning. But keep the offer low-key. It’s their classroom and their call. Realize that giving materials is also asking a favor.

Advocate at the heart of the system. If your colleagues don’t seem particularly concerned about EL non-achievement, they’re probably accurately reading District priorities. Teachers have a lot of demands on them. It’s potentially dangerous to take on other priorities. Work at the heart of the system, the highest levels, to make EL learning a concern.

Be humble. When you ask your colleagues to attempt strategies and modified approaches, you’re not offering them a surefire solution, but rather inviting them to participate in a vast project of figuring things out. It’s the right and ethical thing to do, but realizing what you’re asking will help you to come to them in the right spirit.

Response From Toby Karten

Toby Karten is an author, inclusion coach, and consummate educator. Her first publication with Corwin Press, Inclusion Strategies that Work: Research-Based Methods for the Classroom, recently released in its 3rd edition:

You are not alone in this concern. Many support teachers who work with educators of diverse students are challenged to find innovative ways to communicate the best practices to their colleagues, when their schedules and teaching experiences are just as diverse. As I propagate in “Inclusion Coaching for Collaborative Schools,” collaboration is a nonnegotiable thread that ties the strategies to the staff and students. This is not an impossible task, just one that requires proactive, interactive, and reflective planning, beyond the initial IEP, 504 plan, or EL label.

In my coaching and SE experiences, I have worked with many populations of learners who have IEPs, diverse cultural backgrounds, and a combination of differences, not deficits. Most GE staff are willing to accommodate student differences, but some teachers have not had prior experiences or educational training with these populations. That is when collaboration is critical to share ideas on how to assist learners on their instructional, not frustration levels.

First off, I recommend that you establish an ongoing channel of communication that may include a combination of face-to-face meetings, emails, written correspondence, Skype, and more. Encourage the teachers you work with to offer honest communication about what is going on in the classroom by sharing work samples and anecdotal records. In addition, share a learner profile with them that outlines a student’s strengths and interests, along with your objectives and recommended action plan for either accommodations and/or modifications. Periodically review these profiles with your teachers during set times of the year and your students as well to develop their self-determination and self-efficacy. Collaborate with your administrator by going to him or her with creative solutions; e.g., asking to schedule additional co-planning time during faculty meetings or professional development days, or hiring a floating substitute if possible. Of course at the beginning of the year, request that if feasible, to build in common preps or planning sessions with some of the teachers you work with.

In addition, you are welcome to share these inclusion principles with your teachers. In our haste to keep up with increasing curriculum demands, we sometimes forget the basics. Most of all stay the course and remain positive; you have chosen a wonderful profession that makes a difference in people’s lives!

Response From Armine Spoelstra

Armine Spoelstra is a literacy specialist at FDR elementary school in the Schenectady City School District. She is certified to teach birth through 6th grade general and special education as well as a birth through 12th grade literacy specialist:

It appears that your colleagues do not value instructional strategies for ELL’s and/or they do not fully understand how to integrate them into their planning and/or they do not have the time or resources to do so. You are currently positioned as a colleague who places demands on them by telling them what to do and then policing their pedagogy by reporting it to the principal.

You need to motivate and support your colleagues to integrate instructional strategies that will support ELL’s. Your colleagues will value adaptation of their instruction when they understand that it will improve academic achievement for ELL’s as well as the entire class.

Reposition your relationship with your colleagues by shifting your mindset to that of an ELL leader who shares expertise to support the development of all students and staff. You are a valuable resource to your colleagues.

You need time to work with teachers 1:1 throughout the year. You can use research and data to support your request. It will mean that some of your students miss instructional time with you. This loss of time is worth it because you are trading 45 minutes of expert instruction for an entire day of expert instruction. It takes every teacher, everyday for every student to achieve.

You will need:

The law and research that demonstrates instructional strategies lead to academic achievement.

Data that demonstrates the effectiveness of a specific strategy or intervention ( I have found that using data that demonstrates positive results in specific area such as vocabulary motivates teachers to want to work with me).

Positive, outgoing energy and a willingness to work with anyone at anytime on anything (teachers will be most interested in working on things that specifically matter to them).

To intentionally build trusting relationships by taking risks and doing the heavy lifting (invite teachers to observe you, offer to do the differentiating for a lesson ( In my experience this will take more time and effort on your part, try joint problem solving through; co-teaching, planning a unit, analyzing student work/data, observing one another).

Response From Kirke H. Olson

Kirke H. Olson, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and nationally certified school psychologist, has devoted a career of nearly 40 years to helping teachers at pre-K through graduate levels apply research on human relationships, neuroscience, and mindfulness to educate even the most complex students. He writes a regular column for the GAINS (Global Association for Interpersonal Neurobiology Studies) journal and lives with his wife Sher Kamman, a fellow psychologist and landscape photographer, in rural New Hampshire. He is the author of The Invisible Classroom: Relationships, Neuroscience & Mindfulness in School (W. W. Norton; 2014):

Thank you for asking a question that haunts many English language learning and special education teachers. There are three things to consider: First, most people believe that a one-time informative training is enough to change teachers’ approaches to ELL or special education students. But remember you are asking teachers’ to modify their long-held habitual approach.

Neuroscience shows us that changing habitual responses takes repetition and emotional energy. Many teachers already know from their own experience that one-time trainings are not effective for long-term change. They may begin to apply what was learned enthusiastically, but soon get distracted by day-to-day pressures, gradually lose enthusiasm, and the training slowly fades. With your principal’s support, make it a priority to alter your schedule and join teachers in their classrooms to frequently demonstrate how to make accommodations. Don’t do it in the abstract, but instead focus on one specific student. Which brings us to the second point: The student-teacher relationship is the key to helping your teachers. Pick a student that has a good relationship with the teacher and use him or her as an example over the span of several weeks or even a full school year. The feeling generated by the teacher-student connection will help keep the teacher motivated and make the new learning stick. Although it seems you are narrowly focused on one student, the methods the teacher learns will generalize. Brain science teaches us that repetition and emotional valence help memory.

Naturally, your question focuses on the teachers who are out of compliance, which brings us to a third point. Use the teachers who are making modifications well to help teachers who are struggling. A focus on teachers’ strengths and successes will help them and others change their habitual responses. I have found that it works well to use one teacher’s success as an example for other teachers, especially if it was a dramatic success. You can also publically complement a teacher in a faculty meeting or some other setting and describe their technique to everyone.

If you want to dive deep and learn about the brain science, the process of change, and the power of relationships in the classroom try The Social Neuroscience of Education (Cozolino 2013), The Invisible Classroom (Olson 2014), or The Whole Brain Child (Siegel & Bryson 2011).


Cozolino, L. (2013). The Social Neuroscience of Education: Optimizing Attachment and Learning in the Classroom. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

Olson, K. (2014). The Invisible Classroom: Relationships, Neuroscience and Mindfulness in School. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

Siegel, D. J. & Bryson, T. P. (2011). The Whole Brain Child. New York: Delacorte.

Response From Rick Murry

Ric Murry has taught for twenty years and currently teaches in the Dalton Public Schools Newcomer Academy for students who are new to the country, many of whom are unaccompanied minors seeking refuge in the United States. Over the past 20 years, the percentage of international students in his district has gone from around 2% to nearly 80% of the total student population:

Generally speaking, one is overbearing when the communication is a one-way, directive style of communication. Remember, teachers want to do a good job providing the support their students need in order to be successful.

This question has two components. The first is the need for teachers to provide all that the laws require. The second is the need for the teachers to know what those laws are.


The top-down mandates teachers must endure could be one of the reasons why an ELL teacher might be perceived as an “overbearing pest” rather than a helpful resource. Legal obligation is an overbearing method to arrive at a moral imperative. Many legal obligations were originally enacted because the moral imperative was being overlooked. Still, the moral imperative holds more lasting value and effectiveness.

Colleagues might show resistance toward the legal obligations if the ELL teacher tries to force the mandates on them. Like it or not, the messenger is part of the message. Passive aggressive behavior (or outright defiance) can be the result when one feels the approach to change or growth is overbearing. This behavior from adults seldom benefits the students.

Moral imperatives, however, derive their power internally, from the conscience of the individual. The majority of teachers made a decision to commit their lives to helping young people. From altruistic reasons to deep commitments to the common good, teachers tend to want the best for their students. Focus on the natural, moral compass of the teachers who teach the English Language Learners. Explain that the legal aspects are there to help the teacher provide the best for the student, because sometime in the past someone may have forgotten what the children deserved from their education experience.


Some teachers of ELL students may not be familiar with the “legal obligations.” The ELL teacher serves as the conduit between the legal obligations and the classroom activities and materials. Building relationships of trust will allow an ELL teacher to “earn the right” to be heard by the teachers who need their expertise.

Below are some ideas to become the conduit between the law and classroom practices.

Provide links to ELL articles and resources. Larry Ferlazzo’s website is among the most exhaustive site for the ELL teacher. Searching YouTube for ELL lessons provides numerous examples of lessons. Consistently providing links to activities and ideas builds trust among colleagues.

Provide a variety of opportunities for teachers to approach you with questions and provide you with input of their needs. This can be in person, through email, or through discussion groups. I have been a part of a text message discussion group that worked very well as a school-level method of communication.

Provide legal updates throughout the year, and especially during the time when state legislatures are in session. Most, if not all, states provide daily and weekly summaries of bills that were introduced and votes which were taken. This is when the “legal obligations” become most accepted by the teachers. The ELL teacher who provides this information is seen as the resource person, not the one mandating the law.

Balancing the need to provide information and becoming a “pest” may be difficult at times. But with a focus on the students, building positive relationships among colleagues, and providing the resources to help teachers be successful at their practice, the ELL teacher can become the person to ensure our students are becoming the best they can become.

Thanks to Diane, John, Toby, Armine, Kirke and Ric for their contributions!

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