Delicate Balance: Managing the Needs of ELL students (page 2)

By — State: Maine Department of Education
Updated on Apr 27, 2012


Whether it is considered “immersion” or “inclusion,” more ELLs are finding themselves in mainstream classes. This integration of ELLs and mainstream students needs to be reflected in a similar integration of language and content in instruction. 

On one hand, language is a bridge to learning content. All teachers need to understand the impact of language in their classes and how they can support ELLs’ subject mastery by using English in intentional ways.

On the other hand, content can provide a means for language acquisition, and teachers can promote the development of academic English proficiency for all students. Some teachers already embed reading and writing across the curriculum, but with increased ELL enrollment, all teachers need to focus on helping students develop oral language and literacy skills in the content areas.

Changes in curriculum and assessment also reflect the integration of language and content. Recent revisions of K-12 English language proficiency standards have been linked to content standards, helping teachers to understand and assess the specific language skills ELLs need to learn math, science, social studies, and language arts.

Integration of language and content does not mean that ESL teachers are becoming obsolete, or that all teachers need to be English teachers. Elementary classroom teachers and secondary content teachers are still primarily responsible for teaching the  grade-level curriculum, but they need to do it in ways that make content accessible for ELLs. This is often referred to as “sheltering” instruction. Sheltering is not diluting the content, but rather differentiating instruction and integrating language into all subjects. Most teachers agree that this approach helps all students, not only ELLs. When content teachers recognize the language that is already embedded in their classes, they can use English in intentional ways —both to provide access to the mainstream curriculum and to help students develop academic English.

Likewise, ESL teachers are still the ones responsible for teaching English. Especially for students with beginning English proficiency, intensive English language development is critical, and ESL teachers are trained to meet this need. Pullout ESL classes should, however, integrate language development with content learning. Increasingly, ESL teachers are also expected to work with ELLs within other teachers’ classes, providing “push-in” support for language development.


In order to integrate language and content, ESL and general education teachers can work together to plan, teach, and assess in ways that support ELLs. ESL teachers struggle to balance being an advocate for students with how to most diplomatically collaborate with teachers so they are not seen as mandating particular interventions but rather making helpful suggestions. Once teachers have built professional relationships and developed a shared vision for how ELLs fit into the school community, collaboration can support ELLs in a number of ways.

First, ESL and mainstream teachers can develop units and lessons that include appropriate language and content objectives, integrating content standards with students’ linguistic needs based on TESOL or WIDA standards. Common planning time is essential for this type of collaboration, and administrators need to see the value in providing this structure.

Second, in addition to support for co-planning, teachers need specific skills in co-teaching and collaboration. This includes the ability to assume different instructional roles so co-teaching doesn’t always default to the “teaching assistant” model. For example, an ESL teacher might present a vocabulary minilesson, introduce a graphic organizer, or facilitate one of several activity centers. Third, teachers need to collaborate on assessment and share proficiency data. Identifying individual students’ academic language proficiency in each content area will help teachers to develop appropriate linguistic expectations and accurate content assessments.

Implications for Staff Development

A changing student population requires a new way of looking at instruction, so one of the challenges in helping teachers to serve ELLs in mainstream classes is resistance. While it is important for teachers to know about second-language acquisition and build skills in sheltering instruction, staff development to support ELLs should address dispositions first. An introductory training might include actual student voices describing their experience as ELLs or a demonstration lesson in another language.

For example, trying to learn basic geography in Turkish can give a veteran history teacher a new appreciation for the linguistic complexity of social studies and the importance of visual cues in supporting ELLs in her classroom. When non-ESL teachers begin to see their own teaching with new eyes, they often remark that effective strategies for teaching ELLs will benefit all their students. While this is true, teachers need to recognize that sheltered instruction is not just good teaching, because it includes an awareness of the role of language in content areas. Staff development needs to go beyond a list of strategies for teachers to use with ELLs in their classrooms. ESL and mainstream teachers should collaborate in professional learning as well as in the classroom. The Center for Research on Education, Diversity & Excellence (CREDE) has outlined guidelines for professional development for teachers of ELLs (Rueda, 1998). Professional development should:

  • Facilitate learning and development through joint productive activity among leaders and participants
  • Promote learners’ expertise in professionally relevant discourse
  • Contextualize teaching, learning, and joint productive activity in the experiences and skills of participants.

These suggest professional development that is embedded in teachers’ day-to-day work. For example, a useful practice is to focus on one particular student. A mainstream teacher can work with an ESL teacher to research an ELL’s home language, culture, language proficiency, and performance in content classes. The teacher can then apply new knowledge of language acquisition and consider specific ways to scaffold the student’s learning. Reciprocal structures such as peer coaching, online discussions, and lesson reflection tasks can also bring teachers together with a focus on improving learning for ELLs.

Staff development for mainstream teachers is not enough. ESL teachers also need to develop new skills in order to meet the demands of their changing professional roles. Most ESL teachers were not trained to work within a collaborative environment, and some teachers have only used a pullout model of ESL instruction. Curriculum integration and co-teaching require a different skill set and new ways of working with colleagues.

Many administrators recognize the value of ESL teachers as on-site resources who understand second-language acquisition, cultural dimensions of learning, and how to support ELLs and their families, so ESL teachers are asked to provide workshops for colleagues. This approach is not without challenges. Even though ESL teachers have expertise in language teaching, they may lack knowledge of specific content areas or may not have experience with teacher training. In many cases, these challenges are compounded by ESL teachers’ lack of professional status within the school community or a school culture that does not promote collaboration.

If ESL teachers are asked to provide direct professional development, they need the training, resources, and time to do this effectively. Finally, when asking ESL teachers to facilitate professional development, administrators should consider co-planning, coaching, or co-teaching in addition to stand-alone workshops. Job embedded strategies tend to be more effective for long-term collaboration.

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