Core teachers have the greatest influence on whether or not our English Learners (ELs) thrive. Consider the following: Three in four U.S. classrooms have at least one student who is an English learner. Even in schools with EL specialists, ELs spend the majority of their instructional day with core classroom teachers.
We know this, yet too often forget it when designing EL programs and solutions. Instead, many districts relegate the majority of EL resources to the sidelines of core instruction. For example, specialists pull out ELs from classrooms. In some secondary settings, ELs get tracked into separate courses that don’t give them access to four-year college opportunities. Professional learning for teaching ELs, if there is any, often is only for EL specialists or emphasizes EL strategies disconnected from the rigorous academic language and literacy expectations of the content areas.
To raise EL achievement, districts must shift priorities from supporting ELs on the sidelines to collaborating to transform core instruction with every teacher in every classroom every day.
TRENDS TO INFORM THIS SHIFT
English Learners are as diverse and different from one another as any student in any classroom. While it is impossible to sum up the needs of 4.6 million ELs with any one statistic, the following trends are important to consider when prioritizing best practices for raising EL achievement:
- Most ELs in U.S. classrooms were born in the US, and speak and understand enough English to communicate with teachers and peers.
- The majority of ELs are long-term ELs (LTELs), meaning they have been in US schools for at least six years. 74% of secondary California ELs, for example, are identified as LTELs.
- Many LTELs are remain ELs only because they currently underperform with the academic language and literacy expected for career and college success. What they need is best developed in the context of rigorous core teaching in every classroom, every day.
Certainly, emerging ELs, or newcomers, are an important part of our EL population with their own unique needs. For the purposes of this post, I’m focusing on the vast majority of ELs in our schools, students who are long-term ELs or en route to becoming long-term ELs because their instructional opportunities don’t add up to what they need to excel with core learning.
THE CONSEQUENCES OF SIDELINE SUPPORTS
Sideline supports for ELs do have some value, especially for emerging ELs and ELs with disrupted or limited prior schooling. That said, such supports can also lead to unintended negative consequences. Here are some of the major ones I see in schools that focus EL supports on the sidelines of core teaching:
- LOSS OF CORE TEACHER AGENCY FOR ELs. When an EL in a core class struggles, the teacher is more likely to refer that student to a specialist or assume the specialist will address the issue instead of reflecting, “What should I change about my teaching to ensure my student succeeds?”
- LOSS OF BELONGING FOR ELs. Ensuring ELs feel a strong sense of belonging in a classroom and school community is important for long-term success. Pull-outs and separate classes can often lead to an increased sense of disconnection.
- LOST OPPORTUNITIES TO LEARN LANGUAGE AND CONTENT. The academic language students need to excel with core concepts, texts, and tasks is best learned through active engagement with high-level concepts, texts, and tasks across the disciplines. ELs often lose these opportunities when put in separate classes, especially if those classes water-down tasks and expectations.
- EDUCATORS WORK IN SILOS. At all levels from school to district to state, EL specialists and core instructional specialists often work in separate silos. While we share many goals, far too frequently we address them from different angles with disconnected initiatives that serve only to overwhelm busy educators instead of helping them transform their teaching in impactful ways.
A BETTER SOLUTION
There is a better solution. We need to collaborate across roles to build teacher agency and efficacy to excel with ELs. To do so we must:
- REFRAME how educators traditionally view ELs as separate with needs addressed by EL specialists and departments to view ELs as essential members of every classroom community of scholars. We must shift every teacher’s ownership of ELs from “your students” to “our students.”
- COLLABORATE as leaders and teachers across educational silos to apply our diverse areas of expertise to address a shared vision to move student learning. One model that has seen significant success is when EL specialists shift from pull out to collaboration and co-teaching alongside core classroom teachers (Honigsfeld and Dove, 2014, 2018). EL program directors also strengthen their impact on core teaching when they collaborate with instructional leaders across all departments to align, co-design, and co-lead professional learning that powerfully integrates best practices for ELs, best practices for content areas, and research-based professional learning design.
- SYNTHESIZE the best practices in literacy, language, and content pedagogy to help all students excel with our goals. In the context of helping every child excel, we get specific together about what our ELs need right now to thrive with the next level of learning.
- EMPOWER busy core teachers with relevant and practical resources and professional learning opportunities that are directly relevant to what and how they teach every day.
This is how I help schools lead transformative shifts in core instruction to teach for equity and EL achievement. This is why I wrote EL Excellence Every Day: The Flip-To Guide to Academic Literacy for core teachers and the specialists, coaches, and leaders who support them. Unlike most EL or literacy books, it synthesizes the best practices from both fields in a practical format, relevant to core teachers.
It takes courageous leadership and across-role collaboration to stop doing what isn’t working for ELs, and transform how we lead and teach together so that every classroom and school offers a true pathway to equal opportunity. Inequitable outcomes in our EL data are our urgent call to action. Dare we use that data to reflect and refine business as usual to create new possibilities in our schools?