Saturday / April 13

7 Essentials for Every Teacher to Excel with ELs

7 Essentials for Every Teacher to Excel with ELs

Three in four U.S. classrooms have at least one student who is an English Learner (EL).  Even in schools with EL specialists, ELs spend the majority of their instructional day with core teachers. EL excellence with rigorous content learning requires EVERY teacher be an effective teacher for ELs.

Traditionally, districts approach this challenge by adopting curriculum or training teachers in EL strategies. These solutions have value, AND alone are not enough to transform the learning experience for ELs in core classrooms.


Mindsets matter. Process matters. There is no silver-bullet noun to give every teacher to help them excel with ELs.  We need to focus on verbs: what teachers think and what teachers do.

As a professional learning consultant who specializes in EL achievement, I share with you the following seven mindsets and actions that are essential for core teachers’ effectiveness with ELs:

  1. VALUE

Relationships are at the heart of effective teaching. Effective teachers of ELs foster relationships with ELs based on mutual respect. One way to value ELs is to see students’ multilingualism as an asset, not a problem. We value ELs when we recognize that to be different doesn’t mean to be inferior, and when we are interested in learning the diverse assets each student brings to school.

One specific action to value students is to pronounce students’ names the same way their families pronounce their names. When a name comes from a language you don’t speak, this may take several tries. Dare to listen, try, fail, listen, try, and fail as many times as it takes. In addition to learning names, you model the linguistic risk-taking essential for learning a new language.


Students rise (or fall) to the level of a teacher’s expectations. Low expectations for ELs and students of color are a reality schools must be proactive to address. Unpacking implicit biases is part of the solution, but alone doesn’t translate to content-specific elevation in expectations across all classrooms.

Ensure teachers have ongoing, job-embedded opportunities to collaborate to raise expectations specific to their content goals. Powerful processes for teacher teams include unpacking standards, co-creating exemplars, defining success criteria, peer observation, and using shared rubrics and protocols to calibrate scoring.


No matter how dynamic our teaching, if ELs are in sit-and-get mode, they will not deeply learn content or academic language. Effective teachers use a variety of strategies in every lesson to actively engage ELs and all students.

We plan for engagement when we begin with relevant content and make intentional connections to students’ diverse and unique background experiences.  We teach for engagement when we use active engagement strategies (e.g. collaborative conversations, text annotation, writing, movement, creation with tech) so students are actively taking risks, collaborating and communicating as they learn.


As we engage students, we observe what they do and listen to what they say to learn more about their thinking, their strengths and challenges with our content and language goals. We use every task as an opportunity to gather formative data. When students are silent, unengaged, or struggling, we reflect to change our approach. When students thrive, we notice their strengths and build on them in subsequent lessons.


Effective teachers use supports strategically to engage and challenge ELs.  Being strategic is essential, and requires paying close attention to students. This is a flip from the traditional way our profession tends to view “EL strategies” as specific scaffolds to adopt, train all teachers to do, and all principals to look for in classrooms.

Tip for Administrators: Don’t look for the scaffold; look for the learning. For example, in a school working to elevate students’ critical thinking and academic language in collaborative conversations, a principal should not walk through classrooms looking to see that conversation frames are posted on the walls. Instead, focus on student conversations: are students actively engaged in extended conversations? Are they demonstrating higher-order thinking? Are they using academic language? If no, what scaffolds will help them engage and excel? If yes, what scaffolds could be removed to increase rigor, students’ self-direction and independent thinking?


Effective teachers own their impact, and continuously reflect to refine how they teach so that all students succeed. Owning impact is the most important mindsets for equity.  Owning impact means that when a student struggles, a teacher reflects, “what will I change about MY instruction to ensure this student succeeds?”

Be aware: deficit thinking about ELs (or any student group) halts the reflection process. When an EL struggles, for example, a teacher may blame “EL” motivation, background knowledge or parent involvement rather than reflect on what to change about one’s own teaching. (Read Four Sentences to Stop Saying About Students for ways to reframe deficit thinking).

When a school has pull-out services for ELs, this structure often reinforces an unspoken assumption that ELs’ instructional needs all fall into the lap of the specialist.  Thus when an EL struggles in a core classroom, a core teacher may refer the issue to the specialist instead of  reflecting with the question, “what will I change about my instruction to ensure success?” A collaborative approach in which all teachers share agency for impact is a better solution.


Changing mindsets and practice requires courageous collaboration among teacher teams, and between EL specialists, content specialists and core teachers. My go-to protocol for courageous collaboration is observation inquiry (Singer, 2015), a process that engages teachers in collaborating to set rigorous learning goals, plan teaching, observe together and reflect to refine teaching for impact. Such hands-on collaborative problem-solving is essential for building capacity and depth of learning with the seven essentials for excellence with ELs.

Get Specific for Change

In describing these seven essentials, I take a 30,000 foot view. When I build capacity in these essentials, I always get specific to the context, student learning priorities and resources of schools I serve. We must get specific about how to connect these essentials to what core teachers do every day. We must engage teachers in deep, collaborative professional learning that helps them apply the nuances of these essentials to ensure ELs, and all students thrive.

Written by

Tonya Ward Singer is an author, keynote speaker and consultant with a deep commitment to ensuring all students in culturally, racially and linguistically diverse schools access high-quality education. She specializes in high-impact literacy, ELL achievement, 21st century learning, and leading effective job-embedded professional learning at scale. Tonya’s bestselling book Opening Doors to Equity: A Practical Guide to Observation-Based Professional Learning helps educators lead observation inquiry, a professional learning design inspired by Japanese lesson study and tailored to the unique context of teaching for equity and innovation in U.S. schools. Tonya has taught at multiple levels as a classroom teacher, reading specialist and ELL specialist in the U.S. and abroad. She designs curricula and leads professional learning to help educators elevate student literacy, language and life-long learning for 21st century success.

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