Wednesday / May 29

Why Collaboration? Understanding English Learners

Whether newly arrived or U.S. born, English learners (ELs) must leap over the many hurdles they encounter along the road to becoming English proficient and academically successful. Take into account, for example, that some of our youngest learners and those with interrupted formal schooling also must negotiate acquiring literacy skills along with a new language and academic content. The challenge for many ELs is great, and for some, the time they have to acquire needed skills is short. Thus, developing a shared appreciation for the individual assets and rich funds of knowledge ELs bring to school as well as understanding the complex sociocultural, socioeconomic, affective, linguistic, and academic challenges they face are key to their success.

In light of these complex issues, TESOL International Association (2018) identified a core set of six principles that define exemplary teaching for English learners. They are built upon substantial research in language acquisition theory and language education. In this blog, we make a strong case that teacher collaboration further enhances the impact of these core principles in achieving excellence in EL education.

Principle 1: Know Your Learners.

There is tremendous within-group diversity among ELs, so we have offered a framework (Honigsfeld & Dove, 2019) to sensitize the entire school community to the varied experiences among ELs. We believe that as educators we need to resist a broad-brush approach to understanding and identifying ELs, and instead take the time to get to know them and understand the many dimensions of their identities and talents, not simply use labels to describe them. Much of the diversity among ELs is identified in the chart below.

Diversity Among English Learners

Immigration status Ÿ  Recently arrived in the U.S. under typical circumstances

Ÿ  Recently arrived in the U.S. as a refugee

Ÿ  Recently arrived in the U.S. without legal documentation

Ÿ  Temporarily living in the U.S./Visiting the U.S.

Ÿ  U.S.-born, U.S. citizen

Prior education Ÿ  Formal, grade-appropriate education in another country

Ÿ  Formal, grade-appropriate education in U.S. school system for a certain period of time

Ÿ  Limited formal, grade-appropriate education in another country

Ÿ  Interrupted formal, grade-appropriate education in another country

Ÿ  Interrupted formal, grade-appropriate education in U.S. school system

Linguistic development in language(s) other than English Ÿ  Monolingual in native language only

Ÿ  Bilingual in two languages other than English

Ÿ  Bidialectal speaking both a standard language other than English and a dialect or Creole/Patois

Ÿ  Multilingual in three or more languages

Status of language proficiency and literacy in language(s) other than English Ÿ  Only receptive language skills

Ÿ  Productive oral language skills

Ÿ  Limited literacy skills

Ÿ  Grade-level literacy skills

Ÿ  Any or all of the above skills in more than one language other than English

Level of English language proficiency Ÿ  Starting : Being exposed to English with no or very limited language production

Ÿ  Beginning: Demonstrating receptive and emerging productive language skills

Ÿ  Developing: Employing basic oral and written language skills with predictable error patterns

Ÿ  Expanding: Employing more advanced oral and written language skills with fewer errors

Ÿ  Bridging: Approximating native language proficiency

Learning trajectory Ÿ  Demonstrating typical academic and linguistic developmental trajectories

Ÿ  Demonstrating academic and/or linguistic developmental challenges and difficulties that respond to interventions

Ÿ  Demonstrating academic and linguistic developmental challenges and difficulties that require special attention

Why Collaboration Is Key to Knowing and Addressing the Needs of a Diverse EL Student Body

In your teacher preparation programs as well as through ongoing professional development, as ELD/ELL specialists, you often receive extensive training in responding to the needs of culturally and linguistically diverse students. Whether or not you are bilingual or bicultural ELD/ELL teachers, you are frequently called upon to serve as cultural interpreters, cultural mediators, or cultural brokers in your schools. You are asked to help immigrant families and the students in your schools to better understand American cultural expectations, most specifically, to help families navigate the cultural maze of the American school system. Oftentimes when you collaborate with other teachers, you better understand that ELs not only are challenged by difficult content and language barriers but also have to adjust to the cultural norms of a new teaching paradigm in the United States. From the frequent use of group work, differentiated instruction, project- or inquiry-based learning, to the types of questions you may typically ask, ELs often experience a paradigm shift and have to redefine what a “good student” is, what he or she does to do well in school.

Principle 2. Create Conditions for Language Learning

Many of us who have studied a new language must recognize that we did so with varying degrees of success. Much of our personal achievement with learning another language may have to do with a range of factors, special circumstances, and carried contexts. Consider these questions as you reflect on your own experiences with language learning:

  1. What were your reasons for learning a new language?
  2. What did you think could be gained from knowing a new language?
  3. Did you have a strong motivation to learn?
  4. Did you believe that acquiring a new language could be accomplished?
  5. Did you think it was worth the time and attention it required?
  6. Did you have any fear and apprehension about learning a new language, and did you trust that it could be overcome?

Why Collaboration Is Key to Addressing an Effective Language-Learning Environment?

What is important to keep in mind is well-captured by a National Education Association (2015) publication: “ELLs desperately need educators who believe in them, who recognize their assets, and who have the support and training they need to do their best by all of their students” (p. 19). If English learners do not have access to the core content and have limited opportunities to engage in authentic, meaningful communication with their peers, language acquisition as well as content attainment may suffer. Additionally, when teachers, administrators, and all members of a school community agree on the importance of developing the “whole” child, a commitment to address the academic and social environment becomes a shared concern.

Principle 3. Design High-Quality Lessons for Language Development

Consider the task of acquiring a new language while learning grade-appropriate content in all the core subject matters. Think about the complexities it would entail. You would need to understand what is being said or what you read even if you had no prior knowledge about the topic. You not only would need to know the proper words to use, but you also would have to have a sense of how the words could be strung together into complete sentence when you speak or write. Further, you would need to be able to read a range of different texts across genres and subject matters, engage in academic conversations about those topics, and write about them with a critical voice. That would be no small feat to accomplish!

For ELs to be successful, you need to be highly skilled and intentional in your lesson planning and delivery.  Therefore, you must plan with specific outcomes in mind, and students should be aware of these outcomes as well as how they may be achieved; additionally, you need to use appropriate strategies, conducive to language and content learning for ELs, as well as provide multiple, frequent opportunities for students to engage with others using the target language and content (TESOL International Association, 2018).

Why Collaboration Is Key to Designing High-Quality Lessons for Language Development?

ELD/ELL teachers use language-learning techniques to assist ELs in developing the necessary skills to become fluent in English. Ongoing collaborative practices between ELD/ELL and general-education teachers provide a clear path for sharing strategies to support new-language acquisition in the general-education classroom as well as how to best create opportunities for students to apply their language and content learning in authentic ways.

Principle 4. Adapt Lesson Delivery as Needed

When someone tells us a story, we tend to form pictures in our minds about what is happening in the story. As the storyteller reveals further details, we change our minds’ visual patterns in an attempt to match what is being said. In essence, we use our own experiences regarding what we have already seen and heard to visualize and make sense of what we are being told. However, if the storyteller introduces something that is unfamiliar to us in the storyline, we may lose the solid point of reference we previously held and begin to place the story within a familiar frame of reference. If sufficient explanation and details are not provided, if the context is not available for making sense of new information, we may no longer comprehend what is being said.

Helping students to connect their own stories to what is being taught in class plays a significant role in how teachers adapt lessons and their instructional delivery for English learners. Tapping into students’ prior knowledge, creating lessons that are relevant to students’ lived experiences, and building the background knowledge of ELs are strategies that provide students with avenues to successful content and language acquisition. In addition, checking students’ understanding in effective, meaningful ways is an important step in informing how to adjust lessons for their learning.

Why Collaboration Is Key to Adapting Lesson Delivery as Needed

When you collaborate, you exchange techniques and strategies to capitalize on students’ prior learning, build their background knowledge, check for student understanding, and adjust lessons and instructional delivery to meet students’ needs. It is certain that all students have unique sets of expertise, abilities, and personal experiences they can tap into when learning new content and skills. You must use your students’ skills and strengths to help them make connections to new concepts presented in your classes. By collaborating with other teachers, you can discover how to best support all students to build upon their existing knowledge and to connect what they already know with what they are learning. For this reason, you need to incorporate specific strategies on an ongoing basis in order for academic growth to occur. Furthermore, building your teaching capacity through collaboration and the development of professional learning communities is another essential ingredient for effective instruction.

Principle 5: Monitor and Assess Student Language Development

Observing, checking, and keeping track of the language development of English learners is an integral part of what ELD/ELL teachers do on a daily basis to advance the English proficiency of ELs. Yet, teachers who are not ESOL certified or endorsed frequently teach English learners in elementary grade-level classes, special subject areas—art, music, physical education, and so on–and secondary content classes. At best, in the course of an average student schedule, ELD or bilingual education services only are furnished one to two periods of study per day. For this reason, English learners typically spend the majority of the school day in general-education classes that may offer little to no learning support other than what the general-education teacher can provide, along with whatever technology is available in the classroom. Formal training for regular classroom teachers to meet the needs of these diverse learners is crucial yet woefully inadequate. If you embrace the idea that all teachers are teachers of ELs, then you need to be concerned about and expand your expertise in the language development of ELs. In addition to content learning, you must monitor the progress of students as they develop English skills, and support ELs to become proficient in English through their daily instruction (Gottlieb, 2016).           

Why Collaboration Is Key to Addressing Monitoring and Assessing Student Language Development?

When you have sufficient time to collaborate with other teachers, you can begin the process to change how progress monitoring and assessment is planned for ELs. You can share your personal knowledge that can facilitate learning for these youngsters, and you can devise alternative assessment procedures for ELs to accurately demonstrate what they have learned. As ELD/ELL teachers, you have the opportunity to share your extensive knowledge base with your general-education counterparts through collaborative practices. Such a knowledge base includes:

  1. The distinction between academic and social language; more specifically, understanding the differences among conversational fluency, discrete language skills, and academic-language proficiency (Cummins, 2001);
  2. The impact age, motivation, attitude, confidence, classroom climate, and learning style have on second language acquisition;
  3. Issues related to acquiring the new school culture such as understanding academic expectations, discipline, formality, and social adjustment; and
  4. National and state learning standards for ELs.

There is no formula for determining the special needs of English learners; each EL is unique in his or her own way. In addition, these students bring their own set of challenges to school with them when they enroll. That is why you must be strong advocates for teacher collaboration. So very often, ongoing professional conversations between teachers and other school personnel can help all educators to better understand the unique needs of ELs.

Principle 6. Engage and Collaborate within a Community of Practice

The final principle directly suggests that teachers must create communities of practice and take on the challenge of responding to the complex needs of ELs in collaboration with each other. Yet, collaboration does not come automatically or easily to some teachers. For generations, teachers in the U.S. have worked in isolation, in some respects due to the very nature of traditional teaching—working alone with specific groups of students in separate rooms. In turn, school administrators often disregarded the abundant knowledge base held by teachers in the very own schools. However, more and more teacher collaboration is being viewed as the most important practice implemented by educators. According to TESOL International Association (2018), collaboration provides opportunities for teachers to do the following:

  • More fully meet the challenges of teaching
  • Provide optimal instruction for students
  • Engage in reflective practices
  • Participate in ongoing learning and grow professionally
  • Co-plan and co-teach
  • Strengthen relationships with colleagues
  • Develop as teacher leaders

This principle encourages administrators to develop a “community of practice by creating a climate of respect for all staff, especially valuing the role of the ESL/ELD and bilingual specialists in the school” (TESOL International Association, 2018, p. 88).

The six principles are concrete and accessible guidance for not only identifying the core tenets of teaching English learners, but they also challenge all educators of ELs to develop their knowledge, instructional environments, lesson planning and delivery, assessments, and collaborative efforts to truly support the learning of English learners.


Cummins, J. (2001). Negotiating identities: Education for empowerment for a diverse society. Los Angeles, CA: California Association for Bilingual Education.

Eells, R. J. (2011). Meta-analysis of the relationship between collective teacher efficacy and student achievement. Doctoral dissertation. Retrieved from

Genesee, F., & Lindholm-Leary, K. (2013). Two case studies of content-based language education. Journal of Immersion and Content-Based Language Education, 1,  3–33. doi:10.1075/jicb.1.1.02gen

Gottlieb, M. (2016). Assessing English language learners: Bridges to educational equity. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Honigsfeld, A., & Dove, M. G. (2019). Collaborating for English learners: A foundational guide to integrated services. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

National Education Association. (2015) How educators can advocate for English language learners (ELLs): All in! Retrieved from

Spratt, J.,  & Florian, L. (2013). Applying the principles of inclusive pedagogy in initial teacher education: From university based course to classroom action. Revista de Investigación en Educación, 11(3), 133-140.

TESOL International Association. (2018). The 6 principles for exemplary teaching of English learners. Retrieved from

Written by

Andrea Honigsfeld, EdD, and Maria Dove, EdD, are professors in the Division of Education at Molloy College, Rockville Centre, New York. Employing their extensive experience as EL specialists and TESOL teacher educators, they have published widely on effective education for English learners, including Collaborating for English Learners (Corwin, 2019) and Co-Teaching for English Learners (Corwin, 2018).

No comments

leave a comment