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Collaboration Keys for English Language Learners

In this Q&A, Maureen Keithley reveals the importance of collaboration between ESL/bilingual and classroom teachers.
Principal, September/October 2013
Web Resources

From her travels around the world from Cuba to Lithuania to Zimbabwe, Maureen Keithley has developed a unique perspective on the education of English-language learners. Keithley is a professional development outreach specialist for World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA), which develops standards, assessments, and research on language development. She has been a mainstream classroom teacher, an English as a Second Language teacher, a Title III limited English proficiency (LEP) district coordinator, and a Title III/Immigrant consultant at the Kentucky Department of Education.

Today, Keithley conducts professional development for educators across the 31 states in the WIDA Consortium, and she is keenly aware of the opportunities and challenges school leaders face in educating and supporting ELLs. Here, she shares her insights with NAESP Executive Director Gail Connelly.

Gail Connelly: The number of ELLs in America’s public schools continues to grow. What specific steps should school leaders take to address and support this growing population?

Maureen Keithley: The first step principals need to take is to recognize that ELLs are the responsibility of all teachers, not just ESL/ bilingual teachers. Many classroom teachers have never been taught how to support ELLs. For instance, in my undergraduate work, the primary focus of a required “special populations” class was special education and gifted/talented; there were perhaps three pages related to differentiation for ELLs.

As ELL populations climb, many classroom teachers are not being adequately trained to differentiate or support them. Principals can begin to address this need by providing support systems and training in small or large venues. Some practical ideas for principals to consider:

  • Schedule training or discussions on ELLs in every faculty meeting, even if just for 15 to 20 minutes of the meeting;
  • Incorporate differentiation for ELLs in new teacher trainings;
  • Offer weekly tips or FAQs via announcements or email;
  • Adjust planning time to allow for ESL/bilingual and classroom teachers’ collaboration;
  • Encourage and approve staff participation in ESL/bilingual professional development opportunities.

Can you describe some of the key components of an English-language learning program?

There are so many factors to consider. While one school might have four ELLs, another might have 45 percent of their population as ELLs. WIDA doesn’t recommend specific program models, but strong collaboration is a key component of any ESL/bilingual program.

For example, if you are the content teacher, and I am your ESL teacher, I may not be familiar with the content you teach or our state content standards. I am, however, very familiar with WIDA’s English Language Development Standards, and I understand language acquisition and what our students need in terms of success in academic language development. So, as collaborative partners, we can be a powerful team to make content comprehensible for our students.

Parent involvement is a key component to an effective ESL/bilingual school or district plan, and student buy-in is also important to consider. Too often, ELLs aren’t aware of their own English-language proficiency levels in the domains of listening, speaking, reading, and writing (results of the annual English-language proficiency assessments). Thus, they haven’t set goals to increase their language development. They, too, need to be included in the equation.

One action that some states, districts, and schools are taking is to create an annual ELL plan. One principal who’s done this said, “If we have and update annually an IEP for some [students], a gifted and talented plan for others, it makes sense to provide a supporting document for teachers to assist with differentiating for individual ELLs, too.” These states, districts, and schools are doing a terrific job of collaborating and setting language goals with ELLs, ESL/bilingual teachers, and classroom teachers.

What do teachers need to think about as they retool their instructional strategies to meet the needs of ELLs?

A new business has come to town, and all of a sudden, a significant number of ELLs have enrolled. Say you’re an experienced fifth-grade classroom teacher, and I’m an ESL teacher in the same building. The principal is calling for stronger collaboration between ESL/bilingual staff, but what does that mean for the two of us? First of all, you would need to understand our ELLs’ English-language proficiency data in each domain: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. When working with students who seem unresponsive, for instance, you may assume that the student has a learning challenge, but the real issue may be the student’s English-language proficiency level.

Second, together we would implement those English-language proficiency levels into WIDA’s tools. This would assist us in differentiating content, according to each student’s Englishlanguage proficiency levels, making it more comprehensible for that student.

What challenges for ELLs emerge with assessments, including the new Common Core State Standards assessments?

As you know, more and more teachers are being evaluated by student performance. It is difficult for students to per-form well on a state content assessment when the language of the assessment (English) hasn’t been mastered yet!

There is a disconnect here. These students may have the content knowledge in their first language, but they don’t have the skills to express what they know in English. How can they grow in their content knowledge if they don’t understand the language of instruction? In some school systems across the country, there are dual language programs, and some states offer more bilingual support than others. For the most part, ELLs are largely being instructed, supported, and assessed in English.

What measure beyond test scores can schools use to assess the success of an English-language learning program?

We believe in data-driven decision-making at WIDA. What’s the point in administering these English-language proficiency assessments if we’re not using the data? We encourage the triangulation of data, including elements beyond high-stakes assessments, such as formative assessment.

Also, when assessing students’ progress, educators should consider the prior formal education of the child. Was it limited or interrupted, for instance? Other considerations include the similarity of the child’s first language compared to English, first language literacy, trauma, age upon entry, and the sociocultural context of the educational setting.

What are the benefits of dual-language programs in which all students are taught in both English and another language?

Though WIDA does not recommend any program model, there are benefits to dual-language programs. The first of WIDA’s ten Guiding Principles of Language Development notes that students’ culture, which includes language, should be tapped into and incorporated in educational settings. If you look at the research, there is value in using both languages and developing them side-by-side.

Some of us who were born and raised in the states can be quite myopic about this. However, over half of the world’s population is functionally bilingual. In our country, we can go from Maryland to Iowa to California and manage in English; we are not forced to learn a second or third language. In other parts of the world, though, it is necessary for people to acquire multiple languages to travel comparable distances.

What are some strategies that principals can use to engage with the families and communities of ELLs?

There are different expectations around the world on parent involvement. In some countries, teachers are considered respected, educated masters in the community. In these settings, parents will do anything to support the infrastructure of the school: painting, cleaning, planting flowers, bringing food. However, they don’t feel competent to serve in a collaborative role, as a partner in the education of their children. They hand the academic education of their children off to teachers and principals. So, we educators have to be aware that these families may see their role differently.

But, many parents of ELLs are familiar with the sociocultural context of our schools here. They may be eager to get involved in the education of their children, and become active in parent/teacher communities. They may just be waiting to be invited.

How can schools, districts, and states, particularly working together, collaborate to support ELLs?

Many state education agencies and districts are offering professional development on identifying and serving ELLs across their state. In one of the WIDA states, I designed and am delivering a three-day workshop on collaboration in multiple regions. This workshop is specifically designed and delivered to ESL/bilingual classroom teams of teachers to build understanding and support for ELLs.

This type of training flows down to the school level through principal buy-in. It is so important for principals to encourage content teachers to attend training sessions and to orchestrate opportunities in their schools. Collaborative planning times are key and so badly needed with classroom teachers and ESL/bilingual staff. Principals are leaders in supporting their ELLs and teachers!


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