English-Language Learners

To Effectively Support English Learners, Build Teachers’ Skills, Experts Say

By Ileana Najarro — November 30, 2023 4 min read
Reinaldo Caraballo, Angel Solivan, center, and Joseph Santana, center right, participate in a group activity during a history class at Pascagoula High School on Oct. 25, 2021 in Pascagoula, Miss. The Pascagoula-Gautier School District has by far the largest English Learner population of any on the Coast, at about 13% as of May 2021, most of whom are native Spanish speakers. That’s one of the five biggest EL populations in the state, according to data the Sun Herald requested from the state Department of Education.
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Back in her early days of teaching, Rebecca Bergey thought it was her job as a teacher of English learners to prepare her students with enough language to survive in content area classes. But as Bergey—now a principal researcher at the nonprofit American Institutes for Research—grew in her teaching, she realized that language learning operates at a systems level.

Her job wasn’t about preparing her students to understand general education classes. It was to prepare general education teachers to effectively teach and support those students with unique linguistic assets.

“The onus isn’t only on the students, but on the system,” Bergey said. “So how do we all work together?”

When schools and districts need to decide how to place English learners—whether grouping them apart from non-English learners or making sure they have more class time with the rest of their peers—researchers say one of the key factors to consider is whether or not teachers have enough training and capacity. For instance, while English learners benefit from language exposure in classrooms with non-English learners, they won’t benefit if their content area teachers don’t know how to support them in class.

In a U.S. Department of Education survey of public and private teachers and principals in the 2020-21 school year, about 67 percent of participating teachers said they had at least one English learner in their class. But only about 48 percent of those teachers said they ever took courses on how to teach English learners at both the undergraduate and graduate level.

English learners are also one of the fastest growing public school student populations, according to federal data.

School districts have the tools to ensure all teachers are ready to teach English learners. But putting those to use requires state-level policies and funding models, researchers said.

How to support collaboration and co-teaching

One of the main ways schools can ensure English learners are getting quality education and language supports is by building up a shared responsibility across all teachers in a given school or district. That means structured collaboration and co-teaching between general education and content area teachers and English-learner specialists.

“Building up co-teaching and collaboration is a great place to focus because it centers on a lot of the issues that are at play here like how do we get that idea of language learning spread not just in one place, but across the day,” Bergey said.

Bergey and fellow researchers worked with a district in New Mexico that wanted the expertise of their English-learner teachers shared across the district. They created a teaching framework where specialists and content teachers could check in regularly with questions such as: what strategies can they use? How did they make this happen?

The main question district leaders need to consider is how many specialists are on hand and how to maximize that resource to help all teachers teach English learners, Bergey said.

For instance, specialists can share and explain definitions of English proficiency which help teachers identify students’ language levels and what they are capable of doing within their level. Those descriptions of proficiency levels were developed by WIDA, a consortium that oversees language proficiency assessments in close to 40 states.

There are, however, caveats to keep in mind when pushing for collaboration and co-teaching.

“It’s got to be in a supportive and coaching atmosphere so that it’s not, ‘Hey, you didn’t perform X or Y’ it’s, ‘Hey, we’re working on X, let’s try it out. Let’s keep improving your practice and get better,’” Bergey said.

One major challenge to collaboration is the pressure general education teachers face in getting all their students on grade level and meeting certain thresholds on standardized tests. That’s where state policies overseeing English learners’ academic progress in particular should be reviewed, Bergey added.

Districts also need to be cognizant of how much time English-learner teachers have. They are often working across buildings with large caseloads, said Amaya Garcia, director of PreK–12 research and practice at the left-leaning think tank New America.

School year schedules also need to build in time for all teachers to effectively work together and participate in English-learner focused professional learning, Garcia added.

How to include English learner insights into teacher training

There’s great variation both among and within states when it comes to how much training on working with English learners is required or prioritized.

Some states say all general education teachers should take a class related to working with English learners while others don’t, Garcia said.

More states are pursuing a variety of alternative pathways to teaching that, again, are not all consistent when it comes to English-learner related content.

There are few states where teacher apprentices earn dual certification in elementary education and English-as-a-second-language because they’re trying to target teacher shortage areas, Garcia said.

Finding a way to expand that sort of programming with the idea of preparing more individuals to work with English learners is one strategy that could pay off in the long run, Garcia added.

Federal grants are currently going to researchers helping general education teachers get an English-as-a-second-language credential to boost that skill, and have them learn some of those strategies. But Garcia said more work needs to be done to grow the number of teachers with those skills as the English-learner population grows.

States and localities can also allocate more funding for these students.

Research shows that funding is often not enough to provide a sufficient number of staff, including teachers, paraprofessionals, and family engagement specialists, Garcia said.

“Those systems need to be better aligned to the actual cost of providing English learners with the required services and support,” she added.

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