Be an Advocate for English Language Learners - ASCD
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January 23, 2020

Be an Advocate for English Language Learners

Instructional Strategies

I began my teaching career in 1997 as a mainstream, 3rd grade teacher at a suburban public school near Houston, Texas. Our school had one teacher designated to serve English language learners (ELLs) through a pull-out setting. I understood my job as teaching students the general education curriculum while she taught my ELLs the English language. I never knew exactly what my students did when they were with the ESL teacher; nor was I sure whether she knew what they were doing when they were with me.

Fast forward to the present and my current activities—working with teachers across the U.S. to strengthen their knowledge and skillset for serving students who are learning English as an additional language. From this vantage point, I can see that my early years as a teacher did not provide a great structure for teaching content or language and that all educators need to know how to serve all students.

The problem is that English learning specialists may be preaching to the choir. We gather on Facebook groups, Instagram, or on Twitter to share information with one another. But we need to spread this mission to our educator friends—those who may not see themselves as ELL specialists yet need to know more about teaching students who are learning English as an additional language. We have to become advocates for English language learners. Here's how:

Learn all that you can about the laws and policies concerning ELLs in your state.

How we serve English language learners is mandated by federal law. From that, states build their own laws and policies. Knowing these laws will help you to serve students and teachers. Educators need to understand these important considerations:

  • How are ELLs identified?

  • What programs does my campus/district have?

  • How are ELLs monitored?

  • What accommodations are available?

  • What state tests are ELLs required to take?

  • Who can I go to for support when I need more information about serving ELLs?

  • When are ELLs eligible for exit or reclassification?

Attend meetings that involve English language learners.

While attending PLCs, RTI meetings, etc. use your knowledge about laws and policies regarding ELLs to advocate for students' rights. Be a voice for students during such meetings and share these rights with families of ELLs. One way to connect with ELLs families when there is a language barrier in the messages you send home is through Talking Points, a free app that translates messages into senders home languages.

Volunteer to present strategies that support ELLs.

English language learners spend most of their day in classrooms with mainstream teachers who may or may not be certified to teach ELLs. Either way, ongoing professional development on strategies that support language and content acquisition will help teachers understand how to leverage language to maximize academic growth. Ask your administrator if you can present at a professional learning meeting. Select research-based strategies that are powerful for all students but necessary for ELLs. Even if you share an article or facilitate a book study, your teachers will benefit.

Plan with grade-level teachers.

Regular grade-level planning is the best way to make an impact on instruction. You can support mainstream teachers on the spot with accommodations and scaffolds that meet the needs of their students. If weekly planning is not possible, try long-term planning on a monthly basis. Virtual planning also becomes a feasible option when meeting in real time is impossible. Some teachers use shared lesson-planning templates on Google Drive or other sharable platforms. Planning together is a great opportunity to sneak in small bits of professional learning, too. It can provide a casual space for educators to share teaching techniques that improve student achievement.

Seek professional learning opportunities within and outside your district.

Several years ago, I worked as a professional development specialist in a suburban district with a large ELLs population. We offered to send ESL and content teachers to a Title III symposium for two days to learn about research-based information that would help them serve English language learners. Many coteachers attended together and were able to build relationships while learning as a team. When we only train EL specialists on strategies, we limit the potential for their use and for student gains. WIDA, SIOP, Seidlitz, your local TESOL affiliate, and ASCD offer opportunities for in-person PD.

For no-cost, virtual PD, access these resources:

  • <LINK URL="" LINKTARGET="_blank">VirtuEL</LINK> (a free, online conference for teachers of English language learners)

  • Podcasts (<LINK URL="" LINKTARGET="_blank">Highest Aspirations</LINK> by Ellevation or <LINK URL="" LINKTARGET="_blank">Boosting Achievement</LINK> with Carol Salva)

  • Twitter (EL leaders to follow: <LINK URL="" LINKTARGET="_blank">@LarryFerlazzo</LINK>, <LINK URL="" LINKTARGET="_blank">@TanELLclassroom</LINK>, <LINK URL="" LINKTARGET="_blank">@emilyfranESL</LINK>, <LINK URL="" LINKTARGET="_blank">@MsSalvac</LINK>, <LINK URL="" LINKTARGET="_blank">@Toppel_ELD</LINK>)

  • Online Book Studies like #ELLChat_BkClub (to learn more about this, visit <LINK URL="" LINKTARGET="_blank"></LINK>)

  • Facebook Groups such as Advocating for ELLs, Leading ELLs, Colorin Colorado's ELL Educator Group

Reach out regularly.

Consider sending out an email regularly to spotlight an instructional method that supports ELLs. One colleague created a Padlet with resources (all tied to ELLs instruction) that he's curated. He shares this with content teachers in his district. Another ELL specialist creates a Smore page where she regularly highlights three instructional strategies that teachers can access in either 1, 5, or 15 minutes.

Build a team and momentum.

No matter your role, you can gather a team to support ELL students. Every educator (along with the parents) that works with the students on your campus is a part of their success. The team has a higher success rate when each member recognizes that we can't do it alone. A team can also provide the structure to make this work ongoing. What is regularly discussed and revisited is remembered. We have to bring ELLs and the instructional methods that are most powerful to the forefront, not just at the beginning of the school year and then again at testing season, but all throughout the year.

Valentina Gonzalez (@ValentinaESL) is an immigrant, educator, and writer with a special passion for serving English learners. Follow her on her website.

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