Professional Development Tips for Supporting English Learners

The English learner population is growing but the number of specialized instructors for them and training for general education teachers who work with them is lagging.

Researchers and educators say professional development for all teachers and school leaders rooted in best practices for English learners is needed to fill in the gap.

But, if a district or school were to invest time and money into developing such training, where would they start, and what are some of those best practices that should be covered to ensure the best return on investment?

Diane Staehr Fenner, the president and founder of SupportEd, a consulting firm focused on English learners’ education, and Rebecca Bergey, a senior researcher at the nonprofit American Institutes for Research, offer some suggestions.

What to do before starting professional development

Here’s a sample of what to cover before rolling out professional development across a school or district.

Acknowledge that schools and students are unique

Every English learner is unique, just as schools can be unique in how best to serve their students.

“So you want to [first] look in classrooms and see what’s happening, what’s going well, and what might need to be improved,” Staehr Fenner said.

Use classroom observations and data

A needs assessment, that starts with school leadership, should involve observations of multiple, varied classrooms. Depending on the school, that could mean a 3rd grade English/language arts class, a 7th grade math class, and a specialized English-as-a-second-language class period.

In these observations “typically you’re looking for scaffolding, peer-to-peer interactions, [use of] oral language, academic language, formative assessment, culturally responsive teaching,” Staehr Fenner said.

In the needs assessment, you also need to review data such as how students are doing on English language proficiency tests, and break down content area data by English learner subgroups.

Get teacher input

This preliminary assessment phase must also involve asking teachers where they feel they need more support and even hosting student focus groups for their input as well, Staehr Fenner added.

Getting teacher input is a key part of how school leaders can cultivate “a culture of continuous improvement and continuous learning within their site” said Bergey with AIR.

With that mindset in place, general education or content area teachers, even other staff members such as arts teachers and P.E. coaches, can have more buy-in to training and more readily view English learners as their shared responsibility and not the sole responsibility of specialists.

Roll out professional development in phases

Once the needs assessment is complete, school leaders must agree upon what topics need to be covered in school wide professional development.

The next phase should invite a group of both general education and English as a second language teachers, already invested in moving the needle at their school, to pilot the professional development. From there, a small group of teachers can undergo the training and then it gets rolled out across the whole school, Staehr Fenner said.

Best practices that should be covered in training

Though each school’s needs may be different in terms of what topics must be covered in professional development on working with English learners, here are a few that generally should be accounted for based on best practices rooted in research:

Scaffolding: Make sure that all teachers know how to scaffold instruction, especially in the academic content areas, to ensure that English learners can engage with grade-level work alongside their non-English learner peers.

Academic conversations: Teachers need to be able to set up English learners with the right opportunities for practicing academic conversations in class. “[Teachers] can’t just say ‘Hey, turn and talk,’ that’s not really going to work with our English learners, you’d have to provide them support so they’re coming to conversations prepared,” Staehr Fenner said. That could include offering structured conversation guides for students to use with peers.

Academic language: Academic language—distinct from everyday, social language—isn’t limited to vocabulary. It requires students to understand how sentences and discourse work in a given field of study such as the academic language of explaining a math problem versus that of a debate in history class. Training needs to cover how to best support English learners’ development of academic language in class.

Culturally responsive teaching: All teachers should work to build relationships with English learners at their school and help them feel welcome. One way to do that is to ensure that instruction for these students is infused with culturally responsive teaching, Staehr Fenner said. Broadly speaking, culturally responsive teaching is a kind of teaching that uses students’ customs, characteristics, experiences, and perspectives as tools for instruction. Training should help teachers understand how to use this teaching approach with their English learners.

Collaboration: Training should emphasize opportunities for collaboration between English learner specialists and all other educators in a school. This would ensure that these students are properly supported in all classrooms with grade-level content.

“Ten or 20 years ago, there was the thought that students learn English first, so put them in the ESL classes, when they get enough English, then let’s start teaching them content, let’s push them out,” Bergey said. “And we know now that that’s not the case, that students are learning both English and content simultaneously.”

Schools with English learner specialists should leverage their expertise by giving them time and opportunities for collaborative conversations to take place, she added.

Interim informal check-ins through teachers observing other teachers to see how the professional development is going, and other forms of coaching along the way could help teachers integrate new strategies in their instruction as training continues, Staehr Fenner said.

Formative assessment: Language development is a process and a way to help all teachers understand this is by making sure they first know what English learners are tested on in language proficiency tests, Bergey said. The ACCESS for ELLs test for instance, used in 36 states, tests students in four language domains: reading, writing, listening, and speaking.

Learning more about the test and how students are scored can help teachers best know how to support students in class. For instance, they may have an English learner who listens well and actively participates by speaking in class, but they could use extra support and opportunities to practice their reading and writing skills.

In general, teachers should have strategies and tools at their disposal to see how their English learners are doing, and then be able to take the data and adapt their instruction accordingly, Staehr Fenner said.

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