Why Teachers of English Language Learners Need Professional Development

ELL student and teacher

Teachers are debating how to best reach the growing number of English Language Learners (ELLs) in our K-12 classrooms.

In the past, the ELL population was typically concentrated in inner cities and specific regions of the U.S. With ELLs making up 9.2 percent of the public K-12 population nationwide in school year 2012-13, according to the U.S. Department of Education, the vast majority of U.S. teachers will need to adapt their teaching practice to keep these learners’ unique needs in mind and to ensure they are college- and career-ready.

ELLs include students who participate in language assistance programs such as English as a Second Language, high-intensity language training or bilingual education to ensure they attain English proficiency, according to the Department of Education.

Benefits of nurturing ELLs

In our globally connected 21st-century world, English Language Learners have the potential to become a huge asset to the workplace and society. If teachers are able to nurture ELL’s emerging bilingualism, they can help them grow into citizens who will assist with the global marketplace, including national security and diplomacy.

Beyond the specific career-related possibilities, research is beginning to show that nurturing ELL bilingualism may lead to better overall brain development and cognitive benefits that are yet to be discovered. In addition, going to school in a diverse environment that includes ELLs benefits all students, teaching them to work effectively with others, even when language and cultural differences exist.

Lack of professional development for teachers

Even though the benefits of reaching the large numbers of ELLs in our schools are clear, teacher education and professional development have lagged behind this need. ELLs are in classrooms at all grade levels and in all content areas, but the vast majority of K-12 teachers have taken no classes on how to make content accessible and comprehensible to ELLs. Teachers are almost always well-intentioned, but don’t understand the unique needs and backgrounds of the ELLs in their classrooms.

Teacher education programs must prepare educators how to help ELLs develop both linguistic and content knowledge. Each area builds off the other, cyclically:

  • As ELLs become more adept with social language, they’re able to ask and answer questions and participate in more classroom activities, which then increase their ability to learn the core content.
  • As ELLs learn more content knowledge and increase their academic language skills, they’re more able to engage socially with classmates, given that common understanding.

Connecting research to teaching practice

Luckily, research on teaching English language learners has grown exponentially in recent decades. Some highlights that teachers can put into action in order to help the ELLs in their K-12 classrooms:

Take an informal survey

Be aware of the ELLs in your classroom and each student’s unique needs, strengths, and weaknesses. Take an informal survey, communicate more with parents/caregivers, get crucial information from administrators, and study material provided by the school district regarding the ELL population.

Get to know your students personally

Take the time to get to know each student as an individual.

Be culturally sensitive

Keep cultural sensitivity and awareness in mind while making curricular, instructional, and assessment decisions.

Be flexible

Be flexible and willing to make appropriate modifications based on the specific needs of the ELL.

Stay focused on task-based learning

Align teaching practices with research-based theoretical viewpoints on language acquisition. For example, placing too strong of an emphasis on the correction of language errors can do more harm than good. Instead, focus on task-based and project-based learning to strengthen the ELL’s content and language knowledge while increasing their interactions with peers.

Understand the types of language

Understand the two specific types of language and the ways they are interconnected.

  • Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) is the casual language that is used socially, such as with peers. BICS is developed through encouraging social interaction, such as on the playground, in sports, and in other activities.
  • Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) is the academic, content-specific language that is the necessary foundation for moving forward with content understanding and academic progress in a school system. CALP is developed through direct instruction on content vocabulary and through various content-related classroom activities.

The SIOP model

The Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP) model is the current standard procedure for making input comprehensible for ELLs. The SIOP model is research-based, and takes into consideration motivating factors such as the ELL’s learning style, interests, preferences, and background.

Consult your toolbox

When working with ELLs, building on prior knowledge is crucial. Tools like K-W-L charts and graphic organizers can help to scaffold learning for all students, especially ELLs who may not make an immediate cultural connection with the content.

Do your own homework

A wide variety of tools for teachers are available online. Three useful websites to start with are:

Seek out additional information from trusted professional organizations. Many conferences and publications focus on teaching ELLs, most notably the TESOL International Association.

Get connected

Network and work cooperatively with other teachers and education professionals, such as counselors, ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers, and support staff.

Family affair

Involve parents, families, and the community as much as possible, even when language hurdles make this difficult. Families of ELLs face many practical and logistical difficulties and may be hesitant to become involved at school. Reaching out to them and helping them become more comfortable can go a long way.

Dr. Maggie Broderick teaches master’s and doctoral level courses in teacher education online for various universities, including Concordia University – Portland. Dr. Broderick taught K-12 in the Pittsburgh Public Schools before completing her Ph.D. in Foreign Language Education at the University of Pittsburgh. In addition to teaching, she enjoys writing, course development, and research.

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