4 Ways to Support Staff Working with English Language Learners

6 min. read

Guest post by Sara Smith-Frings, Former Director of Language Programs

Supporting teacher staff working with english language learners

Being a director of programs supporting English language learners (ELLs) is truly a balancing act. Just like a juggler with spinning plates, we always have our eye on the prize of student success. We know, however, that unless each staff member involved is fully committed to supporting the ELLs, one of those plates might come crashing to the ground. So, how can we keep those plates spinning? And just who are the individuals represented by these “plates”? Who are those staff members that contribute to ELL success?

1. Support Classroom Teachers Working with ELLs

This is the front line, so to speak. These are the individuals who are closest to the academic needs of ELLs. Teachers face a multitude of challenges in today’s schools: in an average classroom, there are students with differing needs ― and having ELLs in class adds to the instructional challenge.

  • Ensure teachers have information about each student that would assist with instruction, such as:
    • Home language
    • Number of years in the U.S.
    • Level of English proficiency
    • Academic history

I recall a campus on which the teachers were provided essential and pertinent information regarding their ELLs. Of course, instruction and learning differed from classroom to classroom, even though teachers had the same information.

When the information was used correctly, the students at this campus felt supported academically and emotionally. The latter was as important as the former. Students who are stressed about their academic situation find it difficult to learn.

One language-arts teacher grouped students by language level and provided carefully selected academic material, and used thoughtfully implemented teaching strategies and learning accommodations, such as word walls and modified material according the language levels. The teacher was friendly and kind, and provided the necessary structure for learning to take place. Students were familiar with the teacher’s classroom procedures and expectations for learning, alleviating stress that comes from the unknown. Do you think the teacher’s management style affected student performance?

In a room right down the hall, the science teacher didn’t review and utilize the information provided for his ELLs. He used the state-provided textbook with no language accommodations, and lectured without providing language supports. His demeanor was stern, and language accommodations weren’t made. How do you think this was reflected in the academic performance of the ELLs?

In the above scenarios, students whose stress is lessened ― in this case by a caring teacher making appropriate accommodations ― tend to have more positive academic experiences and outcomes.[1]

How could the science teacher be better equipped to support ELLs? What if he had been provided with a mentor to help implement teaching methodologies to meet the needs of his ELLs? What if he had the opportunity to observe teachers who successfully taught ELLs? Were there science teachers with the same positive results for their ELLs as the language-arts teacher? If not, could he have observed the language-arts teacher? This leads to the next point.

2. Provide Meaningful Professional Development

Teachers working with ELLs need access to meaningful professional development. There are many theories of adult learning — too many to go into detail — but suffice to say, PD should be targeted to the teacher’s immediate needs and job-embedded, if possible.

This could include opportunities for teachers to collaborate around the needs of their students. Had the science teacher in the previous example been provided with the opportunity to collaborate with other staff members, the students would have benefited as their teacher learned new strategies for supporting ELLs.

Collaborative cultures create a positive work environment for teachers and benefit students. Unfortunately, opportunities for collaboration are not always the norm. Teachers have hectic schedules and collaboration can feel like “one more thing” if time isn’t built into the school day. It is easy for a teacher with many responsibilities and demands to simply stay in his/her classroom and not seek out others. Consider building development time into the schedule, either through early/late release once a week or professional development days during the school year.

3. Think Strategically About ELL Paperwork

Take into consideration any paperwork associated with your ELL program. Who does the paperwork? How much time is involved? It is common for ELL-program paperwork to be complex due to state and federal regulations.

In my former district, a teacher was responsible for completing and maintaining paperwork for each campus. When a classroom teacher was designated, s/he was provided extra time to complete the paperwork, on top of classroom activities.

I remember the Tale of Two Middle Schools: one had a teacher who was given two class periods to keep up with the paperwork for the ELL program. On days that she had no paperwork, she would reach out to the content teachers of the ELLs, checking on the progress of the students and ensuring classroom teachers had what they needed to fully support students. At the other middle school, the ELL teacher responsible for paperwork did not have enough time during the school day for paperwork, except for the usual conference period or lunchtime. Needless to say, paperwork was not in the best order at the second campus, and student performance suffered.

4. Support Campus Administrators

Without the support of these campus folks, ensuring academic success of ELLs can be an uphill battle. These are the individuals that make sure the best personnel, processes and procedures to support ELLs are in place. How do we support administrators so that those plates keep spinning?

Ensure principals are informed of their ELL population and how student performance might affect their campus academic ratings. Why is this important?

  • They are ultimately the ones who provide the support mechanisms for their staff:
    • How the information about ELLs is communicated and by whom
    • Time for their staff to complete paperwork
    • Opportunities for professional development
    • Selecting the staff to instruct the ELLs

Summing Up the Importance of Role-Based Support

Those who go into education do so to promote student learning and to make a difference in the lives of children. Providing appropriate support to teachers raises the level of instruction for ELLs. Providing purposeful support to all staff, including teachers and administrators, will ultimately lead to the desired academic outcomes for students.

[1] Abukhattala, Ibrahim. (2013). Krashen’s Five Proposals on Language Learning: Are They Valid in Libyan EFL Classes. English Language Teaching; Vol. 6(1). Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1076806.pdf.

Learn more about Frontline English Learner Program Management

Sara Smith-Frings

Sara Smith-Frings is a lifelong language learner, having spent her childhood in Venezuela and Mexico. After graduating from Trinity University, she began her career in education, obtaining a Master's degree in Bilingual Education and Administration along the way. Her 40+ years in education include teaching language to adolescents, teenagers and adults as well as 15 years as an administrator of language programs, with responsibilities including staffing, budget, compliance and professional development. Under her watch, her previous district initiated dual language programs which encouraged students to become bilingual, biliterate and bicultural.

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