Unfortunately, some students may not have strong literacy at home in their first language, which means bilingual methods would not work well for them. If students do not have a strong literacy background in their first language, they will struggle learning another language, and some students may come from extremely diverse backgrounds, as Rubinstein-Ávila (2003) showed in a snapshot of three EL students.
In the first-second combined classroom, Ms. Carmen* shared that she used whole brain teaching, a multisensory approach that involved the mind and body. Teaching grades one and two allowed her to see students for two years, which helped her determine if language learning difficulties were developmental or indicative of a learning disability.
At the beginning of the day, Ms. Carmen displayed a Spanish paragraph on the smart board and asked students to find three new words. Students then added these Spanish words with their English equivalents to their vocabulary list. The paragraph she displayed provided directions for the remainder of the morning. Further, she pointed to a list of phrases in everyday English and asked students to practice the accompanying phrases in academic language. These included phrases about respectfully disagreeing with someone else’s point-of-view. Collier (2008) listed strategies teachers could use to help ELLs access academic language. Up to grade 4, students are learning to read, but older students begin to show gaps in understanding because instruction changes to reading to learn. As Ms. Carmen demonstrated during my observation, small group instruction is important. And, as Collier emphasized, using academic language verbally is more important than worksheets or other forms of vocabulary instruction.
After leaving Ms. Carmen's room, I was able to see the many hats of Ms. Lapiz, one of the EL teachers. This day, Ms. Lapiz worked with a second grade student from China who had been in the school for only three weeks. They played a matching game. Erica counted as she laid out the cards with the color names. As each card was turned over, she read the card aloud. Ms. Lapiz reminded her to “use your words.” Erica smiled with each match she made. At the end of the game she counted the matches aloud. She had six and Ms. Lapiz had four. Stewart (2010) stated the importance of feedback, especially the type of positive feedback Ms. Lapiz constantly gave Erica:
Positive feedback can be empowering for students who lack confidence in the subjectI followed Ms. Lapiz to a 5th grade math classroom. They were working on perimeter of a rectangle. Ms. Lapiz circulated the room. With some hand gestures, she communicated with a student. She stopped to work with two students at a table group in the front of the room. When the teacher directed students to work with partners, I noted how Ms. Lapiz facilitated students' learning:
matter. By giving them such feedback, ELL students may be motivated to put forth more effort, which will produce a higher quality of work, greater self-confidence, greater learning and then even more deserved positive feedback in a continuous loop. (p. 5)
Ms. Lapiz continued to circulate and occasionally paused to check student work.
“Use your resources,” the teacher said.
Ms. Lapiz knelt by another student to guide work.
A student asked the teacher a question. She responded, “Where can I start to help you?”
Ms. Lapiz worked with a student.
The teacher circulated the room. Students explained their answers and she asked, "Why?” They explained further.
Ms. Lapiz worked with other students at a table.
The teacher said, “Prove it.”
Ms. Lapiz moved to another student. I heard her say, “Yes, but how?”
Fenner (2013) said, “ESL teachers can play a critical role in helping content teachers analyze the academic language demands of their content areas, design lessons that teach academic language and content simultaneously, and implement CCSS-based instruction for ELs” (p. 9). Ms. Lapiz and Ms. Carmen showed how they supported the youngest students in the district. What I discovered was that this level of commitment to collaborating, co-teaching, and instructing with EL students' needs at the center continued throughout the grades but presented itself in slightly different ways.
Rance-Roney, J. (2008) discussed the importance of establishing a classroom community inclusive of everyone in the classroom. Such communities in EL classrooms are developed by teachers who work together. Ms. Lyons, a middle school language arts teacher, stated it best when she responded to my observation follow-up email:
I love co-teaching. It can be so much fun! It is like a good marriage. You have to work at it, and both partners have strengths and areas of growth. I like the people I am co-teaching to be equal to me. It helps to share the chalk when you are on the same page and can plan together. Everyone brings something to the table. Sometimes it takes time to develop the relationship, especially trust. It improves over time. The outcome for kids is amazing, especially when it is effective. I love teaching with [my EL teacher]. She jumps right in and is a great resource. Her enthusiasm and her focus on them as people is inspiring. She truly honors what they say and do.
Honoring students. When honoring students is at the heart of their professional learning, instruction, collaboration, and reflection, educators wearing any hat in the school show teaching as more than just a job.