English Language Learners

Building an ELL Program From Scratch

A 2019 Teacher of the Year offers advice for developing an English language learner (ELL) program at any school.

August 29, 2019
Leigh Wells / Ikon Images

When I found out that I was going to be teaching in the English Learner Department at North High School seven years ago, I was extremely excited. Schools in southeastern Wisconsin were experiencing a rapid increase of English language learners (ELLs) and scrambling to develop English language classes and programs. I was eager for the challenge of providing ELLs with an equitable and quality educational experience.

But my high expectations quickly seemed daunting when I arrived at the school and found limited resources for our ELLs, which numbered close to 70 students. A class called Bilingual Study Skills—where students mostly worked on homework assignments—was the only class for students learning English, and the school’s only bilingual studies teacher did not know Spanish. I knew that in order for our ELLs to have an equitable learning experience, we needed to drastically expand our services.

Fortunately, I was able to get support from our administration and staff to develop an entire English learner program for our students. It took a few years, but from that one Bilingual Study Skills class, our school has expanded its offerings to three levels of English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. We have a group of ESL teachers that co-teach English 9, English 10, and Algebra 1 courses alongside general education teachers and provide support in other classes.

While creating or growing an English learner program can seem overwhelming, by taking some specific measures, it really is possible to do at any school. Here are some of my recommendations:

1. Watch and Listen

When launching a program for English language learners, it is critical to spend time up front evaluating your school’s existing resources and student needs. Throughout my entire first year at North High School, I assessed our ELL students, so I was able to identify areas of growth.

To start, educators can ask themselves questions like these:

  • What languages do our ELLs speak? Is there a dominant language?
  • What are English language learners’ proficiency levels?
  • Are there particular classes where ELLs are not experiencing success?
  • What professional development is needed for our staff to support ELLs? 

Observation shouldn’t stop after the first year, either; it is vital to reflect every year. After we began offering ESL classes at North High School, I looked at student achievement and identified classes in which students were not successful. By our second year, I realized that ESL teachers needed to start co-teaching with content teachers so that we both could build each other’s capacity to serve our students.

2. Determine a Suitable Structure

As I launched the program at North High School, I remembered reading about various program models for ELLs in my teacher preparation program and realized that no single program model I had studied would work for our school. To that end, I used my knowledge from the first stage of assessing needs and values to structure a program uniquely suited to our school.

At our school, for example, we believe that providing students with opportunities to learn from each other is essential, so we had to find a way to support the inclusion of our ELL students into content classes rather than offer only self-contained classes. As you plan, it is also vital to collaborate with administrators and counselors to foster a team approach on how to address the identified needs and get buy-in for expenses like hiring more staff, if necessary.

3. Support Other Teachers

It’s critically important to get to know your staff and the supports they will need to be effective with ELL students. Every year, I collaborate with counselors and fellow ESL teachers to create appropriate class schedules for our students. We are especially purposeful about determining a good match between ESL teachers and content teachers, which requires an open dialogue about our strengths and weaknesses as educators.

Small supports can also make a big difference. Before the school year begins, I always share a spreadsheet with our staff that lists the names (with phonetic pronunciations) of our ELL students, their language proficiency levels, and a document with “Can Do Descriptors” that shows our students’ capabilities and what teachers can do to help them. Providing teachers this information before classes begin allows them to feel better prepared to welcome our ELL students.

4. Create a Welcoming Environment

A couple of years ago, a teacher asked for professional development on immigration policies and the impact they have on our students. In response, I created a presentation that led to great questions and discussion. What was most important about our session was to help teachers develop an understanding that regardless of personal beliefs, our role as educators is to create a welcoming environment for all students. After my session, I offered “This School Welcomes You” posters (created by Teaching Tolerance) to teachers, who put them up all around our school. ELL students have since commented on how seeing the posters has made them feel more a part of our school community.

Welcome poster from Teaching Tolerance
©Teaching Tolerance
A poster used to welcome students from Teaching Tolerance.

We also realized that our ELL students needed more than just remedial help to succeed academically, and so we launched an additional class where we check in with students one-on-one and provide any support—emotional or academic—they might need.

5. Don’t Forget the Families

A vital component of the success of our program has been building strong relationships with families. Two years ago, a colleague and I started a bilingual parent group. We have monthly meetings where parents give us input on topics they would like us to cover to build their knowledge about our educational system. Having these monthly meetings has been such a powerful way to allow parents to have a voice—and to create more accountability for students.

We have a responsibility to get to know our school community well and identify barriers that exist for students, staff, and families—especially those who have many hurdles to overcome. When English learners know that you genuinely care about their success and that you will provide them with the supports they need to be successful, you will see tremendous student growth. 

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