George Lucas Educational Foundation
English Language Learners

Co-Teaching English Language Learners When You’re Short on Prep Time

An experienced educator offers practical tips to help English language learning specialists work effectively with classroom teachers.

February 28, 2024
Gary Waters / The iSpot

Co-teaching guides often assume that teachers have the time and inclination to communicate and collaborate. For many classroom teachers and English language learner (ELL) specialists, however, the reality of co-teaching is that there’s little to no co-planning time. ELL specialists also may have different co-teachers every year.

So, how do we ensure that we, as ELL specialists, support students to the best of our ability given these circumstances? 

First, follow

Follow along with the classroom teacher’s plans until you develop a relationship that supports a balanced exchange of ideas. I might give an occasional suggestion to the classroom teacher about adapting a lesson plan or considering some different materials. If a teacher is interested in changing their plans, adapting new materials, and reading a text that they haven’t read before, then I’ll suggest something that will be meaningful for the multilingual students.

Be especially flexible with teachers who have not had a co-teacher before or who are new. The ELL specialist must be easily adaptable to varying teaching styles of the classroom teacher. 

Be flexible and spontaneous

It’s important to be prepared to work on the fly. When I enter the room, I ask the teacher what the plan is for the day. Sometimes I’ll know what the plan is for the week, but usually a daily refresher on the details of the lesson is helpful. Most often, there’s little time for discussion because I have a long walk between classrooms, so I often arrive just in time or after the bell. If they don’t display the agenda on the board, I’ll just follow along and assist the students as needed.

This is challenging, though, because my brain is both listening to the teacher and translating to students (to their native language, to simple English, or typing simple English into a translation app for them to see) or adapting the lesson to the levels of the students to ensure that they understand, are following along, and are on a path to being more independent in their learning.

I’m scaffolding in real time—scribbling a graphic organizer or a few comprehension questions on paper and passing that out to the ELLs as the classroom teacher is instructing. I also might write a simple exit ticket on scrap paper and have ELLs complete it in English or their native language (I’ll use a translation app to translate what they wrote if I don’t know their language).

Even though the ELLs are the only ones doing this extra work, they usually see the value in it and follow my directions. After some time, they get used to this routine, and it has proved to be helpful in getting them to focus and follow along. 

Identify daily goals

Knowing the daily learning goals requires time, and you might need to use after-school time or email exchanges to ensure that you have this information. Make sure you know what the learning goals are for the unit and the entire course—and do whatever possible to tie in that learning goal to what the student is doing that day, even if in a small way.

In a global history class, for example, one academic goal of the course is for students to be able to annotate documents, identify and define an enduring issue that is a common thread in these documents, and write an essay to demonstrate their understanding of that issue as seen in the documents and include outside information that also relates to the enduring issue.

So, during the teacher’s lesson, I have the ELLs write the main idea of the lesson and identify an enduring issue that relates to the lesson and explain why they chose that issue. It’s necessary for the ELL teacher to know what the student learning outcomes are for the course so that the ELL teacher will be able to break down a classroom teacher’s lesson and ensure that the ELL is developing the skills needed to reach those learning outcomes. 

Work one-on-one

Help ELLs follow along, and on rare occasions pull them out of the room to give one-on-one support in a quiet space.

It’s a common struggle—do we pull the students out for individualized attention with TESOL-specific methodologies, or do we keep the students in the classroom as mandated but with less teacher-to-student engagement? My preference is to keep ELLs in the classroom, but in that case the classroom should be running with stations—groups of students doing different activities—so the one ELL or small group of ELLs doing something different doesn’t stand out as being different and working with a small group will not be disruptive.

At the high school level, unfortunately, we don’t often see this type of instruction. Taking a student or small group out of the classroom for individualized support may be the option that’s most effective and efficient. 

Recognize TESOL pedagogy

Classroom teachers need to know when their methods are working for ELLs—pointing that out to them can result in an increase in effective TESOL pedagogy in the content classroom. A history teacher, for example, found out that a new student was arriving soon, and they were from Ukraine. This teacher, in turn, learned how to say “Hello” and “Welcome” in Ukrainian, and when the new student arrived to history class, she was greeted with these words. The teacher also printed all the materials of the day in Ukrainian. Such methods were so meaningful, appreciated, and commendable.

Classroom teachers and ELL specialists will have differing ideas of pedagogical methods and limited time for discussing such methods. Focus on the needs of the ELLs. Have patience and an understanding that all teachers are different, just as all students are different. 

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  • English Language Learners
  • Teacher Collaboration
  • 9-12 High School

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