English Language Learners

Teaming Up to Support English Learners

Some dos and don’ts to help language specialists build strong relationships with content teachers who teach English learners.

February 1, 2019

If it takes a village to raise a child, then the village elders had better work well together, especially when it comes to raising children with different home languages. Thankfully, more and more districts are encouraging content and English language teachers (ELTs) to join forces to support their multilingual students. There are certain things ELTs can do to cultivate these dynamic relationships, and also things we should avoid doing.

I’ve collaborated with content teachers as a language specialist for over eight years, and I’m still learning how to improve. The don’ts on the list below are my battle scars—lessons I’ve learned from being too pushy and judgmental while co-planning. I encourage educators to strive for the dos when collaborating with other teachers—as I still have to remind myself to do.

Developing Language

Do identify the ways words are used in each discipline. For example, a factor in math is not the same as a factor in social studies. An ELT can help students understand the concept of a factor in social studies by offering this sentence stem: “One factor that led to World War I was....” When co-planning with a math teacher, an ELT can suggest using different color manipulatives to help show the concept of factoring.

Don’t expect content teachers to also be teachers of English—especially English as a second language. Help content teachers learn how experts in their discipline (e.g., scientists, historians, economists, designers, painters, musicians, physical trainers) use English to communicate their content knowledge or process English texts.

Building Relationships

Do reuse effective strategies that match a content teacher’s style. For example, if a content teacher prefers lecturing and has started incorporating visuals you’ve gathered, encourage them to continue using even more visuals while lecturing.

Don’t use a co-planning session to point out when a lesson bombed. It makes the content teacher feel like they’re being judged—and when people feel that way, they distance themselves from the person doing the judging. In a collaborative relationship, emotional distance is a burden that hampers the process of working together toward a common goal.

Differentiating Instruction

Do identify the content that the English language learners (ELLs) need to learn, how the content teacher intends to teach it (the process), and the product that students are supposed to create to demonstrate understanding. After identifying these three things, you and the content teacher can collaborate to scaffold resources, differentiate the learning experience, and offer alternative ways to demonstrate the same learning outcomes.

Don’t expect the ELLs to do less than their peers, or suggest that content teachers present different or less rigorous content. Work with the content teacher to make content accessible and engagement with that content possible. Work with them to make instruction explicit and clear for ELLs while not making the learning tasks easier. Keep the mountaintop high—just offer a different path or provide different gear to get students there.

Offering Suggestions and Feedback

Do add suggestions using additive phrases such as, “In addition to..., we might consider…,” or “Yes! Let’s do that, and for the ELLs, we can also....” Success in co-planning is about adding onto someone’s ideas, not subtracting from them.

Don’t use judgmental phrases such as, “It would be more effective if...,” “A better idea would be...,” or “We can improve on this idea if....” Those are highly loaded, evaluative comments that will only divide you and the content teacher.


Do privately reflect after each collaboration session to identify what worked well, what you did that the content teachers liked, and what triggered those teachers. Use each collaboration session to form a clearer profile of your content partners and improve your teaching relationship.

Don’t end a collaboration session without praising the content teacher for something they contributed during the planning. Explain how ELLs will benefit from something the teacher agreed to implement. Content teachers need to know that language specialists recognize their efforts in making content and learning more accessible for ELLs.

If we want English learners to succeed in mainstream classrooms, we cannot work alone. More than ever, content teachers and language specialists need to have a positive working relationship in order to plan effective instruction and design meaningful learning experiences. If we have anything less, it is students who will suffer.

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