08/05/2014 05:57 pm ET Updated Oct 05, 2014

Teacher Collaboration for the Sake of Academic Development in PreK-6 English Language Learners

Research shows that the most common problems English language learners is that of understanding meaning of academic texts. As they acquire more academic vocabulary across content areas, teachers need to ensure they are also helping their students making important literary and deeper comprehension connections. For example, ELL students need to hear targeted academic vocabulary in various reading and read-aloud contexts.

Enhancing collaborative partnerships benefit all involved in the process. However, there are still limited opportunities in today's academic environment for all who are involved in the teaching of ELL students to collaborate leaving teachers to work on their own or seek collaborative resources outside the district.

Collaboration in Action

As collaborators, teachers can make content instruction comprehensible to ELL students at the various levels of language proficiency at the K-6 grade levels. When teaching academic vocabulary for example, teachers can bridge listening and reading formats. An ELL student acquires a listening vocabulary prior to recognizing words in context. For example in a co-teaching format, teachers can think of ways students might hear these two words in different contexts as in the example of "trunk" and "cell" before expecting them to understand these words in context.

Additionally, teachers can collaborate on teaching academic vocabulary before, during and after students read. Students need explicit vocabulary instruction, not just exposure taking into account they need 12 production opportunities to own a word.

Collaborating to Support Early Literacy and Academic Language Development

ELL students who have limited oral English proficiency in general education classes often have difficulty making academic connections. Academic teaching and learning involves acquiring new academic words and terminology across content areas. Nathan"In our experience as educators, one of the key ways that we find private tutoring enhances ESL and ELL programs is through active learning scenarios: tutors can engage students into sample social or business scenarios and enable students to put into practice their learning," says Nathan Arora, President of, an online tutoring company.

Freeman and Freeman (2009) describe academic language as "the specific language needed to understand and contribute to classroom talk and to read and write texts for school" (p.29). ELL students who have not yet acquired enough academic language by the end of the second grade, to understand "academic texts" or texts which contain academic terminology of school, will often hypothesize meaning in an attempt to interpret the message of oral and written input. Therefore, if teachers wish to improve the reading proficiency of their struggling ELL students, they also need to consider the ways by which they use listening to support the development of early literacy.

For example, teacher language helps with demonstrating academic meanings, modeling the academic language, and urging learners to explain using the academic terminology of the school. By providing the academic model required for effective content learning in both ESL and general education contexts, teachers provide opportunities for ELL students to use academic language in both written and spoken contexts. In co-teaching configurations, the ESL and content/general education teacher have many opportunities to integrate reading and oracy into a content based lesson.

Collaborating to Support PreK-2 ELL Students

For English language learners in preschool, there is little collaboration between general education and ESL teachers because ESL services are not mandated in preschool classes. It has been documented extensively that oral language proficiency and vocabulary knowledge is a necessary element in literacy development and content area for K-2 English language learners. Second language learners develop and use oral vocabulary and phrases in much the same way as their monolingual English peers, and they benefit from many of the same kinds of instruction when learning to read English (National Literacy Panel, 2006). There is too much at stake not to support English language learners who are still lagging academically behind in literacy development and content areas.

For those teachers of ELL students in PreK-2 general education classrooms, the need to support academic language development is crucial. To ensure that ELL students are not left behind in the general education classroom, teachers can consult with the knowledge and expertise of the ESL teacher in crucial areas the knowledge and expertise of an ESL teacher. Through collaboration, teachers can promote academic oral language use and vocabulary learning in order to help ELL students make connections between spoken and written language in the early grades.

Teachers can scaffold or "break down" academic knowledge in both listening and reading based formats. The process by which teachers integrate to support vocabulary and reading development is a concept known as "balanced literacy" and teachers need to be able to integrate oracy, reading and writing in their content areas and be able to use these principles in their collaboration. This goes for all grade levels and across content areas of learning.

Collaboration in the areas of literacy, language and content for PreK-2 ELL students requires:

• knowledge of effective oral reading instruction that promotes vocabulary knowledge and phonological awareness training

• knowledge of the decoding process so learners can make connections between ideas while reading.

• knowledge of effective fluency strategies which at-risk and struggling ELL students need early on in the decoding process.

Using an ESL Co-Teaching Framework

Recognizing the value and expertise of an ESL teacher is central to the idea that a partnership between ESL and content area teachers can impact academic achievement of ELL students. For some teachers, co-teaching may not be an option if there is no ESL teacher on site or if teachers lack the necessary preparation for effectively educating this group.

Co-teaching in Action

In a supportive ESL co-teaching framework, a kindergarten teacher for example, observes a special education teacher who teaches several groups of students with special needs including ELL students. The special education teacher becomes familiar with the role of the kindergarten teacher through a hands-on experience by supporting and assisting. Together, they enjoy a hands-on learning experience, by sharing materials and planning collectively with a colleague who is equally invested in the students' achievement.

Co-teaching can also take form of teacher-teams which include general education and special education teachers, paraprofessionals, and building specialists who also design the intervention plan at different tiers to discuss the role of second language acquisition issues and ESL strategies for co-teaching.

It is only recently, that teacher collaboration for the sake of English language learners is gathering more attention from the educational community. I invite all teachers (general-education, content area, and ESL specialists) to set out on a journey beginning with collaboration and moving toward co-teaching for the sake of English language learners, which may be a new concept in many schools across the nation.