Like our spring issue, articles published in the fall issue of the new MinneTESOL Journal may be invited or submitted, and all take advantage of the online format by allowing for more images, hyperlinks, and the chance to share and comment.  But unlike the spring thematic issue, the fall issue features articles on a variety of topics and all manuscripts are subject to peer review before publication.  Members were clear about the importance of providing a publication place for high-quality work that maintained the rigor expected of an academic journal and we have listened by ensuring that space is available in each fall issue.
Our Fall 2014 issue features an invited article from Andrea Honigsfeld and Maria Dove, two authors well-known to Minnesotans.  Honigsfeld and Dove are passionate voices for the power of collaboration and co-teaching, and this article shares a coaching tool called I-TELL (Integrated Teaching for ELLs Observation Tool).  Readers are sure to find value in what the authors bring to us in this article.

Our peer-reviewed manuscripts reflect the wide range of interests and expertise of MinneTESOL members.  Articles in this issue share insights on helping ESL teachers work with their mainstream colleagues to infuse academic language into K-12 curricula, the value of using professional learning communities as vehicles to assist teachers to understand and implement a culturally relevant pedagogy, building digital resilience by integrating Open Educational Resources into adult ELL classrooms, and a look at the dismantling of the public school system in Qatar and the implications for all schools of moving to a privatized, for-profit model.

As always, our work couldn’t happen without the support of members who submit manuscripts, who volunteer to serve on the Editorial Board, and who help us by reviewing manuscripts.  A special thanks to the MinneTESOL Board for their support as the work of remaking the MinneTESOL Journal continues to evolve.  Thanks to Kate Clements as our Journal technical editor.  Please take the time to read, comment and share the articles in the Fall 2014 MinneTESOL Journal.

Kim Johnson and Anne Dahlman
MinneTESOL Journal Senior Co-editors

Harold B. Allen Award Recipient: ESL teachers are being asked to lead the work of infusing academic language into to the K-12 curricula.  This paper will give you some ideas about how to approach the challenge of this work.

In the last few years, two major movements in American education have led to practices that, when implemented, may lead to improvement for the education of English learners. One is the creation of the Common Core Standards in 2010 (Common Core State Standards, 2013), and the other is a new teacher performance assessment for student teachers called edTPA (Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning and Equity, 2013) that was introduced in Minnesota two years ago.

Common Core Standards and edTPA

The Common Core Standards (2013) are a set of academic standards that children are supposed to meet in English and math at the end of each school year. The initiative to draft them was led by United States governors and education commissioners. So far, 45 states have adopted the Common Core State Standards. Minnesota has chosen to adopt the English, but not the math standards.

EdTPA is an assessment system, administered during student teaching, that is designed to allow teacher candidates to show that they have the skills to meet the demanding requirements of teaching children so that they can meet the Common Core Standards. The creation of edTPA was a joint effort by the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning and Equity and the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning and Equity, 2013). What both the Common Core Standards and edTPA have in common that is so important for English learners is their emphasis on academic language, and the demand that all teachers make them a part of their responsibility.

If we are to help our mainstream colleagues become effective teachers of academic language, we all need to agree on what academic language is. Zwiers (2008) describes academic language as:

…the language required for schooling. It requires both key content words as well as language structure …. Academic language is intricately linked to higher order thinking processes, developed by extensive modeling and scaffolding of classroom talk, accelerated by weaving direct teaching of its features while teaching content concepts. (p. xv.)

In keeping with Zwiers’ definition, Common Core repeatedly makes references to language structures that children should learn (Common Core State Standards, 2013). For kindergarten through 12thgrade it spells out language structures and functions that teachers should teach. Here are a few example for first and fourth grades:

Examples of Common Core Standards Addressing Academic Language

First Grade:

Use frequently occurring conjunctives (and, but, or, so, because) Use determiners (articles- a, an, the, demonstratives this, these, that, those)

Fourth Grade:

Link ideas within categories of information using words and phrases (e.g. another, for example, also , because) Use relative pronouns (who, whose, whom, which, that) and relative adverbs (where, when, why).

Ninth-Tenth Grade:

Use various types of phrases (noun, verb, adjectival, adverbial, participial, prepositional, absolute) and clauses (independent, dependent; noun, relative, adverbial) to convey specific meanings and add variety and interest to writing or presentations.

For sixth through 12th grades, there is a specific section of the Common Core Standards that refer to the language of history/social studies, science and technical subjects. An example from the 11th to 12th grade section includes:

Example of Common Core Standard for Secondary Content Academic Language

Analyze in detail how a complex primary source is structured, including how key sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text contribute to the whole.

Similarly, edTPA expects candidates to show how they teach academic language supporting their content. EdTPA content is proprietary, but the writers at Stanford University offer the following examples and many more (SCALE, 2010):

Academic Language Examples

 Examples of connector words for different purposes:

  • Temporal: first, next, then
  • Causal: because, since, however, therefore
  • Comparative: rather, instead, also, on the other hand
  • Additive: and, or, furthermore, similarly, while
  • Coordinating: and, nor, but, so

If you have had the opportunity to work with mainstream teachers on academic language, you have probably noticed that anything beyond the key vocabulary (often bolded in the text) tends to not be in their frame of thinking. They tend to not be language experts. The question then is, how can we help mainstream teachers become competent instructors of academic language? Fortunately, I have had a lot of opportunities to word with them on this task, and I have gained some expertise. The purpose of this paper is to share those ideas with you so that you can adopt and/or adapt them with the goal of improving the education of ELs in your school.

I often start with Zwiers’ definition of academic language, quoted above, and then follow up with another excerpt from Zwiers. Zwiers asks: “Who needs instruction in academic language?” He answers: “They are immigrants, speakers of varieties of English, others who have not been immersed in thought and talk that is valued in school.” (Zwiers, 2008, p.xiv) I always ask who has students who fit in one of those three categories, and most public school teachers are quick to respond that they all do. I am trying to convince teachers that what I am going to say to them will be useful for a lot of their students in addition to being essential for the English learners.

A Discussion of Social and Academic English

Many mainstream teachers know Cummins'(2008) terms “BICS” (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills) and “CALP” (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency) but few can remember what the acronyms stand for, or have a deep understanding of what each category entails. I prefer to talk about them as social and academic language, and I also add a discussion about discrete language skills (Cummins, 2008) I describe them this way:

Definitions of Social Language, Academic Language, and Discrete Language Skills

  • Social Language- language of social interaction with friends and family (“playground language”)
  • Academic Language- language required for higher order thinking processes to be successful in school and professionally (“cash language”)
  • Discrete Language Skill – skills that you need to develop academic language, but knowing them does not constitute academic language fluency (for example: punctuation, reciting ABCs)

The discussion about discrete language skills is necessary, because many teachers think of those skills as being academic language, and think they are already teaching it, but instead they are merely skills that are necessary to develop academic language. I then follow up with a number of examples, and we discuss whether they are examples of academic language, social language or discrete language skills. Here are typical examples, along with the answers:

Academic Language, Social Language or Discrete Language Skill?

  1. If the teacher says, “Put down your pencils”, the student will know what to do without relying on visual clues provided by other students putting down pencils.(social language)
  2. Students can distinguish main idea from supporting material after watching a video on fall leaf color. (academic language)
  3. Students can talk about their weekend plans. (social language)
  4. Students can talk about how their scout activities will help them in their adult lives. (academic language)
  5. Students can describe the steps of the water cycle. (academic language)
  6. Students can compare and contrast mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. (academic language)
  7. Students can write a face book entry. (social language)
  8. Students can conjugate a verb:

I go, you go, he goes
I went
I am going, you are going, he is going
I have gone, you have gone, he has gone etcetera. (discrete language skill)

  1. Students can decode (read aloud) the social studies text. (discrete language skill)
  2. Students can say, “I can’t do that math problem because I don’t remember how to multiply fractions.” (academic language)

Once teachers become comfortable with what academic language is and is not, then I proceed to every day teaching examples that I draw from my recent classroom observations to begin the discussion of how to incorporate academic language objectives into the discussion. It is important to use examples from their practice, things they really teach.

Start with Examples Teachers Understand

I often start with a content objective that everyone remembers from their own childhood, and one that people often mistakenly think of as being universal across cultures.

Example of a Content Objective in Math

Students will learn the times tables up to 12 x 12 and understand the concept of multiplication.

Then I discuss the language challenges that multiplication includes. Teachers generally realize that the words “times” and “table” can be problematic, but they rarely think about the morphology or syntax of simple math statements.

Language Challenges of Multiplication Facts

  1. Times has nothing to do with a clock, and is a synonym for multiplied by.
  2. 3 x4 = can be said in at least three ways: three times four is…, 3 times 4 makes…, three times four equals
  3. What does “table” mean in math? It is a polysemous word; it has more than one meaning.

When their attention is brought to it, teachers begin to see that the language of math is complicated. I follow up with a social studies example that I saw in a Minneapolis high school class. The content objective was:

Social Studies Content Objective

Students will explain the how per capita consumption patterns differ between developed and developing countries.

The countries being compared were the USA and India. I ask the teachers what the language challenges associated with this particular content objective might be. We begin a discussion of per capita. What does capita mean? It has a Latin root that means head. Do we have any other words in English that also use cap to refer to head? Capital city, captain, cap, capital punishment, decapitate. Are students likely to have encountered the preposition per before? Percent, miles per hour. What does percent mean? We also discuss what consume means, and relate it to consuming food and consumer.

A few language savvy teachers also point out the morphemes –ed and –ing at the end of develop, and that the former means that it happened in the past and the latter means that it is happening right now. Based on this discussion, we come up with the following language objectives:

Social Studies Language Objective

Students will understand and use in writing and speaking:

  • per capita
  • consumption
  • -ed in develped (implies the past)
  • -ing in developing (implies it is happening now)

With this background, I ask teachers to consider this example from Zwiers (2008, p. 25):

Language Analysis Example

On the other hand, the two scientists had differing views on the topic of evolution.

I let teachers discuss this example on their own in small groups, and inevitably, they raise issues 1-3. They tend not to think about the difference between different views and differing views. I raise issue number 4 with them to try to scaffold them into thinking more about how language is structured.

Language Analysis Issues

  • What does on the other hand mean? It has nothing to do with hands.
  • What are other ways of saying on the other hand?
  • What is a view in this sentence? It’s not something one sees with his or her eyes.
  • Is there a difference between differing views and different views? Does one imply more immediate conflict?

To further practice thinking about language, I love to use the excerpts from a sample Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA) (Minnesota Department of Education, n. d.). about bats.

MCA Reading Example

Even though they fly, bats do not have feathers. Instead, they have fur like many other mammals. Bats do not have actual wings, either…Most bats come out only at night, although some may fly at sunset.

To help teachers see what the language objectives might be, I ask them: What essential vocabulary words would you teach students to help them comprehend this passage?

Discussion of how to use this passage with your colleagues is detailed in Kramer, Lundgren & Mabbott (2010). For your convenience, I am copying a table summarizing our discussion from that article here.

 Content Objective

 Language Function

 Language Form

 Vocabulary Words

 How bats differ from other animals that fly  Analysis-compare contrast, differentiate  Even though, instead, although  feathersmammalswings, fly, actual, sunset

What do you want the students to be able to say/write?

Even though they are mammals and don’t have feathers, bats can fly. 

The biggest revelation to teachers through this discussion is that the words that they thought of as being academic challenges, words such as mammal, are a small and easier subset of academic language. The word mammal is easy to explain through description and pictures. Structural words such as even though, although and instead, all of which indicate that an exception is coming up, are rarely taught in schools, even though they are essential for understanding academic texts. They perform the function of comparing, contrasting or differentiating, concepts that students are expected to master across the disciplines.
Once teachers have practice with these examples, I summarize the key questions to keep in mind when looking for a good language objective to accompany content objectives:

Questions to Help Teachers Find Appropriate Language Objectives

What do you want students to say or write?

What function is that language performing ?

What language will you teach so the students can tell or write what they know?

How can you move your students towards using more sophisticated academic language?

Using Examples to Teach Teachers about Academic Language

I then provide the teachers with more examples from a variety of disciplines, all obtained from my observations in schools. I will list some here.

Example 1

Math Content Objective: Estimation

Language Objective: Students will estimate using

The ballpark answer is…….

The approximate answer is…………………………

My estimate is…………………………………………

Example 1 engenders an interesting discussion about sports metaphors. This example, taken from the Everyday Mathematics (University of Chicago, n.d.) curriculum, is showing an attempt to make math concepts such as estimation more accessible to children by using the term “ballpark answer”. Since many of our students do not know what a baseball park is, nor how it is related to estimation, the use of “ballpark answer” is confusing. I encourage teachers to teach “approximate” and “estimate” and “ballpark answer” as alternatives. The American society uses sports metaphors abundantly, and we will be doing our students a service to recognize them, and teach them alongside the more academic terms.

Example 2

Language Arts Content Objective: Making predictions in reading

Language Objective: Students will predict using

I predict that……..

My prediction is that………………..

I hypothesize that………

Making predictions in reading is a common language arts activity. What I find teachers sometimes forgetting to do is to teach the language that making predictions requires, and to build variety in language by adding new ways to do it. When students are first learning, teach them to say “I predict that…”, but add “My prediction is…” once they have acquired “I predict that…”. “I hypothesize” is used more in science, but is another way to predict in non-scientific contexts as well, and learning how to use words in more than one setting helps children to acquire them.

Example 3

Math Content Objective: Probability in math.

Given different colors of candy in a cup, the children made up probability problems and quizzed each other on them with: What is the probability of getting an (orange)?

Language Objective: Using the words possible (posible), impossible (imposible); certain (cierto), students will express probability statements and their reasons using the following pattern:

It’s possible to get an orange because there are orange candies in the cup.
It’s impossible to get orange because there are no orange candies in the cup.
It’s certain to get an orange because all of the candies in the cup are orange.

In the above example, I also suggest to teachers that if they have Spanish speakers in their class, they can make the lesson bilingual by including the cognates posible, imposible and cierto. We then get into a discussion on how most academic terms in English have a Spanish cognate, and that teachers can capitalize on them in instruction even if they don’t speak Spanish. Spanish dictionaries are easily found online now.

Example 4 

Science Content Objective : Describe the relationship of the planets in the solar system.

Language Objective : Students will use the following language to describe the relationship between planets in the solar system.

Names of the planets: Mercury, Venus, the Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune (Pluto?)
Structures: bigger than, smaller than, closer to… than, further away from
Eg. The Earth is closer to the sun than Mars.

The solar system example is a good way to stress to teachers that small words and morphemes are essential for carrying out language functions. This type of language tends to be invisible to the native speaker, and difficult to the English learner unless it is pointed out to them and taught.
Notice that we use an article, the, before Earth, but not before the other planets. Pointing out subtleties of English is something that all teachers should impart to English learners.

Example 5

Science Content Objective: Define cells and differentiate cells from atoms.

Language Objectives: Use the following language to define and differentiate.

A cell is…………
A cell is defined as……
A cell, the smallest structural and functional unit of an organism,….
Cells have DNA but (while, whereas) atoms don’t.

I was surprised to see this objective being taught, until the teacher pointed out to me that students get cells and atoms mixed up because they both contain nuclei. Students should be taught the different ways that textbooks indicated definitions. In English, definitions are often signaled by is, is defined as, or with and appositive set off by commas.

Also note that many students can make comparison using the word but; however, we would like to move students to use more sophisticated language, so I encourage teachers to demand that students also learn to use while and whereas. I stress that we want to teach our students to “sound like mathematicians, scientists, social scientists, and literary scholars”.

Example 6

Social Studies Content Objective:

Describe the rights protected by the 5th Amendment of the Bill of Rights:

self-incrimination (right to refuse to testify against oneself) due process (No person shall be.deprived of life, liberty, or property, without following the law) Property taken by eminent domain must be paid for (if the government needs your property, it must pay for it. ) double jeopardy (being tried more than once for the same crime)

Language Objective: Students will explain their rights using:

The 5th amendment protects me from_____________________,
which means_______________________
The 5th amendment guarantees me…………………………….,
which means…………………………………..

When I observed the class where this lesson was taught, I was really pleased to see the social studies teacher providing and expecting students to use the above sentence frames. Students’ natural tendencies are to answer with single words or short phrases, and too many teachers accept such answers. To develop more sophisticated English, teachers need to teach it and demand that students use it.

Example 7

Business Content Objective: Investigate colleges and careers and decide which one suits me best.

Language Objective: Students will state their opinion about colleges and careers using:

I prefer to go to…because…
My preference is to attend…because…
I would not be interested in this career, if …
(I hated children/ I were shy/ blood made me faint.)

Educated speakers and writers of English use the subjunctive mood to indicate a hypothetical state or a state contrary to what is true, such as a wish, a desire, or an imaginary situation. The above example is a very good way to introduce the subjunctive to students, and that they need to use what looks to them like the past tense of the verb.

Example 8

Biology Content Objective: What distinguishes prokaryotes from eukaryotes?

” Karyote” is Greek for kernel, and “eu” means “true”. It refers to the nucleus that eukaryotes have and prokaryotes do not. “Pro” means before, which implies a more primitive life form, one that existed before cell nuclei developed.

Language Objective:

Student will contrast prokaryotes from eukaryotes using the following types of sentence structures: Both are……… (living organisms) Both (have DNA), but (the DNA in prokaryotes is loose, and the DNA in eukaryotes is contained in the nucleus).The DNA in prokaryotes is (loose), whereas (while) the DNA in eukaryotes is (contained in the nucleus).

Greek and Latin morphemes and their meaning are very important to teach students, because they are invaluable to help students learn to break down, remember and understand content specific terms. The lesson about prokaryotes and eukaryotes, present in all biology curricula, should remind teachers that students will remember technical vocabulary more easily if these derivations are explained to students.

Example 9

Physical Science Content Objective: How does a change in mass effect the velocity of the car?

Language Objective: Students will describe results of an experiment manipulating variables using the words hypothesis, control , experimental, independent and dependent variables, and the structure word as. (As the mass increases, ……….)

When I talk about this example, I remind teachers that some very small, seemingly simple words such as “as” are really challenging to learn to use correctly. “As”, after all, is on the Dolch List (K12Reader, 2012) of commonly used words that children are expected to read by sight by first grade, so most teachers think of it as a simple word. It is not obvious to children how “as” is used or what it means. Science teachers can help, as in the above example.

Also, I stress to teachers that the above examples are not fill-in-the blank exercises. Providing stem starters or sentence frames such as As the mass increases,…helps students in the acquisition process, but they need to always be required to speak and/or write the whole sentence, with the goal of eventually removing the stem starters and sentence frames.

Helping Teachers Write their own Language Objectives

Once I give teachers a number of examples that come from their world, I give them a worksheet that is designed to help them start working on language objectives for the content that they teach. The worksheet follows, with an example of answers based on the bat example mentioned above. Relating language function to Bloom’s taxonomy is helpful to teachers because they have all learned about it, and it helps them to conceptualize language function.

Writing Academic Language Objectives Worksheet

  1. What is your content objective? (How bats differ from other animals)
  2. What would you ideally like the students to say or write at the end of the lesson? (Even though they are mammals and don’t have feathers, bats can fly.)
  3. What language function do you want students to use?
    New Bloom’s Taxonomy Possible Language Function
    1. Remembering define, list, label
    2. Understanding describe, report, paraphrase, explain
    3. Applying interpret, generalize
    4. Analyzing compare, contrast, differentiate
    5. Evaluating evaluate, decide, predict
    6. Creating synthesize information
  4. What vocabulary and language structure will your students need to say or write their answer?
  5. Vocabulary: bats, mammals, fur, feathers, actual wingsLanguage Structure: even though, although
  6. Language Objective (SWBAT + language function using + vocabulary + language structure)SWBAT compare bats with other animals using the words bats, mammals, fur, feathers, 

This discussion about language objectives that include vocabulary, language structure and language function is just an introduction. EdTPA (Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning and Equity, 2013) refers also to the discourse level of academic language, although it does not do a thorough job of explaining what it means.

My colleague Cynthia Lundgren describes discourse as the most challenging of texts. She states that it “requires a larger view of the text and its purpose. Key components include: text structure, organization, voice and register, lexical density, clarity and coherence, purpose, functions and audience (personal communication, January 24, 2014). Once your teachers are comfortable with language objectives, you will want to introduce them to teaching students the elements of discourse structure.
The wonderful thing about Common Core and edTPA is that the establishment is now stressing that the expertise area that ESL teachers specialize in reflects academic language use that all students need. Take advantage of this recognition and use it to empower you in your school. Your colleagues and your students will be grateful.


Common Core State Standards Initiative. (2013). Retrieved from

Kramer, D., Lundgren, C. & Mabbott, A. (2010). Relating language objectives to Bloom’s taxonomy: How to talk to your mainstream colleagues about language objectives. MinneWITESOL Journal. Retrieved from

K12-Reader (2012).Dolch word list worksheets and activities. Retrieved from

Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning and Equity. (2013).edTPA. Retrieved from 

University of Chicago. (n.d.).Everyday mathematics. Retrieved from 

Zwiers, J. (2008). Building academic language: Essential practices for content classes. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.


Sato, E. (2011) Academic language and the Common Core State Standards: Implications for English learners [Powerpoint slides].   Retrieved from:

Zwiers, J., Crawford, M. (2011).Academic conversations: Classroom talk that fosters critical thinking across disciplines.Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Zwiers, J. (2014)Academic language and literacy. Retrieved from

The systematic dismantling of one country’s public school system in favor of privatized, for-profit schools demonstrates the impact on educational quality, learning, learners and families.

The movement to privatize schools

Many politicians in the United States have advocated for various forms of privatization of public schools ranging from charter and magnet schools to creating a voucher system to outright dismantling of the American public education system (Cavanagh, 2011). “For 20 years, a top priority item for ALEC [American Legislative Exchange Council] has been the privatization of public schools through a school voucher system” (Bottari, 2011, np). Privatization in the context of this article is defined as any individually or corporately-owned school and/or schools operating outside of governmental educational regulations pertaining to the curriculum, materials, teacher qualifications, and/or services provided.  Magnet schools are one example of schools which can evade governmental educational rules and guidelines. Vouchers, an approach to privatization, are a way for wealthy individuals to apply their taxes to pay for tuition to a private school instead of the public school system. Two Midwestern cities, Cleveland, Ohio and Milwaukee, Wisconsin already employ a school voucher system (Sisson, Zacher & Cayton, 2007). Several Midwestern states are considering implementation of a voucher system or widening implementation, including Michigan and Wisconsin respectively (Kelly, 2014). Similar to vouchers are educational tax cuts, which have been proposed in Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota (Greco, 2003). According to the Rand Corporation, “Vouchers and charter schools both represent the leading edge of the movement to promote parental choice in education, and they present similar challenges for the traditional system of government-operated schools” (2001, np). Proponents cite public schools’ failures to prepare students to be competitive on standardized tests, dropping rates of literacy, and fewer STEM majors (Fensterwald, 2013; New York Times, 2013). They believe that free-market competition will improve the quality of education while reducing the cost (Walker, 2012).

Public school educators and advocates, on the other hand, claim that public schools are overcoming obstacles and preparing an increasingly diverse student body on a wider range of material than in the past while supplementing for the lack of community and parental engagement in students’ lives (Berliner & Biddle, 1995; Berliner & Glass, 2014). Ravitch (2013) argues, “Public education is not broken. It is not failing or declining. The diagnosis is wrong, and the solutions of the corporate reformers are wrong. Our urban schools are in trouble because of concentrated poverty and racial segregation. But public education is not “broken”. Public education is in a crisis only so far as society is and only so far as this new narrative of crisis has destabilized it.” (Chapter 1: Our Schools are at Risk, paragraph 8). 

In spite of these arguments and evidence to support the advocates’ positions, politicians continue to “starve” public schools by reducing their funding (Borosage, 2011; Meegan, 2013; Underwood, 2011). Educators bemoan the reductions in funding noting that without sufficient staff, materials and infrastructure, schools are being set up for failure.

If the American public understood that reformers want to privatize their public schools and divert their taxes to pay profits to investors, it would be hard to sell the corporate idea of reform. If parents understood that the reformers want to close down their community schools and require them to go shopping for schools, some far from home, that may or may not accept their children, it would be hard to sell the corporate idea of reform. If the American public understood that the very concept of education was being disfigured into a mechanism to apply standardized testing and sort their children into data points on a normal curve, it would be hard to sell the corporate idea of reform. (Ravitch, 2013, Chapter 4: The Language of Corporate Reform, paragraph 10).

Americans may not realize that another, little country in the Middle East has experienced the effects of public school privatization. This article describes the systematic dismantling of one country’s public school system in favor of privatized, for-profit schools. The current state of the school system, the learning outcomes, and the struggle to gain admission to a decent school are outlined based on educational research, newspaper articles, governmental and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) statistics and reports, and personal accounts. The educational quality and opportunity for learners who are non-native speakers, have special needs or do not perform well on standardized tests is discussed as well as the potential impact on schools in the Midwest.

Cautionary tale

Starting in 2001, the Rand Corporation began serving as an educational consulting team for the Qatari Ministry of Education (Brewer, Augustine, Zellman, Ryan, Goldman, Stasz & Constant, 2007). The Rand Corporation developed a comprehensive plan to reform the Qatari educational system by privatizing all of the public schools, and eliminating the Ministry of Education in favor of a Supreme Education Council (Brewer et al., 2007). The former public schools were transitioned into for-profit “independent” schools with less oversight and regulation than the former public schools (Brewer et al., 2007; Zellman, Constant & Goldman, 2011).

“RAND offered Qatari leadership three governance reform options, ranging from a modified version of the current centralized system to a completely decentralized system of tuition vouchers provided to parents to use at any school. The Emir made the middle choice, selecting a decentralized charter-school-like system with independently-operated, governmentally-funded schools.” (Zellman, Constant & Goldman, 2011, p. 33).

The principles underpinning the new independent schools were:

  • Autonomy in direction, curriculum, and management;
  • Accountability through audits and reporting;
  • Variety with diverse schooling options; and
  • Choice of schools from a limited set of options
    (Zellman, Constant & Goldman, 2011).

For a total population of 2.17 million (Kovessy, 2014), 126 independent k-12 schools were created in Doha in comparison to the 38 community schools, 120 international schools, and 69 semi-independent schools.

In the case of Qatar, privately owned schools may be small organizations owned by a group of shareholders looking to make a profit. According to one parent, “Private schools in Doha are like mushrooms, popping up all over the place with no guidelines or structures. Parents are so desperate to get their children into a school that they disregard even their health and safety” (“Denise”, personal communication, September 20, 2014).

After 10 years, Qatar’s independent school students continued to perform below average in international comparisons on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which measures 15-year-olds’ performance on reading, science, math/ problem solving and financial literacy. According to the PISA 2012 reports Qatar’s was ranked 62nd out of 65 participating countries. Students were advancing through grades without foundational skills necessary for academics at the next level. According to the Supreme Education Council (2012-13), the percentage of students meeting standards for various fields at graduate is quite low (Figure 1). The areas where fewer students were meeting standards included foundational language and math: Arabic, English, Math and Social Studies.

Figure 1: Students Meeting Standards.
Subject Percentage Meeting Standards Percentage Approaching Standards Percentage Below Standards
Arabic 16% 38% 46%
English 20% 22% 58%
Mathematics 19% 27% 54%
Science-Biology 40% 28% 32%
Science-Chemistry 24% 26% 50%
Science-Physics 44% 22% 34%
Islamic Studies 29% 25% 46%
Social Studies 19% 35% 46%

(Supreme Education Council, 2012-13, p. 24).

Learners began arriving at the university level without the ability to add, or write academically in English or Arabic (M. Chabi, T. Tillman, C. Denekamp, D. Moran, personal communication, 2013-14). According to the Supreme Education Council’s Education in the Schools of Qatar Report, only 64% of independent k-12 teachers are satisfied with their learners’ prior subject preparation (2012-13). The same report noted hours of instruction on the week averaging only 15.3 hours (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Instructional Contact Time in Qatari Independent Schools.
The educational system in Doha quickly became negatively competitive for families and children. With the independent schools failing, families turned to privately-owned international schools, where the reputations were glowing, but the competition for admissions was fierce (Scott, 2014, March). Students, despite native language, were pre-tested for admission to international schools with questionable assessment instruments geared toward admitting only the intellectually elite or well-connected children. Those children with language learning challenges or special needs the schools would have to serve were considered a problem as the private schools would have to hire professionals to meet their needs (M. Mitchell, personal communication, August 5, 2014). Also, if the child did not perform well, she/he would reflect negatively on the reputation of the school (M. Mitchell, personal communication, August 5, 2014).Therefore, these children rarely were accepted into the higher quality schools.

Challenges with the quality of the private schools

Private schools are not necessarily an uncomplicated salve for the problems plaguing public schools. According to parent F. Abousalham, the litany of problems and challenges being experienced in the independent and international schools include,
The education quality in Doha, Qatar from Kindergarten through High school is very low except some schools such as school X and school Y (names redacted). I hear stories almost every day from my son who is in year 5 and from many colleagues whom their kids also go to many independent and international schools. I hear things like,

  • Many kids in year 4 or 5 cannot speak or make a correct sentence in English.
  • Everyone pass the academic year and move to the next level.
  • Kids smoke in school in hidden area at the age of 12 year old.
  • Many parents don’t know which grades their children are in.
  • Many kids suffering from BULLYING.
  • Students’ behavior is very bad: they lie, they cheat, and they have no respect toward their teachers and others.
  • The most important thing for school is to receive their payment on time.

(personal communication, September 28, 2014)

Another parent tells her story of the challenges of obtaining a reasonably reliable, decent quality education for her child.

“Last year, my 9-year old daughter needed to take a bus for 3 hours to/from school daily to attend the only international school that we could gain admission to. The kids on the bus were stir crazy and out of control. My daughter was exhausted getting up at 4am to catch the bus at 5am and returning home at 3pm. I needed to make a change.

I found another school with open admissions which was new, growing and closer to my home. My daughter and I toured the facility, but they indicated they were in the process of moving to a newer facility with more space. I interviewed the British Principal and met the British, licensed teacher; both seemed qualified and professional. My daughter was tested for admission and was accepted. She began at the new school the following week.

All went smoothly for the first two months, with the exception that the teacher was very strict and the instruction seemed traditional. By traditional, I mean rote-memorization of spelling words, direct instruction, little discovery/inquiry learning, and very little engagement. This situation was nothing in comparison to what we were in for….

Everything went awry after the winter break though. The Principal was gone; she wasn’t able to get her governmental paperwork approved. The teachers were all released. A whole new team of Indian teachers without k-12 licensures were present. There was no schedule, no curriculum, no organized lessons, no books, no clear assessments, and no plan. The entire curriculum consisted of daily worksheets with topics that did not necessarily connect.

I attempted to work with the teacher. One day, I had this conversation. “Hi. I’m Sojourner. How’s my daughter doing on her reading?” “Hi. I’m Nazeen. I’m working with her on her literature.” “Literature? You mean literacy, right? You’re teaching her to read, right?” “Right, I’m working with her on her literacy.” “Literacy or literature? Which one are you teaching her?” “Literature. I’m working with her on her literature.”

Clearly, I needed to be a stronger advocate for my child. I spoke to the new Principal only to discover she was an administrator with an MBA and no teaching qualification or experience. I sought other schools. I applied at 4 other schools, each application consisted of as many as 14 different forms and documentation. My daughter had to miss school to be assessed at the schools. At each school, she did not pass the tests, because she’d been in this poor school. So she was not accepted. She is stuck at a chaotic and unprofessional school now. I can’t get her accepted into a better one. I now teach her daily at home after school/work.

(personal communication with Sojourner, September 19, 2014)

This is one experience that highlights many issues in quality of private, for-profit schools. First, the quality of teachers is suspect and variable. Without regulation, private schools can hire anyone they choose; these teachers may or may not have a solid educational background themselves or a university degree. Specialists with knowledge of areas, such as English as a Second Language (ESL), Reading Specialists or Special Education may not be on staff.

Second, the administration of private schools is not stable. The school’s board of directors may choose not to fund the school, so books, technology, equipment, etc. may not be provided, adequate in quality or quantity, or current. The school’s board of directors may fire all the teachers, administrators and staff. They might not provide a sufficient number of personnel for the school.

Third, the quality of assessments is dubious. Children are evaluated for admission and progress on assessments that lack validity and reliability. Unless a school purchases an achievement exam from a testing company, such as Educational Testing Service (ETS), the high-stakes assessments used admission and progress are designed by the teachers who are ill-prepared in test design and psychometrics to develop valid and reliable measures. It is fair to say that the tests of classroom progress are often designed by teachers or adopted from textbook supplemental materials. Furthermore, the admissions are based on these questionable admissions tests. And the admissions rates are extremely exclusive. “The average person has a 7/100 chance of being accepted by Harvard University according to the 2013 admission rate. Our three year old, however, has a 0/6 acceptance rate thus far for Pre-K 4 in Qatar.” (Moha_Doha, 2014, np).

Fourth, the washback on children and stress for families is overwhelming. Children experience different teachers, changes in schedules, lack of a cohesive curriculum, lack of textbooks, and failure to pass an assessment to be admitted to certain schools. These experiences have lasting psychological, developmental and educational impact on the children. For example, as teachers are shifted between classes, when there is no curriculum or textbooks to guide the course of the learning, children receive haphazard information. They may be taught fractions for one week and division the next using different methods and practices. The gaps in their education cannot be calculated. Psychologically, they may blame themselves for not being admitted to a school, they may suffer bullying physically or emotionally and the resultant emotional traumas, or they may act out as the authority and classroom management are unstable.

For families, the instability, the worry for their children and the chaos of the systems breed unrest and fear. Parents worry about their children’s education and emotional well-being, while trying to support them in the process. Many families end up hiring private tutors.


In 2013, the RAND Corporation was “disinvited” to continue its work with the Qatari government due to the poor performance of the independent schools. The general consensus is that the privatization of the public schools failed in Doha (Ahmed, 2013, March). This failure led to an increased demand on private, international schools; Schools that cannot keep pace with demand (Scott, 2014, April). The toll on families is high due to the time demands and costs of submitting numerous applications for admission to all schools, the stress of pre-admissions assessments, and the pressures of waiting lists. Some families do not succeed in finding space for their children in the schools.
Privatization of public schools in the U.S. would also cause children and parents an inordinate amount of stress in search of a good quality school for their children. When families are not enfranchised or knowledgeable about the system, such as many non-native speaking parents, they may lack the financial, personal or linguistic wherewithal to obtain admission to a high-quality school. If the children have needs outside of the traditional (e.g., special needs, reading delays, learning challenges, second language learners/ELs), access to quality schools with highly-qualified teachers is also a formidable challenge.

Privatization inevitably means deregulation, greater segregation, and less equity, with minimal oversight by public authorities. Privatization has typically not been a friend to powerless groups” (Ravitch, 2013, Chapter 6: The Facts about the Achievement Gap, paragraph 2).

Imagine for a minute what would happen in Minneapolis, Madison, or Chicago, let alone small towns, if voucher schools became prevalent. Many rich, white families would withdraw their taxes from the pool of funds for public schools, leaving a great deal less funding for those remaining. The available spots in private schools would become even more competitive and exclusive than they already are. The minority children who are supposed to be served by vouchers as a means of entering private schools (Rand, 2003), would experience more rigorous and exclusionary admissions testing. English language learners’ families who may not have the linguistic abilities to navigate the voucher system and private school admissions process would not have equitable access. It would be those children who are less fortunate who would remain behind in the public schools. The public schools would shrink in population and staffing. Many teachers would lose their jobs as the funding would be further reduced. The public schools would have even less academic success as a result of the higher achieving students’ departures. Ultimately, the voucher system would lead to the dismantling of public schools at worst or a two tiered system enfranchising only the wealthy and empowered. We have seen in Qatar’s example that private schools do not automatically equate with high quality education; actually, the lack of regulations and over sight are rife for misuse of funds, instability, and chaos. Without the public schools serving as a means for all people to obtain an education, the impact on our Midwestern communities and families would be extremely negative as well.

The American public schools may have challenges, but they are free, accessible and serve all learners who arrive at their doorstep. Educators should continue to strive for high quality education for each child through sustained school improvement. However, educators must also advocate for the public school system in order to serve all learners in an equitable and unbiased manner. Having lived the Qatari school experience, I look forward to reenrolling my child in the Eau Claire (WI) Public Schools.


Ahmed, A. (2013, March). Are Qatar’s independent schools broken? An in-depth report. Doha News. Retrieved on September 24, 2014 from

Berliner, D. C., & Biddle, B. J. (1995). The manufactured crisis: Myths, fraud, and the attack on America’s public schools. New York: Addison-Wesley.

Berliner, D. C., & Glass, G. V. (2014). 50 myths and lies that threaten America’s public schools: The real crisis in education. New York: Teachers’ College Press, Columbia University.

Borosage, R. (2011, October). Starving America’s public schools. Nation of Change. Retrieved on September 22, 2014 from

Bottari, M. (2011). ALEC bills in Wisconsin. The Center for Media and Diplomacy’s PR Watch. Retrieved on September 22, 2014 from

Brewer, D. J., Augustine, C. H., Zellman, G. L., Ryan, G., Goldman, C. A., Stasz, C. & Constant, L. (2007). Education for a new era: Design and implementation of K-12 education reform in Qatar. Santa Monica, CA: Rand-Qatar Policy Institute.

Cavanagh, S. (2011). State GOP lawmakers push to expand vouchers. Education Week. Retrieved on September 22, 2014 from

Fensterwald, J. (2013, December). U.S. scores stagnant, other nations pass us by in latest international test. EdSource. Retrieved on September 22, 2014 from

Greco, J. (2003). School choice supporters poised for a new legislative push in state capitols. Firstline Midwest, 10(1), 1-4.
Kelly, R. (2014, January). State rep. Tim Kelly: Expand vouchers to include private, parochial schools. Detroit Free Press. Retrieved on September 28, 2014 from

Kovessy, P. (2014, September). ‘New wave’ of expats arriving in Qatar, says QNB report. Retrieved on September 22, 2014 from

Meegan, T. (2013, July). CPS starving its schools to justify privatization. Chicago Sun-Times Retrieved on September 22, 2014 from

Moha_Doha. (2014, March). Getting into Harvard is easier than kindergarten in Qatar. Retrieved on September 28, 2014 from

New York Times, Editorial Board. (2013, October). The United States, falling behind. New York Times. Retrieved on September 22, 2014 from

Rand Corporation. (2001). What do we know about vouchers and charters schools? Separating the rhetoric from the reality. Research Brief RB-8018-EDU. Retrieved on September 28, 2014 from

Ravitch, D. (2013). Reign of error: The hoax of the privatization movement and the danger to America’s public schools. NY:Random House.

Scott, V. (2014, March). Expats vent frustration at the lack of private school places in Qatar. Doha News. Retrieved on September 24, 2014 from

Scott, V. (2014, April). Headteachers and parents discuss admissions amid school place shortage. Doha News. Retrieved on September 24, 2014 from

Sisson, R., Zacher, C., & Cayton, A. (Eds.). (2007). The American Midwest: An interpretative encyclopedia. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Supreme Education Council, Evaluation Institute. (2012-13). Education in the schools of Qatar. Report for the year 2012-13.Retrieved on September 24, 2014 from

Underwood, J. (2011, July). ALEC Exposed: Starving Public Schools. The Nation. Retrieved on September 22, 2014 from

Walker, B. (2012, July). An argument for privatizing public schools. The New American.Retrieved on September 22, 2014 from

Teachers and programs can enhance efforts to build digital resilience for adult learners by adding supported access to a range of different learning tools called Open Educational Resources. This paper presents strategies for locating and integrating OERs into adult ELL classrooms.

The need to develop digital resilience

At the heart of sustainable change is developing and helping people to build up an “inner resilience” that guards them from experiencing every change that comes their way as disruptive. Instead, this resilience ensures that they learn to cope with these changes more as part of their continuous “agile development and learning” (Cashman, 2009), recognizing patterns in one situation and making sense of them and applying them in another (Kop, Fournier & Mak, 2011, p. 76).

Increased expectations for technology use in daily life, postsecondary schooling, and work have privileged the use of learning technologies in Adult Basic Education (ABE) programs that serve adult English language learners (ELLs) in Minnesota and across the country. Many ABE programs have responded by offering digital literacy training and encouraging their learners to engage in online distance learning. These efforts are beneficial to learners; however, they may fall short of building the “inner resilience” described above (Kop, et al., 2011).

To best prepare ELLs for use of technology required for full participation in economic and civic life, teachers and programs can enhance their current efforts to build digital resilience by adding supported access to a range of different learning tools called Open Educational Resources. OERs are free online resources that support both digital literacy and academic skill attainment. When learners use multiple and varied OERs they see, first hand, the importance of using the Internet to find knowledge and information – a lesson many ABE learners need in order to access resources and overcome barriers inhibiting their success in school and work. Learning through use of multiple and varied online tools starts with developing digital literacy and leads to the “resilience” needed to become a lifelong learner and reach career and academic goals. 

What is digital literacy?

Digital literacy is proficiency in the use of technology and applying it when communicating and accessing information. Eshet-Alkalai (2004) further describes it as the “technical, cognitive, and sociological skills in order to perform tasks and solve problems in digital environments” (p. 93), breaking down skills as follows:

  • Photo-visual literacy, “the art of reading visual representations” (p. 94)
  • Reproduction literacy, “the art of creative recycling of existing materials” (p. 97)
  • Branching literacy, “use of hypermedia and non-linear thinking” (p. 98)
  • Information literacy, “the art of skepticism” (p. 100)
  • Socio-emotional literacy, collaborative learning and sharing in online venues (p. 101)

Highly educated learners use these skills on the Internet to gain access to knowledge and information. They develop technology skills by using technology to learn academic content or find information, which prepares them to adapt to future technological developments (Kop, et al., 2011). The “inner resilience” built is a strength required for the rapid pace of technological change present in today’s school and work. The audience who can use technology in this way must continue to broaden if the benefit from such participation is to reach those who most need it. Hence, expanded use of OERs can help ELLs gain technology skills needed to address barriers that have prevented them from reaching academic and career goals in the past and position them to be able to make use of future technological developments.

An important first step in framing a contemporary use of technology in learning for ELL/ABE students came in 2010 when the Obama administration released a National Education Technology Plan, which calls on educators to embrace innovation and empower students to take control of their own learning. It demands leveraging technology to connect to resources beyond the classroom and to a wider set of “educators,” including teachers, parents, experts, and mentors, embracing Open Educational Resources (OERs) as a valuable learning tools (Transforming American education: Learning powered by technology, 2010). This call has been the impetus for national policy in ABE. Supportive policies, access to OERs, and adequate professional development to show teachers how to effectively use them are necessary for creating learning that instills inner resilience for our ELLs. Each of these requirements will be discussed in this paper.

New policies to move forward

Federal education policy is clear in its support of the use of technology for adult ELLs. The Office of Continuing and Adult Education (OCTAE) now promotes application of the Common Core College and Career Readiness Standards (CCRS) in programming at ABE sites across the country (Pimentel, 2013). The CCRS embed technology into several anchor standards, for example:

  • Anchor 5: Make strategic use of digital media and visual displays of data to express information and enhance understanding of presentations” (Pimentel, 2013, p. 32)
  • Anchor 6: Using technology and the Internet to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others” (Pimentel, 2013, p. 28).

Similarly, the new Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act (WIOA) articulates a requirement for technology to be used in both the classroom and distance learning (HR 803, Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act, 2014). Expanded use of learning technology is mentioned in several places in the new law, including Section 223 (2)(B), which lists the following under permissible agency activities:

“the development and implementation of technology applications, translation technology, or distance education, including professional development to support the use of instructional technology” (p. 523-524)

Further, Section 231 (e)(7) lists the following provision for selecting eligible ABE service providers:

“whether the eligible provider’s activities effectively use technology, services, and delivery systems, including distance education in a manner sufficient to increase the amount and quality of learning and how such technology, services, and systems lead to improved performance” (p. 533).

Such language requires programs to include opportunities for learners to both improve their digital literacy skills and apply them to their academic learning, setting the stage for use of multiple learning technologies like OERs.

What are OERs? 

“Open Educational Resources (OER) are teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits sharing, accessing, repurposing — including for commercial purposes — and collaborating with others” (Transforming American education: Learning powered by technology, 2010, p. 56).
An OER could be any discrete learning resource found online: an image, eBook, podcast, video, or interactive activity. It could also be a complete lesson plan or fully developed course. All OERs are licensed in a way that allows teachers to use them as is, or sometimes, make adaptations to customize for their learners. This is usually done through a Creative Commons license. Because they are free, adaptable, and plentiful, OERs are ideal supplemental resources for both classroom and online distance learning instruction.

Teachers can access OERs in many ways. A Google search can be done using the advanced option with usage rights set to show items that can be freely used or shared, as illustrated in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1. Advanced Google search example

Step by step instructions for doing such a search and for locating OERs in multiple online databases can be found at, a website developed through US Department of Labor funding to support access to OERs for learners in Community and Technical College transitions programs. One of the useful databases listed on this site is the OER Commons, which includes links to fully developed lessons plans and discrete learning resources and activities, including a few already popular in ABE programs, such as:

  • TV411 – dedicated to help adults with basic reading, writing, math, and science skills using engaging video and interactive activities.
  • Khan Academy – hosting video-based instruction across a broad range of subject areas.

Entries in the database often include instructions for tailoring use of the materials to specific audiences. For example, there are instructions for use of Khan Academy with ELLs, complete with instructions for use of captions and adjusting video playback speed.

Another useful resource for teachers is California’s Outreach and Technical Assistance Network for Adult Educators (OTAN), which has published several fully developed courses, licensed under Creative Commons, and filled with links to other OERs. These courses are built into a learning management system called Moodle (see Figure 2 below), which is also used in many K12 districts across Minnesota. Here is a sampling of the courses available.

Advanced ESL course – For adult ELLs as a stand-alone course or for supplementary learning activities. It covers listening, reading, writing, vocabulary development, and grammar.

College Transition and Career Development course – Designed to help all ABE learners, including advanced ELLs, transition to college or prepare for work. It focuses on writing and provides opportunities for learning about job search.

USA Learns ‘Wrap Around’ course – Intended for learners who are also enrolled in the distance-learning curriculum called USA Learns. It provides links to complementary OERs selected to augment the USA Learns for ELLs who need additional instruction and practice.

These and other courses developed across the U.S. and shared with OTAN can be found at The courses are available for any teacher to view and use as a resource for finding OERs to support their instruction. Alternatively, OTAN will share entire courses to teachers who have access to their own Moodle sites.

It’s clear that OERs are widely available; however, the availability of content alone will not ensure their use in ABE/ELL programs. Current use of technology for many ELLs has not realized its potential because of the way it has been integrated – crammed into the current models of teaching and learning. Christensen, Horn, and Johnson (2011) argued that simply adding a new technology into an existing infrastructure does not yield success because there is little incentive for organizations to alter the way they work to accommodate that new technology. For learning technologies like OERs to best benefit learners, programs must change the way they view technology in learning.

“New structures and processes must be developed to accommodate the new reality: Individuals should be able to access knowledge, skills, and information not only by using multiple media at any time or place, but in different formats, structures, and quantities, and for different personally determined purposes” (McCain, 2009).

What might effective use of OERs in instruction look like? Any use of technology for ELLs needs to meet the low-print literacy and digital literacy usability threshold defined by Silver-Pacquilla and Reder (2008) as flexible and different for every learner depending on an “interaction among learner’s skills, the [online] environments they encounter, and the support available” (p. 1). In short, the integration of OERs into instruction likely needs to be differentiated to meet a learner’s specific needs and be supportive, providing sufficient face-to-face scaffolding to make the experience useful for the learner (Reder, Vanek, & Wrigley, 2012).

The Minnesota Department of Education ABE offers self-paced training to help teachers understand how to adopt effective technology integration strategies. Called the Digital Literacy Integration in the ABE Classroom, the training recommends the following strategies:

  1. Determine the digital literacy skill gaps of the teacher and the learner using the Northstar Digital Literacy Assessment. The assessment defines basic skills needed to perform tasks on computers and online. The ability of adults to perform these tasks is assessed through online, self-guided modules (Vanek, 2013).
  2. Provide ample opportunities for learners to use digital literacy skills, with teacher support, in their academic learning. Decisions about use of learning technologies (both those that support direct digital literacy skill gain and academic learning) should follow the SAFE (Seamless, Appropriate, Facilitated, Empowering) model as a lens for developing technology integrated lessons, which contextualize technology learning within ABE content areas and encourage learners to use technology as a tool to accomplish real life tasks.

I would add a point that lies in between the two articulated strategies above. Teachers can begin to build the technical skills required for accessing information and communicating through online tools with some limited direct instruction of digital literacy skills, always working toward complete integration as described in point two above. The Saint Paul Public Library has put together a short list of resources that may be useful in helping learners develop the skills tested.

New roles and training for teachers

To help ELLs build the inner resilience described previously, teachers need to be willing to learn new skills and act as facilitators, supporting both digital literacy skill development and the application of those skills in academic learning. Teachers may need to adjust the way they view their role and the tools they use to teach. Instead of identifying themselves as the sole expert, teachers become facilitators of learning, often learning along with their learners. They work by aggregating, curating, amplifying, modeling, coaching, or mentoring (Kop et al., 2011, p. 89). Using the tools described above to find a range of OERs useful for learners is a great place to begin; a spirit of risk-taking and willingness to experiment makes use of the OERs a possibility. Then, reflection about learner needs and the instructional benefit of the materials or activities can help a teacher integrate them effectively into his or her instruction. 


The range of learning opportunities afforded by OERs is a good fit in resource-constrained ABE programs and for teachers who do not have the time or expertise to develop their own online tools. Supported and learner-centered use of OERs with ELLs, over time, can positively support persistence and engagement because the learner can eventually be the driving force behind his or her own learning. Such opportunities to master technology and the Internet can prepare learners for situations where they can only use technology to access resources and solve problems in the future.


Christensen, C. M., Horn, M. B., & Johnson, C. W. (2011). Disrupting class: how disruptive innovation will change the way the world learns (2nd ed.). McGraw Hill.

Eshet-Alkalai, Y. (2004). Digital Literacy: A Conceptual Framework for Survival Skills in the Digital era. Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 13(1), 93–106. Retrieved from

Kop, R., Fournier, H., & Mak, J. S. F. (2011). A pedagogy of abundance or a pedagogy to support human beings? Participant support on massive open online courses. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 12(7). Retrieved from

McCain, M. (2009). The power of technology: expanding access to adult education & workforce skills through distance learning. New York. Retrieved from

Pimentel, S. (2013). College and career readiness standards for adult education. Washington DC. Retrieved from

Reder, S., Vanek, J., & Wrigley, H. (2012). Supporting digital litearcy development in LESLLA learners. In P. Vinogradov & M. Bigelow (Eds.), Low Educated Second Language and Literacy Acquisition Proceedings of the 7th Symposium (pp. 22–41). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota. Retrieved from

Silver-Pacquilla, H., & Reder, S. (2008). Investigating the Language and Literacy Skills Required for Independent Online Learning.

Transforming American education: Learning powered by technology. (2010). Washington DC. Retrieved from

Vanek, J. (2013). Northstar digital literacy project: Community engagement initiative. Digital Life and Learning, Autumn. Retrieved from

Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (2014).
Websites referenced and linked in the article:

PLCs can serve as communities of practice for educators who are invested in teaching English learners in culturally relevant ways.   

Closing the opportunity gap

“I felt like I was in the shadows.”
-Study participant, Nina, about her experience as an EL in middle school

In the United States, ten percent of our nation’s students are English learners (ELs). This amounts to 4.7 million students, and the number increases every year (U.S. Department of Education, 2013). In the past two decades, the state of Minnesota has seen a 300% increase in the number of ELs served, making them the fastest growing student population in the state. Currently, as Minnesota schools educate 67,000 English learners, teachers and school administrators are called to consider how to best meet the needs of this changing demographic.

Given the longstanding opportunity gap between white students and students of color in the state, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (2009) identified this challenge as particularly urgent (Note: “opportunity gap” is a term that replaces the “achievement gap” by positioning society as the subject of the problem, rather than learners. See Carter & Welner, 2013).

According to the Minnesota Department of Education (2013), less than half of the state’s ELs graduate from high school, which is not only a loss of linguistic and cultural capacity, it is a human rights crisis. The purpose of this research is to improve the educational experience of English learners in mainstream classrooms through the efforts of educators who are committed to enacting pedagogies that are relevant to students’ diverse home cultures.

What is Culturally Relevant Pedagogy?

Culturally relevant pedagogy (CRP) is a theoretical framework that seeks to close the opportunity gap. It was originally conceived of in response to a need for schooling to be more relevant to the lives of African American students. Ladson-Billings (1995) defines CRP as:

A theoretical model that not only addresses student achievement but also helps students to accept and affirm their cultural identity while developing critical perspectives that challenge inequities that schools (and other institutions) perpetuate. (1995, p. 469)

Ladson-Billings asserts that culturally relevant pedagogy does not exist to “exoticize diverse students as ‘other’” (p. 483); rather it seeks to consider the relationships amongst students, teachers, the school curriculum, and society as a whole.

CRP recognizes the central role of students’ cultures in all aspects of teaching and learning. It acknowledges and responds to the current schooling climate that places students from diverse cultural backgrounds in learning environments that don’t mirror their home cultures and values (Langer, 1987). Phuntsog (2001) asserts that “the real test of culturally responsive teaching may lie in its ability to create classrooms where race, culture, and ethnicity are not seen as barriers to overcome but are sources of enrichment for all” (p. 63).

Unfortunately, even teachers who are supportive of culturally relevant teaching may struggle to enact it in their pedagogy (Black, 2010). Compounding this problem is that little is known about how teachers can be prepared to enact CRP. Goodwin (2002) writes that this problem “must galvanize teacher preparation programs to rethink how their curriculum prepares pre-service teachers to work effectively with diverse students” (p. 157).

Teacher education and Culturally Relevant Pedagogy

A review of the literature reveals that the following facets are present in teacher education programs that actively seek to produce culturally relevant pedagogues: developing a self-social-cultural consciousness (Evans & Gunn, 2011; Fuller, Miller & Domingues, 2006; Schussler, Stooksberry & Bercaw, 2010; Shepel & Elina, 1995; Villegas, 2007; Villegas & Lucas, 2002; Zygmunt-Fillwalk & Clark, 2007), promoting cultural competency (Huang, 2002; Keengwe, 2010; Morton & Bennett, 2010; Bode & Nieto, 2008), engaging in critical conversations about equity (Barry & Lechner, 1995; Evans & Gunn, 2011; Gere, Buehler, Dallavis, & Haviland, 2009; Lynn & Smith-Maddox, 2007), designing holistic teacher preparation programs (Fitchett, Starker & Salyers, 2012; Frye, Button & Kelly, 2010; Noordhoff &Kleinfeld, 1993; Zeichner, Grant, Gay, Gillette, Valli, & Villegas, 1998), and opportunities for CRP praxis (Hill, 2012; Petchauer, 2011; Price-Dennis & Souto-Mannin, 2011).

Such a nexus of educational theory, cultural competency, and thorough support of teachers is the recipe for continuous teacher education that fosters the enactment of CRP.However, advocating for the preparation of culturally relevant teachers is crucial yet precarious, because teacher education programs graduate teachers into workplaces that often do not honor their commitment to culturally relevant teaching. For this reason, it is essential that teacher educators establish a strong and sustaining bridge from the ivory tower to the classroom.

Price-Dennis and Souto-Manning (2011) suggest that there is a “need to invite pre-service teachers to engage in fostering pedagogical third spaces which syncretically bring together mentor teacher academic expectations and student interests and cultural repertoires” (p. 236). While this suggestion refers to pre-service teacher learning, the same holds true for practicing teachers. A collaborative learning environment, whether it is known as a third space, Community of Practice, or Professional Learning Community, is a critical component in the development of teaching as a craft that is tailored to the unique population that a school serves.

Communities of Practice: Otherwise known as PLCs

The second theoretical framework that undergirds this study is Communities of Practice, which Wenger (2006) defines as “groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly” (2006, para. 3). This framework was born of social learning theory, which posits that learning is the result of observing and modeling the attitudes, displays of emotion and behaviors of others. Psychologist Albert Bandura (1997) explains that “Most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling; from observing others, one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action” (p. 22). Social learning theory considers learning to be an entirely social phenomenon and the result of one’s lived experience in social environments (p. 3). Hanks (1991) explains that “rather than asking what kind of cognitive processes and conceptual structure are involved, they [Lave and Wenger] ask what kinds of social engagements provide the proper context for learning to take place” (p. 14). The framework of Communities of Practice is complementary to Vygotsky’s (1978) sociocultural theory in that they both argue that social interaction is a fundamental element in cognition.

For the purposes of this research, study participants used the term PLC, or Professional Learning Community, to refer to the Community of Practice in which they participated. PLCs are defined by DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, & Many (2006) as “Educators committed to working collaboratively in ongoing processes of collective inquiry and action research to achieve better results for the students they serve.” PLCs are commonplace in schools in the region in which this study was conducted and the term is mutually understood amongst teachers and school administrators.

Researching how student teachers enact pedagogies responsive to Els

Through examination of an intentional Professional Learning Community (PLC), centered on CRP for ELs in a diverse, urban elementary school, this study examined how student teachers cooperatively learn how to enact pedagogies that are responsive to ELs. The study took place over ten weeks starting in February of 2013. The four volunteer participants – Anna, Amber, Jenny, and Nina – were enrolled in an intensive ten-month post-baccalaureate elementary education licensure program at a large research university in the Midwest. They were all in student teaching placements at Longview Elementary (school and participant names are pseudonyms), a linguistically and ethnically diverse school in a first ring suburb of a major midwest city. Data collection sources included five digital journal entries from each participant, classroom observations, pre and post interviews with each participant and five bi-weekly PLC gatherings. PLC gatherings took place every other Tuesday afternoon in a conference room at the school where participants were student teaching. Given that discussions about culture and diversity can be sensitive and challenging, PLC meetings were designed to feel like a conversation over dinner. Participants discussed their experiences with CRP for ELs while they enjoyed ethnic meals that are representative of the local immigrant communities.

Social learning in the PLC

The findings from this study show that student teachers’ perceptions of their abilities to enact CRP for ELs improved dramatically throughout the course of this study. They attributed their feelings of success to their participation in a low-stakes intentional PLC that offered them opportunities to learn from each other. Following the study, student teacher participants also explained how they understood CRP to be a mindset, rather than a set of strategies.

A low-stakes community

Three of the four study participants noted that the element of a low-stakes community was critical in their learning experience. Nina shared,

At dinner, it just felt more like a community and more like a discussion to talk and learn more, I would say that I took a lot out of it, it wasn’t like school, for a grade where I didn’t feel like I had to do it to get it done, I felt like I wanna do this, this is good because I want to improve my classroom and my teaching. It wasn’t like ‘Oh, I want to get a certain grade. I felt like I was more proactive, even though there wasn’t a grade attached. . .but it was meaningful, it meant more.

Amber and Jenny echoed Nina’s sentiment when they commented that the environment felt safe and Amber mentioned that she looked forward to meetings as they were “engaging, fun, and they broadened our perspectives.”   The finding that student teachers reported that they learned to improve their practice by means of participation in an intentional, low-stakes PLC is in line with the theoretical underpinnings of PLCs, which suggest that social learning takes place amongst practitioners who gather together in order to improve their practice.

Teachers learn from each other

All of the four study participants provided detailed examples of how their colleagues’ experiences shaped their own thinking about and enactment of CRP. Amber noted that “Hearing all of their examples really helped me”. Anna furthered by saying,

I mean we’ve all gone through the same teacher preparation program but even just hearing the difference of how people view CRP and what people’s perspectives are. . it was so interesting. I mean we all had such different ways of answering your questions and reacting to certain things. Like [Nina] would see one thing in a classroom and I would see something totally different and while we were in community and while we were discussing, I think we all took different things away from the discussions just because we are from different places and we did grow up differently. . .But a lot of it was what happened was in my head, when someone was talking, it would trigger a thought and then I’d share that.

Amber reported that she had a lot to learn from her colleagues, with whom she shared different perspectives and backgrounds   She perceived their differences as a strength and a source of knowledge for all of them.

Nina recalled an occasion when her colleague’s pedagogy affected her own thinking about teaching. After Amber shared an anecdote about a challenging student in class, Nina remarked:

I was very intrigued by the things that she shared and how she went about it and I would be like ‘Oh, I wonder how I would have went about it when it comes to my students’ . . I thought that the way that she approached it was really good and like if this would have happened in my classroom, I would have just froze. I don’t know what I would have done.

The above example is one of many that illuminate how student teachers in this PLC used concrete examples shared by their colleagues as case studies to consider how they would respond in similar situations. Participants frequently reported that their pedagogy had been shaped by stories shared by their peers.

CRP as a mindset

Perhaps the most salient finding from this study is that the student teacher participants found CRP to be a mindset, rather than a set of strategies. Davidman and Davidman (1997) agree, as they write that CRP is

much more than simply teaching a culturally/ethnically diverse class. It is an active process of thinking, a state of mind, a way of seeing and learning that is shaped and influenced by the beliefs about the value of cultural relationships and cultural competency (pp. 24-25).

The participants in this study came to notice the ways in which culture intersected with learning. This noticing led to a new conceptualization about the role of the teacher. In the following excerpt, Nina explained how she engaged differently with her students after she had considered CRP to be a mindset.

After our meetings, I just started to notice things that I really hadn’t noticed before. I noticed more every time we had our meetings. I started to notice things that before I didn’t think related to culturally relevant pedagogy in my classroom but just having certain conversations with my students I would kind of classify or categorize those things as a part of being a culturally relevant teacher and before I never would have thought of it that way I was just like ‘Oh, it’s me and my student talking about their weekend or this is just me standing in front of the classroom instructing on a certain subject’. But, it just made me realize the different connections that things have to each other.

Nina’s description of classifying or categorizing information about her students shows that she has learned that she must first know who her students are in order to tailor her pedagogy to their unique cultural backgrounds.

Jenny echoed Nina’s sentiment but furthered by adding that the experience made her a more empathetic educator. She noted that the experience increased her awareness for her ELs unique needs when she shared,

It’s helped me to be more open and respectful about the problems that ELs might have going on in their lives and I think that’s made me closer to all of my students by having those conversations with them and making them feel comfortable.

Jenny showed an intentional investment in creating a safe and comfortable community in which home cultures are welcome.
Anna began to see teaching a diverse classroom of learners as a larger responsibility than she previously anticipated. She noted that the experience

…made me more aware of various aspects of teaching… There’s so much more to it. There are so many communities that our kids are involved in… It’s helped me in a way that I wasn’t expecting, just in the classroom and in the way that I think about things.

When the student teacher participants came to the conclusion that CRP was a mindset rather than a set of strategies, their perceptions about their abilities to enact CRP for ELs improved. Nina said “I feel positive and confident about working with ELs going into my first year of teaching after participating in this study.”

A call to reclaim PLCs

When I first shared with my participants that we would have PLC meetings, they appeared displeased. I realized that since I left the public school classroom ten years ago, the term PLC has evolved into something very different from what I experienced. My student teacher participants shared that PLC meetings are often time that is allocated for teachers to plan units and respond to quantitative data. I proceeded with calling our meetings “PLCs,” but with the caveat that our PLCs were intended for reflection and social learning.

Perhaps the most challenging issue when it comes to CRP is that teachers are unclear about what CRP enactment looks like. Participants in this study commented that after a few weeks the confusion around CRP was lifted. Nina remarked,

I had no clue what CRP looked like in the classroom until our meetings and I’m like, ‘Oh, this is what it looks like in an actual classroom and we’re not just reading it in a text. I am actually seeing what it looks like’ and I feel like once you start to identify what it is, it just becomes so much easier to incorporate and to understand.

Jenny shared Nina’s sentiment and compared her experience in the PLC with that of her undergraduate teacher preparation. She explained, “I feel like we learned about this stuff in our undergrad, but it really doesn’t connect until you are in the situation”.   This observation is a call for teacher educators to consider how (and where) teacher candidates can most effectively learn to enact CRP.

The need for research on how teachers learn to enact CRP for ELs is dire. The existing educational opportunity gap has repercussions that reverberate through all facets of society. In addition, the increasing number of immigrant learners in our schools implores all who are invested in schooling to examine how to envision schools that validate and affirm a spectrum of student backgrounds and knowledges. Without explicit attention to CRP for English learners, their needs are apt to be swept under the rug.
While data analyses can be hugely helpful in curricular planning, number crunching is not the only fruitful function of a PLC. This research points to a need for schools to reclaim PLCs as spaces in which teachers can learn collaboratively about how to best meet the needs of marginalized learners. When it comes to CRP for students, their teachers are the experts (rather than an outside scholar or a textbook). This model positions them as such and gives them an intentional space in which to perfect their craft. CRP for ELs is not only best practice because it allows learners to engage with curriculum, it is also a moral imperative, as teacher understanding of CRP will have a reverberating impact on our greater communities, ultimately diversifying the workforce and fostering future generations of young people from diverse backgrounds who feel valued by our schools and empowered to do great things.


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This article discusses approaches for assessing co-teaching and introduces an observation and coaching tool named I-TELL (Integrated Teaching for ELLs Observation Tool), which allows for direct collection of evidence on each of the collaborative indicators described.

A lot of questions continue to surround co-teaching and teacher collaboration for the sake of English language learners (ELLs). Most questions relate to daily instructional practices (what to do and how to do it), some to research (what type of evidence supports co-teaching for ELLs), and others to student outcomes (how co-teaching impacts student learning). At a recent professional development session, we asked participants to jot down their burning questions on index cards so we could make sure we addressed all their concerns by the end of the day. The following list of questions is a representative selection of what practitioners wanted to know:

  • How do you find the time to collaborate?
  • What is the most effective way to co-teach?
  • What if my co-teacher does not want to collaborate?
  • I don’t want to be just an aide in the classroom, but how can I support teachers if I don’t feel comfortable with the high school math and science content?
  • Who is responsible for grading?
  • How can we share the classroom space when I feel I am entering another teacher’s territory?

We have been collecting questions like these since the onset of our own collaboration on the topic of co-teaching over a decade ago. These questions have guided us in our quest to learn more about ESL co-teaching practices in K-12 classrooms. They have also informed our research agendas and have kept us focused on issues relevant to the most current trends in the TESOL profession. Our first book, Collaboration and Co-teaching: Strategies for English Learners (Honigsfeld & Dove, 2010), is organized around key questions that teachers have asked about collaborative approaches to services for ELLs, and we have made every effort to answer those questions comprehensively. However, each time we work with a new group of educators, we seem to encounter a new question they raise, a new concern they voice, or a new challenge they face.

The one question that caught our attention—and prompted the writing of this article—was the following:  What should administrators look for when they observe a co-taught lesson? In light of high-stakes teacher evaluation systems in place across the nation’s schools (Danielson, 2013), it is an even more urgent question to address today. We concur that teachers and administrators must be in agreement about—or better yet, collaboratively develop, pilot, refine, or in one word, co-own—the hallmarks of meaningful collaborative practices, and more specifically, the elements of effective co-taught lessons.

Evidence is accumulating about why school leaders need a clear understanding of collaborative practices. For example, in an in-depth case study of co-teaching pairs, McClure and Cahnmann-Taylor (2010) noted that mandated co-teaching program without administrators’ understanding of and support for teacher collaboration ignored “real differences in practice and epistemology, often leaving co-teachers to make their way through these challenges on their own(p. 111). They also concluded that co-teachers who participated in their study “all resisted the notion that co-teaching is a simple and neutral endeavor and confirmed the need for sustained dialogue and support as they worked to collaboratively develop their co-teaching” (p. 122).

Administrative support for a collaborative approach to ESL services (and other inclusive services), or the lack thereof, has started to be addressed in the literature (Capper & Frattura, 2009; Causton-Theoharis & Theoharis, 2008; Causton & Theoharis, 2014; Dove & Honigsfeld, 2014; Harvey & Teemant, 2012; Honigsfeld & Dove, 2012b; Piercey, 2010; Scanlan, Frattura, Schneider, & Capper, 2012; Scanlan & Lopez, 2012; Theoharis, 2007; 2009; Theoharis & O’Toole, 2011); we also noticed an emerging need to focus our attention on working with school leaders both in our research and publications (Dove, Honigsfeld, & Cohan, 2014; Honigsfeld & Dove, 2015) as well as in our daily work in the K-12 schools. Pawan and Ortloff (2011) noted that additional research is needed to determine “how leaders and administrators articulate collaboration policies and participate in their implementation” and “whether collaboration is more effective when leaders externally provide support for the collaboration (e.g. scheduling common preparation times) or when they become part of the collaborative process alongside teachers and provide collegial leadership” (p. 471). Based on our own research  (Honigsfeld & Dove, in progress) and field work, we find that there is a growing interest in and need for tools to reflect on and assess co-teaching, yet there continues to be little guidance or limited resources available on what meaningful co-teaching lessons look like or how to make evidence-based observations about the effectiveness of co-taught lessons.

A Look-Back at Assessing Co-Teaching

A more inclusive approach to serve English learners has been around for decades. Mabbott and Strohl (1992) were among the first to include collaborative services (referred to as pull-in or push-in) in a comprehensive overview of program models available to serve ELLs. They claimed, “the strongest argument for the Pull-in [Push-in] model is that, when properly implemented [emphasis added], it does most to integrate LEP students into the mainstream while still giving them the support they need” (p. 29). While the collaborative approach to ESL services was celebrated in this early publication and many more to follow, what is meant by proper implementation is often determined differently by different educators in their local contexts. (see for example, Duke & Mabbott, 2000; Honigsfeld & Dove, 2012a; Fall 2012 Special Theme Issue of the TESOL Journal dedicated to collaboration and co-teaching).

Dahlman and Hoffman (2012) even suggested the need to recognize the uniqueness of each collaborative context and allow for an organic change process to take place. They cautioned, “for it to yield lasting effects, co-teaching must be integrated into a school’s philosophy and become part of the organization’s culture and practice through genuine connections to existing practices” (p. 42). As such, co-teaching is expected to evolve uniquely in various schools and districts and also look distinctly across individual contexts. Yet, we search for some sort of common understanding of what co-teaching for the sake of ELLs is expected to be (Glenda Harrell, July 27th, 2014, personal communication).

Among others, Davison (2006) extensively researched collaboration among ESL and content-area teachers with a special emphasis on the nature and challenges of developing collaborative and co-teaching relationships. In her developmental model of co-teaching, she noted five levels of commitment to the practice. She introduced the term partnership teaching and emphasized some critical, observable characteristics of such teaching:

Partnership Teaching is not just another term for “co-operative teaching.” Co-operative teaching is where a language support teacher and class or subject teacher plan together a curriculum and teaching strategies which will take into account the learning needs of all pupils, trying to adjust the learning situation to fit the pupils. Partnership Teaching is more than that. It builds on the concept of co-operative teaching by linking the work of two teachers, or indeed a whole department/year team or other partners, with plans for curriculum development and staff development across the school. (pp. 454–455)

There is an emerging line of research devoted to documenting the impact of teacher collaboration and co-teaching on student learning. Pardini (2006) described the results of an ongoing, multi-year initiative in the St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS) in Minnesota, where traditional ESL programs have been completely replaced by a collaborative program model. ESL and general-education teachers on all grade levels team teach. Pardini (2006) recognized the role the School Collaboration Assessment Rubric, developed by the ELL department in consultation with Jennifer York-Barr played in the enhancing the collaborative work of the SPPS ELL Department: “The rubric measures how well schools are doing in areas such as planning time, professional development, student placement, team teaching, assessment, and reflection. Its purpose: to assess individual school collaboration efforts, set goals for continued improvement, and guide professional development plans” (p. 25).

In 2007, York-Barr, Ghere, and Sommerness investigated the process and outcomes of a three-year implementation of a collaborative inclusive ELL program model. They not only noted that teachers shared “a strong and nearly unanimous sense that students were highly advantaged by the inclusive and collaborative instructional models—academically, socially, and in terms of classroom participation” (p. 321), but also reported positive achievement gains due to the collaborative practices.

Causton-Theoharis and Theoharis (2008) also noted significantly increased reading achievement scores over a three-year period in a Madison, Wisconsin school that moved to a full inclusion model eliminating all pull-out services both for special education students and ELLs. Through an extensive restructuring of the school that used already existing human resources and required no extra cost, collaboration and co-teaching practices became the dominant service delivery format yielding impressive achievement results. Schoolwide variables for creating a successful inclusive program  were detailed in the study, but what remained largely undefined. Based on a thorough review of the literature, Hendrickson (2011) summarized the essential features of best co-teaching practices as follows: administrative support, professional development, parity, voluntary partnerships, common planning time, establishment of common expectations, shared resources, shared accountability for student outcomes, developmental nature of the co-teaching relationship, and implementing different models of co-teaching.
Santana, Scully, and Dixon (2012) noted that co-teaching teams need feedback and support regarding their co-teaching practices.

Expanding upon on Santana’s (2008) earlier work on what constitutes a successful partnership in the context of ESL co-teaching in New York City public schools, Santana et al. (2012) identified several non-negiotables for administrators as well as developed and piloted a tool called CO-TOP (CO-Teaching Observation Protocol). The ten dimensions of the tool were designed to collect evidence on:

(a)   common planning and collaboration,
(b)   mutual, collegial, and professional respect,
(c)    in-depth familiarity with students’ content and language needs,
(d)   clear, unambiguous language and content objectives,
(e)   appropriate scaffolds.
(f)     advocacy for ELLs,
(g)   authentic student participation and engagement,
(h)   differentiation for assessing learning,
(i)     learning as demonstrated by student work,
(j)     planned extension and reinforcement activities to practice material presented during lesson.

Most recently, Van den Akker (2013) adapted a co-teaching rating scale by Gately and Gately (2001) to help identify ESL and mainstream teachers’ strengths and weaknesses in the co-taught classroom.  Key dimensions of her tool include items that may be clustered around (a) verbal and nonverbal communication skills, (b) understanding of the curriculum and students’ instructional needs, (c) co-planning including language modifications, (d) methods and materials used in the lesson, (e) student-centered lesson delivery showing flexibility and a variety of classroom management, and (f) reflection on the practice.

A Look Ahead

Though initially an isolated practice driven by local interests to make a more inclusive program for ELLs,  it is now a more readily available program option for ELLs across the nation and internationally (Honigsfeld & Dove, 2012a). The role of the ESL teacher has been recently redefined by multiple professional organizations, researchers, and practitioners. ESL teachers “should be recognized as experts, consultants, and trainers well versed in teaching rigorous academic content to ELLs” (Staehr Fenner, 2013, p. 9).  We also noted that ESL teachers’ “expertise is critical in analyzing the academic language demands of the content curriculum, developing and modeling lessons that successfully address academic language and content simultaneously, scaffolding oral language and literacy development, and coaching general education teachers in the most effective, standards-based instruction for ELLs. Instead of feeling marginalized and isolated—as is often the case—ESL/ELD teachers need to be nurtured into leadership roles” (Honigsfeld & Dove, 2015, pp.  54-55).

On September 16th, 2014, New York State Board of Regents have unanimously voted to change the long-standing state policy regarding English Learners also known as the Commissioner Regulation: Part 154. The comprehensive changes impact all aspects of  education for ELLs including the following critical issues:

  • ELL identification process and use of qualified personnel
  • Parent notification, information, and meetings
  • Retention of identification documents and review of records
  • Student placement and due process
  • New bilingual and ELL program requirements and provision of programs
  • Development of a Language Proficiency Team (LPT)
  • Grade span and program continuity
  • Initial entry, reentry and exit criteria
  • Identification and exit procedures for ELL students with disabilities
  • Support and transitional services
  • Professional development
  • District planning and reporting

One of many changes that is going to further shape the curriculum and instructional delivery ELLs receive is in reference to the new bilingual and ELL program requirements. Pulling away from pull-outs and combining stand alone programs with collaborative, integrated ones is a long overdue, critical shift in the education of ELLs.  New York State is now following many other states that incorporate collaborative or integrated services into the available program delivery options, positioning ESL teachers no longer to be seen as specialists working in isolation, but rather is equal partners and highly qualified teachers working alongside their colleagues.
Moving the ESL services into the mainstream classroom—whether in the elementary or secondary setting—is not without its challenges. One of them is developing a shared understanding of what are observable, measurable aspects of co-steaching that all educators—teachers as well as school building and district administrators, instructional coaches, mentors—can work with and turn into actionable recommendations as well as opportunities for improvement.

Co-Teaching Look-Fors

We designed an observation and coaching tool named I-TELL (Integrated Teaching for ELLs Observation Tool) to aid administrators, instructional leaders, coaches, and peer visitors in identifying features of successful co-teaching practices for the sake of ELLs. The tool in Figure 1 allows for direct collection of evidence on each of the collaborative indicators.

Figure 1
I-TELL (Integrated Teaching for ELLs Observation Tool)

No Evidence Emerging Evidence Adequate Evidence Exceptional Evidence Documentation/Comments
Co-teachers collaboratively plan and develop instructional materials for the lesson  table_spacer
Equity between the co-teachers is established from the onset of the lesson and maintained throughout the lesson
Language and content objectives are addressed by both teachers
Teaching roles and responsibilities are shared
Two or more co-teaching models are used:Students in one group, teachers work together:

  • One leads, one teaches on purpose
  • Two teach same content
  • One teaches, one assesses
  • Students in two groups, teachers work separately:
  • Two teach same content
  • One preteaches, one teaches alternative content
  • One reteaches, one teaches alternative content
  • Students in multiple groups
  • Teachers monitor, facilitate and  teach
Students are grouped purposefully in meaningful ways throughout the lesson
Co-teachers interact with students and each other in ways that enhance student learning
Co-teachers are familiar with and respond to the learning needs of all the students
Co-teachers implement  appropriate differentiated strategies for teaching academic language and content
Co-teachers demonstrate respect and collegiality for each other throughout the lesson
Co-teachers apply   appropriate visual, graphic, linguistic and interpersonal scaffolds
Co-teachers establish high levels of engagement and ensure all four language skills to be integrated: listening, speaking, reading and writing
Co-teachers collaboratively conduct formative and summative assessments

Source: Honigsfeld, A., & Dove, M. G. (2015). Collaboration and coteaching for English learners: A leader’s guide. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin. (p. 76-77).

As we invite our readers to work with the I-TELL Observation tool, we are also suggesting that it become a living document. One that is organic rather than static, one that gets changed, adapted, revised as needed, and one that is challenged and expanded to be more responsive to the local needs.  Co-teaching for ELLs, in spite of its history, is a fairly new practice, and many school communities across the country are just beginning to take on this approach to service the learning needs of ELLs. For this reason, questions about co-teaching will continue to arise particularly as new initiatives or policies from district, state, or federal mandates are carried forward.

Developing a schoolwide understanding and process for ongoing collaborative practices for the sake of ELLs is truly key. Analyzing the challenges as they arise and finding solutions to these challenges collaboratively with those who engage in the practice will only serve to strengthen a co-taught instructional model. Moreover, it is important to note that common perceptions, routine practices, and broad-based as well as specific strategies for using two teachers in the same class will change and develop over time.


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