3 Tips for Supporting ELLs Through Co-Teaching & Collaboration

The Power of Collaboration for ELLs

We know the saying “two heads are better than one.” And we know that our English Language Learner (ELL) students benefit from both content and language instruction. Now, how can we put our heads together to form and sustain effective collaborative teaming for ELLs?

Below we share three tips that can support teams, whether you’re new to working alongside another educator, or if you’ve been doing it for years. Remember, no matter how long we’ve been teaching, we’re never finished learning!

Focus On Shared Responsibility Through Academic Language

Starting with students, consider how they see your teaching relationship.

  • Do they see you as equals?
  • Are you both using your respective skill sets, or is there an imbalance?

When we bring together content specialists and language specialists, each teacher brings a perspective to the table and it can take time to figure out how to use both lenses. The content specialist knows the academic standards, skills, and knowledge for the subject area, whereas the language specialist has a “language lens.”

What does this mean?

Each content area has academic language that ELL students need — and ALL students need — in order to be successful. Part of a strong language lens is to remember that academic language is more than vocabulary alone. For example, evidence-based reasoning in a literature class requires the understanding and application of structures, such as:

“According to [this text]….” or “I agree with [claim] because [evidence].”  

There could also be tricky idioms like, “let’s brainstorm” or “that character added fuel to the fire” that may need a bit of extra attention for our ELLs.

The language specialist can help uncover the demands of this layer of academic language and provide specific language differentiation ideas and scaffolds to accelerate ELLs’ development. And because all students are learning academic language, they all benefit! To learn more about how we’re all Academic Language Learners (ALLs), read this blog post from Confianza.

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Set Up Communication Systems and Clarify Roles

6 norms for collaborative workCollaboration literally means “co-laboring.” So in order to co-labor, we need to be sure each teacher has a purpose and a clear role. Figure out efficient ways to “get on the same page” — literally!

Be creative through Google Docs and other means to share lesson plans, materials, and student work.

Be honest about what you need and your own collaboration style. Do you like more structure, or are you more “go with the flow?”

You may want to set up collaborative norms so that you’re clear on processes and procedures, like this example in the image to the left from a co-teaching team in Framingham Public Schools.

Determine who is going to do what and when. This could be something as simple as rotating who leads the lesson or who closes the lesson each day, while the other teacher collects data on student engagement or students who volunteer to share in the whole group. Working in flexible groups is a very powerful way to leverage two or more adults in the room.

By having the ability to focus on small groups or one-on-one conferencing, we can really provide differentiated instruction while documenting student growth. However, when and how do we share that data with our co-teacher? Finding the time to review data can be challenging. That’s why the building of not just planning systems, but also assessment systems, is key for using time effectively and adjusting our practice based on our students’ needs. Check out Sharing Formative Assessment Notes from Banting Elementary to see how one co-teaching team tackles this task.

Set Goals and Reflect on Growth

In the day-to-day work of teaching, it can be difficult to see where our co-teaching relationship has grown and what goals we might want to work on. Just like we want to do with our students, we want to have that growth mindset with ourselves and with our collaborative partner. Make the time to reflect on where you’ve been, what’s been going well, and even plan some next steps for your partnership.

Remember, a partnership is a process that requires mutual respect and trust built over time. Taking the time to be reflective about growth shows that you value this relationship, and it can also go far in modeling a strong partnership for your students. By showing students reflection and problem solving in your co-teaching team, they can actually see the importance of social skills goals in teams.

We know how important teaching collaborative skills is for students — for both content and language development. In this video from Horning Middle School, a co-teaching team promotes student ownership and reflection of social skills goals:

To see more classroom examples of strong co-teaching for the benefit of ELLs and ALL students, see the playlists from Waukesha, Wisconsin in the blogs The Power of Collaboration for ELLs and Bridging Content and Language: Strategies From a Dual Language Classroom.

How do you support your ELLs — and ALL students — with co-teaching and collaboration? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

Are you interested in using 6 Norms for Collaborative Work with your team? Download a copy here!

Sarah Ottow, Director of Confianza, promotes equitable outcomes for culturally and linguistically diverse students of all ages in her roles as teacher, coach, mentor, and leader in the field. She is the principal consultant for Teaching Channel’s ELL Deep Dive and the ELL Fab Five Squadsters. Confianza provides innovative and practical professional learning through on-demand online courses, as well as through long-term support for districts, including implementing co-teaching.

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