Academic journal article School Community Journal

Helping Teachers Work Effectively with English Language Learners and Their Families

Academic journal article School Community Journal

Helping Teachers Work Effectively with English Language Learners and Their Families

Article excerpt


Many classroom teachers across the United States feel unprepared to work with students and families who speak limited or no English. Knowing that schools are accountable for the achievement results of these students, teachers increasingly seek help. This article describes a professional development project designed to introduce K-12 teachers to effective strategies for enhancing the learning of English language learners and shares the results that occurred as the teachers placed greater emphasis on family involvement practices. The Sheltered Instruction and Family Involvement (SIFI) project introduced the teachers to research on the effects of family involvement on students' academic achievement and asked that participants develop plans for involving families more intentionally. Results of the project, documented in survey responses and in evidence shared at a culminating project event, indicated changes in many teachers' views and practices of family involvement. Teachers reached out to families in new ways and made their instruction more connected to students' background knowledge. They also acknowledged the challenges involved. Despite the challenges, however, the professional development experience led to practices that are more likely to help English language learners achieve greater academic success.

Key Words: English Language Learner (ELL), English as a Second Language (ESL), family involvement, sheltered instruction, Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP), professional development, teacher practices, parents


Classroom teachers across the United States face an overwhelming challenge in working with students and families. Teachers have been consistently unprepared to work with immigrants and refugees and others who speak limited or no English (Gándara, Maxwell-Jolly, & Driscoll, 2005; National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2002). Add to this the high-stakes accountability of schools which must include the achievement results of these students, and we can understand teachers' requests for help. This article describes an attempt to provide assistance to a group of elementary, middle, and high school teachers who devoted 18 months to learning strategies designed to help this growing population of students and shares the results that occurred as the teachers focused on family involvement practices.

Changing Demographics and Resulting Challenges

Changing student demographics correspondingly raise issues of teacher quality. The increasing number of immigrants from non-English speaking countries makes our schools more ethnically and linguistically diverse. According to U.S. census data (U.S. Census Bureau, 2007), 12.54% of the population in 2006 was foreign-born. Further, 19.7% reported speaking a language other than English at home, and 8.7% described themselves as speaking English less than "very well." Moreover, the U.S. Census projected that students whose first language (L1) is not English will represent about 40% of the K-12 student population in the Unites States by the year 2030 (Thomas & Collier, 2002).

The academic achievement of English Language Learners (ELLs) has continued to lag significantly behind that of their peers. This may be, in part, because their teachers struggle with knowing how to teach them effectively. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics' Schools and Staffing Survey of 1999-2000 (NCES, 2002), only 12.5% of teachers with ELLs reported having eight or more hours of training in the previous three years on how to teach those students. A recent survey of more than 5,000 teachers in California conducted by Gándara, Maxwell-Jolly, and Driscoll (2005) reported that "during the last five years, 43% of teachers with 50% or more English learners in their classrooms had received no more than one in-service that focused on the instruction of English learners" (p. 13). Half of the teachers in classrooms in which 25-50% of the students were English language learners had no (or almost no) professional development in working with ELLs. …

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