Similar Settings, Different Story Lines: The Positioning of ESL Teachers in Two Middle Schools

By McGriff, Mary; Protacio, Maria Selena | Reading Horizons (Online), January 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Similar Settings, Different Story Lines: The Positioning of ESL Teachers in Two Middle Schools


McGriff, Mary, Protacio, Maria Selena, Reading Horizons (Online)


Background and Purpose of Study

With the increasing numbers of English Language Learners (ELLs) in schools across the United States, research has documented the benefits of collaboration between English as a second language (ESL) teachers with their content area counterparts in meeting the educational needs of ELLs (Dove & Honigsfield, 2010; Teemant, Bernhardt, & Rodriguez-Munoz, 1996). The collaboration between ESL and content area teachers is especially important in light of research which has documented that mainstream teachers often feel ill-prepared to address the needs of ELLs in their schools (Fu, 2004; Gandara, Maxwell-Jolly, & Driscoll, 2005; Li & Zhang, 2004). Further, a survey showed that middle school teachers wanted more training and information so they could better address the academic needs of ELLs in their content area classes (Hansen-Thomas & Cavagnetto, 2010).

Successful forms of ESL teacher/content area teacher collaboration include a shared model in which one teacher offers ELLs individual support while the other conducts the lesson. Alternatively, ESL teachers may anticipate difficulties their students will have with a particular topic and may pre-teach words or concepts before the whole class lesson. ESL teachers may also provide post-lesson reinforcement when unanticipated language or prior knowledge gaps present learning difficulties (Pardini, 2006).

In addition to sharing instructional responsibilities, successful ESL teacher/content area teacher partnerships include scenarios in which ESL teachers serve as consultants, offering specific guidance and resources for mainstream colleagues (Staehr Fenner, 2013). In all of these cases, the goal of collaboration is to identify general academic or subject-specific vocabulary and concepts that ELLs may not understand without additional scaffolding and to determine the most effective means of providing needed support. ESL teachers have been particularly helpful in identifying culturally embedded assumptions about students' prior knowledge and in providing ELLs with needed background information about a topic of study (Pardini, 2006). Research has documented that collaboration between ESL teachers and content area teachers is associated with bridging the achievement gap between ELLs and their native-English peers (Pardini, 2006) as well as an overall increase in ELLs' academic language proficiency (Dove & Honigsfield, 2010).

In order for successful collaboration to occur, each participant should agree on individual teacher responsibilities, including timelines for providing resources or lesson plans, processes for decision-making, expectations for student interactions, and assessment criteria. These procedurally focused understandings should be based on teachers' foundational agreement about how subject-specific and language acquisition goals should be integrated (Davison, 2006; Dove & Honigsfield, 2010). Yet, negotiating these shared understandings presents challenges. ESL teachers and content area teachers may possess varied grounding dispositions about what content should be taught. Being in school cultures that are less supportive of linguistic diversity and that offer limited collaborative opportunities for teachers create additional challenges for successful collaboration (Davison, 2006).

As the preceding research has shown, ESL teachers are a valuable resource for mainstream teachers; however, they are underutilized as studies have demonstrated that ESL teachers are often relegated to a support role within the school context rather than being perceived as equal to content area teachers at the secondary level (Creese, 2002). A factor which may contribute to the underutilization of ESL teachers is that content area teachers may be unaware of the responsibility they have regarding the literacy and language development of middle school ELLs, and may view teaching ELLs as the sole responsibility of ESL teachers (Jimenez, 1997; Rubinstein-Avila & Johnson, 2008). …

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