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From Watering Down to Challenging: Breaking Down the Wall, One Essential Shift at a Time

Tonya Ward Singer and Diane Staehr Fenner in conversation with Dan Alpert

DAN ALPERT: In Breaking Down the Wall, you underscore the problem of tracking English learners into lower-level courses in which “they experience a curriculum that remediates, rather than accelerates.” What are the most effective ways to combat this tendency at both the school and classroom levels?

TONYA WARD SINGER: It begins with mindsets. Beliefs shape program design, and beliefs shape instruction. A strong district-wide approach to accelerating learning of English learners (ELs) begins with a shared belief that being multilingual is an asset and students designated as “EL” are as capable of intellectual rigor and learning as any student.

A default mindset, inherited from a long history of systemic racism and white supremacy, is to see multilingual students through a deficit lens. Even when educators consciously reject this idea, it takes work to move the collective culture of an entire organization from one that marginalizes ELs to “serve” them to one in which all teachers and leaders share agency to transform teaching for more equitable schools.

Designing the right supports at the classroom or school level comes down to a critical question: When an English learner struggles, do we only blame or refer? Or do we also reflect and adapt our own teaching? We must collaborate across silos to break down the structures that make inappropriate referrals and marginalization of ELs the default instructional plan. All school leaders must build a culture in which all share agency to make courageous shifts in teaching, look humbly at data, and reflect to continuously improve for more equitable schools.

DAN ALPERT: Harnessing the benefits of teacher collaboration is an overarching theme of Breaking Down the Wall. What are some ways in which teacher collaboration can help shift mindsets and raise expectations for English learners to shift from watering down to challenging them?

DIANE STAEHR FENNER: We need to begin with a deep examination of mindsets, as Tonya mentioned. Courageous collaboration, which is built upon a framework of humility, curiosity, and openness to keeping the focus on our students, is a key necessity in order to shift educators’ mindsets and raise expectations for English learners. Collaboration is the foundation that must be present to shift from watering down to challenging ELs. Our vision from watering down to challenging consists of three key components: (1) shifting all educators’ mindsets so that they operate from an assets-based perspective and set high and attainable expectations for ELs, (2) positioning ELs for success by creating programs and schedules that facilitate ELs’ access to challenging content, and (3) ensuring all teachers use (and lose) scaffolds strategically to appropriately support and challenge ELs.

Our vision first asks teachers as well as administrators to operate from an assets-based perspective of ELs and set high expectations for ELs. Further, it falls on all educators to shift the narrative from falling into the deficit think trap of noting the challenges ELs may bring to instead beginning with a sense of their students’ abundant strengths and abilities. Our vision of an assets-based mindset as the basis for all EL learning cannot come to fruition without courageous collaboration, which must be prioritized, supported, and modeled by administrators. School leaders must ensure that time, space, and structure are built into the regular school routine so that this collaboration can take place.

In addition to a shifting mindset that ensures a focus on assets of and high expectations for ELs, purposeful, informed programming and scheduling must be in place for ELs to thrive and their teachers to draw from their own full professional expertise and strengths. Our vision for program design is one in which schools and districts think strategically and engage their creativity to determine how they provide ELs language support services and also how they schedule ELs within those programs.

We envision program design and scheduling being a collaborative, inclusive process so that voices of diverse students, families, teachers, support staff, and administrators are all heard and all of these stakeholders are at the table when these important decisions are made. In particular, teachers know their students best academically and social-emotionally and are aware of what types of scenarios will best benefit ELs at different levels of proficiency.

DAN ALPERT: How can content teachers gauge when to introduce and remove scaffolds that help students build concepts, skills, and language?

TONYA WARD SINGER: This is such an important question. One of the great challenges of scaffolding is figuring out when to choose and when to lose scaffolds. It’s a humbling process because what’s the “just right” level of scaffolding changes by student, by lesson, by day and week. We have to be nimble and willing to adapt based on what we see.

So my first recommendation to teachers and administrators is to treat effective scaffolding as a process, not a product. The verbs of teacher reflection and action (expect, value, engage, observe, support, reflect) are more important than the nouns of the specific strategies. A sentence frame, for example, is a great support to help students get started in speaking and writing, or to use new vocabulary and language structures in their oral communication. The sentence frame is a noun. Sometimes it will advance student thinking, participation, and language use. Sometimes it will hold students back.

“How do we find the ‘just right’ level of scaffolding?” is a question that merits more space than this short article and is a core question to keep asking through continuous, collaborative inquiry about impact. In a nutshell, effective scaffolding centers on having clarity about our goals and actively engaging and observing our students to build on assets and address ever-changing needs.

I recommend teachers use the “expect, engage, observe, support” sequence to gather in-lesson data about the optimal level of scaffolding. The purpose of this quick sequence is to gather formative data about student strengths, challenges, and motivations specific to our goals and then use that data to adjust our supports. Here’s a brief introduction to the steps:

1. Expect: Begin with clarity about what you want students to be able to do. What does success look like? What language is needed for success?

2. Engage: Structure a task that allows students to attempt success with the goal(s). Err on the side of under-scaffolding so your students have an opportunity for self-direction, problem solving, and/or meaning making.

3. Observe: Listen and watch as students engage, with a focus on learning the assets they bring to this task and supports they may need. Notice thinking and language use. Notice participation with a lens for equity: who is engaging, who is not?

4. Support: Use the data you just gathered to both adjust your supports in this lesson and inform your next steps of instruction to help students thrive with these specific goals. Are more supports needed for content or language success? What strengths can you build on in next steps of instruction? What variations in supports are needed to address diverse needs across the classroom?

Effective scaffolding can be a bit of a messy process involving some trial and error. We expect excellence from every emergent bilingual student, we create the conditions for students to actively engage, and we pay attention to their strengths and needs in each moment of learning. We choose and lose scaffolds based on what we see to build on their assets and help them succeed with increasing levels of self-direction, content, and language success.

DAN ALPERT: At a time in which “sheltering in place” has become our new normal, what are some effective scaffolds that lend themselves to distance-learning delivery so we can help ensure ELs have access to appropriately challenging content?

DIANE STAEHR FENNER: We’ve all been quickly gearing up with the unexpected shift to distance learning and have been figuring out through trial and error what has been working with ELs within this construct. We have to first keep in mind that many students lack access to technology, some have parents who struggle with supporting their distance-learning endeavors, and many students have responsibilities beyond their schoolwork, not to mention a great deal of trauma in their lives.

That said, a few things to keep in mind when designing distance learning for ELs include knowing your ELs and their contexts at home, ensuring that any activity packets provided are created with ELs in mind and are culturally responsive, and scaffolding distance-learning tasks for ELs as a priority.

Some scaffolding examples of content provided through online distance learning include offering home-language support, audio and/or video instructions for students’ tasks in English and/or the home language, a brief video in English and/or the home language to build background knowledge, and sentence frames.

TONYA WARD SINGER: I agree on Diane’s important points. I’ll add that in these challenging times we all must understand the impacts of trauma on our own bodies and brains, and the importance of cultivating a feeling of safety and connection in our school communities. This crisis is impacting all of us, but not in the same ways.

At the time I write this, Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people are disproportionately dying, and disproportionately losing work. Seek to understand more about how this crisis is impacting families in your school community and what students need to navigate the stressors and know they are safe in health, food, and housing.

Human brains are designed to put safety first, which means that when the amygdala triggers a fight-or-flight response, we react to survive but find it incredibly difficult (and irrelevant) to engage our prefrontal cortex in intellectually challenging work. To truly create equitable learning opportunities in this time, we must be trauma-informed and responsive to social-emotional needs for safety, connection, and resilience.

Tonya and Diane are coauthors of Breaking Down the Wall: Essential Shifts for English Learners’ Success (Corwin, 2019).

Tonya Ward Singer is an international consultant whose books and professional learning help K–12 educators transform teaching for equity and multilingual learner achievement. Connect with Tonya on Twitter @TonyaWardSinger or via her website,

Diane Staehr Fenner, PhD, is the president of SupportEd, a woman-owned small business based in the Washington, DC, region that provides EL professional development and technical assistance to schools, districts, states, and the U.S. Department of Education. Connect with Diane on Twitter @DStaehrFenner or via her company website,

Dan Alpert is publisher and program director for equity and professional learning at Corwin.

  • View From Watering Down to Challenging: Breaking Down the Wall, One Essential Shift at a Time here
  • View From Monolingualism to Multilingualism: Breaking Down the Wall One Essential Shift at a Time here
  • View From Deficit-Based to Assets-Based: Breaking Down the Wall One Essential Shift at a Time here
  • View Breaking Down the Wall: The Other Side of Language Education here
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