Whether you are a school or district administrator, a coach or fellow educator, you must have encountered a colleague who felt lost when assigned to teach English learners, overwhelmed by the challenge of addressing these students’ needs within the context of the general education classroom. English learners are an ever-growing subgroup of the US student population. There is growing consensus that students who need to develop English language proficiency should no longer be perceived as the sole responsibility of specially trained and certified faculty, often referred to as English as a second language (ESL), English language development (ELD), English learner (EL), or more recently multilingual learner (ML) specialists. Researchers and advocates agree that English learners belong to the entire school community and that all educators are charged with their academic, linguistic, and social–emotional development (Kibler et al., 2015).
Teacher collaboration is an important dimension of teacher effectiveness, as emphasized by Dion Burns and Linda Darling-Hammond (2014) when they claimed that “more than any other policy area, actions that support collaborative learning among teachers appear to hold promise for improving the quality of teaching” (p. v). We recognize that there are many ways to provide professional learning opportunities to all K–12 teachers who regularly encounter ELs in their classrooms and agree that teacher collaboration must be a top choice.
In this article, we shift our focus to present an emerging trend: the much-desired opportunity for two-way teacher capacity building and collaborative coaching through co-teaching in classes that integrate both content and language learning for the sake of ELs (or for all students). While collaborating teachers often share a range of common skills, through the sustained collaboration necessary in preparation for and during the intentional implementation of co-taught classes, the two professionals combine their expertise; thus, co-teaching becomes a job-embedded, ongoing professional learning opportunity in the form of collaborative coaching (see Table 1 for a summary of the partnering teachers’ distinct knowledge and skills). When teachers work together in an ongoing fashion, they are afforded a platform for sharing their understanding of the curriculum and the students they jointly teach, while at the same time supporting each other in growing new pedagogical, cross-cultural, and other competencies.
What Is Co-Teaching for ELs?
We define co-teaching for ELs as a collaborative delivery of instruction that involves two teachers (one elementary grade-level or secondary content teacher and one ELD/ESL specialist) who, through intentional planning, integrate content, language, and literacy development goals; who jointly plan learning experiences that are rigorous but carefully scaffolded for all learners in their class; and who engage in collaborative formative and summative assessments. The ultimate goal is student integration (rather than segregation) and, through a comprehensive system of scaffolds, to provide access to grade-appropriate curriculum and instruction for ELs on all language proficiency levels to ensure their success.
For co-teaching to work, teachers must engage in a complete instructional cycle of collaboration, which consists of four interrelated phases: collaborative planning, instruction, assessment, and reflection (a similar cycle has been very well documented by special education colleagues and researchers alike). Co-planning is a nonnegotiable; if co-teaching teams do not engage in authentic and sustained planning together, at best they will just be sharing the physical space with the students segregated as “your kids” and “my kids.” In that case, the class may come to have one real teacher and one helper, resulting in limited impact both on student and teacher professional learning. Co-teachers working together must also regularly co-assess their students’ progress and reflect on all their students’ content, language, and literacy development as well as the effectiveness of the collaborative partnership.
Coaching with a Language Focus
Coaching with a specific focus on second language acquisition and language or literacy development for ELs has received limited attention thus far. Ari Sherries (2010) offers an overview of coaching teachers within “second language, foreign language, and lingua franca settings” (p. 1), reminding us that many K–12 educators may lack the sufficient background knowledge and skills to address the diverse academic, linguistic, cultural, and social–emotional needs of English learners. As such, he suggests that most K–12 classroom and content-area teachers benefit from coaching and mentoring originating either from peers or designated coaches and mentors. When such professional learning opportunities provide regular possibilities for coaches or mentors to engage in the coaching cycle, teacher learning increases and impact on student learning is also enhanced. If coaching is to target enhanced instruction for ELs or academic language learners (ALLs), participating teachers typically focus on language and literacy learning in addition to content instruction.
Traditional Coaching Cycle
According to one school of thought on coaching, teachers engage with their coaches in a coaching cycle that may consist of the following steps:
- The teacher shares her lesson plan with her coach.
- The coach offers pre-observation feedback by email or in person.
- The coach observes the lesson.
- The teacher receives feedback on the lesson.
Due to the frequently cited limitations of coaching staff, each teacher may only participate in this cycle periodically, once a week or even as rarely as once every six weeks. Therefore, within the traditional framework, coaches face many challenges to producing meaningful change. They not only must tap in to their instructional and content expertise, but they also need to foster respect, confidence, and trust, using appropriate communication skills to negotiate what is sometimes a fine line between what teachers and students need, what administrators want, and what policy often mandates, within a limited frame of time. Other professional learning opportunities often augment coaching, such as workshops, courses, professional learning community meetings, collegial circles, book studies, or even intervisitations. But as Ben Jensen and his colleagues (2016) also remind us, teachers learn “not simply from reading and observing others work, but from combining these passive activities with active collaboration and learning-by-doing” (p. 8).
Peer Coaching Combined with Co-Teaching
The traditional coaching cycle has received a major overhaul within the context of co-taught, integrated K–12 classes (both at the elementary level and in core secondary courses), where English language development and literacy learning are systematically intertwined with core content learning. A unique approach that we have been supporting in the past few years acknowledges that co-teaching for ELs is much more than co-delivering instruction, offering targeted intervention, reducing the teacher–student ratio, or even placing a language and literacy expert in the classroom to support a certain group of kids. Instead, when implemented with fidelity, it is a continual reciprocal coaching opportunity that inherently lends itself to teachers engaging in collaborative (peer) coaching via structured, recurring professional interactions (co-planning, co-assessing, and reflection).
In our observations, high-functioning co-teacher teams examine the curriculum through two lenses and design unit plans and daily lesson plans by purposefully addressing the following: what is academically or cognitively demanding in the grade-appropriate content to be presented, and what is linguistically demanding for all students at all language proficiency levels. At the same time, co-teachers also maximize the naturally presented learning opportunity: ELD/ESL specialists learn about the grade-level content standards and the age-appropriate knowledge and skills all students need to master, whereas the classroom teachers learn to better respond to ELs’ and ALLs’ linguistic and literacy development needs.
Three Paths to Collaborative Coaching
Collaboration and co-teaching for the sake of ELs vary greatly from state to state, district to district, and even classroom to classroom within the same school. We have found three overarching paths that are emerging as practices in support of combining co-teaching as a delivery model for ELD/ESL services and for reducing student segregation with ongoing professional learning that is relevant, interactive, and sustained over time.
The first path is the most commonly emerging practice, according to which co-teaching becomes an avenue for two-way learning in school districts across the nation. For example, in Haymarket, Virginia, Sara Conant and her colleagues are combining co-teaching with coaching as follows:
At Goshen Post Elementary, we have moved to co-teaching models of instruction to maximize the efforts of our EL teachers. We are utilizing peer coaching in our collaborative planning times to grow our practice schoolwide. We are also having quarterly meetings with the co-teaching teams and will set aside time to learn from each other about what is going well and areas where we feel we need support. For peer coaching to be effective, relationships must be established so both parties feel a sense of trust and respect within the partnership. Peer coaching has the power to be an effective form of professional development in that one’s peer knows the strengths and struggles within the classroom. These partnerships are non-evaluative so partners may be more open to giving and receiving feedback.
The second path recognizes the complex roles and responsibilities ELD/ESL teachers hold, as they frequently serve as in-house experts on second language acquisition, language and literacy development, culturally responsive and sustaining pedagogy, and so on. With such a comprehensive knowledge base and skill set, some districts have started to redefine the ELD/ESL teachers’ primary function as language coaches or language development coaches. As such, these educators support student learning as well as offer peer support to their colleagues on an ongoing basis. Jackie Griffin, language development coach in Country Meadows Elementary, Kildeer School District 96, Illinois, describes herself and her experiences as follows:
A language development coach (LDC) shares responsibility with the classroom teacher for helping students achieve high levels of growth in both language and academics. The LDC and the classroom teacher work together to strategically plan for and teach students based on their needs. When planning with the classroom teacher, the LDC moves in and out of three fluid roles: consultant, collaborator, or coach. With the consultant role, the LDC may hold the knowledge and the classroom teacher is the learner, or vice versa. In the collaborator role, both partners hold the knowledge and learn from each other, and in the coaching role, the LDC asks thought-provoking questions to assist the teacher in making decisions that will impact student learning and long-term capacity building.
After joint planning, LDCs and classroom teachers co-teach and then reflect on how their instruction impacted student learning. The LDC also has the opportunity to demonstrate strategies that are best for all students so they are used even when the LDC is not in the room. The LDC, in turn, learns content and strategies from the classroom teacher and can bring that knowledge to others in the building.
A third path signifies professional partnership building across grade levels, classrooms, and school buildings. For example, three elementary teachers—Allyson Caudill (ESL), Ashley Blackley (G1), and John Cox (G2)—in Wake County Public Schools, Raleigh, North Carolina, engage in a unique three-way partnership in which Allyson is co-teaching with both Ashley and John. They have formed the Ready, Set, Co-Teach team (@readysetcoteach on Twitter, and www.readysetcoteach.com). The team recently discussed their experiences with integrated professional learning through co-teaching and sustained collaboration (Caudill et al., 2018) and gave several examples of how they learn from each other. They also open their classrooms, which serve as lab classes, for other co-teaching teams to come for intervisitations. They summarize:
When teachers face obstacles or need more information or advice on how to more effectively do their job, they first turn to their colleagues. We look at schools as communities of diverse experts. The school counselor is an expert on mediation, classroom teachers are experts in their content areas, ESL teachers are language specialists, and technology teachers are computer experts. Co-teaching provides a unique opportunity for two experts to come together, share their expertise, and learn from and support one another.
By being in the same classroom, observing and teaching together, co-teachers inadvertently serve as each other’s coaches. There have been plenty of times that John has coached us through using new technology, Ashley has modeled reading best practices for us, and Allyson has opened our eyes to new ways of scaffolding for language learners. One thing we have found is the learning never stops! We are always challenging each other and pushing each other out of our comfort zones. The best part is we get to do it together and we are all better for it.
How Do We Know It Works?
Joellen Killion (2018) suggests “two logical beginning points are assessing the overall quality of professional learning and evaluating the impact of existing programs of professional learning” (p. 205). Collaborative coaching combined with co-teaching has been growing, and successful experiences have been reported across the nation. Brigitte Pittarelli, ESOL teacher in Binghamton City Schools, New York, captured it best when she described both the process and the outcome of her experiences:
While planning with my co-teacher, I guide her on what words to look at within the context of the material, how to shelter and scaffold the learning, and how to structure the lessons from beginning, middle, and end. During our instructional time in front of all students, I offer tidbits of reasons why each support strategy is essential and explain further how it supports a particular EL in the group. I guide her learning by helping her make connections about the essential language objective. I briefly offer reasoning during the co-teaching while students are engaged in turn-and-talk or cooperative pairing tasks, or even when students are thinking about a question we posed and are given the proper wait time. Co-teaching has transformed both of our teaching. It has given me a lens into the general education classroom, and my co-teacher better understands ELD instruction. Our partnership is a true marriage. Our students all excel within this scenario! I am very excited because the general education teachers are starting to see the value of the sheltering techniques (scaffolds and strategies), lesson designs, and alignment of English language development with English language arts standards and curriculum. They are realizing that the techniques we use for ELD instruction and SIOP structure are good for ALL children. It has been an eye-opening experience not only for the general education teacher but for me as well. I never realized that ALL students in essence are academic language learners.
In our field-based research, we have noted that teacher collaboration may be recognized as a vehicle for ongoing, site-based professional development through mentoring (for novice teachers), peer coaching (for midcareer teachers), and establishing teacher leadership roles (for more experienced teachers). Here, we hope to have made a compelling case that co-teaching may also serve as a pathway to collaborative coaching that recognizes each participating teacher’s expertise and allows for day-to-day professional learning.
Burns, D., and Darling-Hammond, L. (2014). Teaching around the World: What Can TALIS Tell Us? Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education. https://edpolicy.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/publications/teaching-around-world-what-can-talis-tell-us_3.pdf
Caudill, A., Blackley, A., and Cox, J. (2018). “Co-teaching as Integrated Professional Development.” Ready, Set, Co-Teach. www.readysetcoteach.com/co-teaching-as-integrated-professional-development
Honigsfeld, A., and Dove, M. G. (2019). Collaborating for English Learners: A Foundational Guide to Integrated Practices. Corwin Press.
Jensen, B., Sonnemann, J., Hull-Roberts, K., and Hunter, A. (2016). Beyond PD: Teacher Professional Learning in High-Performing Systems. National Center on Education and the Economy.
Kibler, A. K., Walqui, A., and Bunch, G. C. (2015). “Transformational Opportunities: Language and literacy instruction for English language learners in the Common Core era in the United States.” TESOL Journal, 6, 9–35.
Killion, J. (2018). Assessing Impact: Evaluating Professional Learning (3rd ed.). Corwin Press.
McFarland, J., Hussar, B., Debrey, C., Snyder, T., Wang, X., Wilkinson-Flicker, S., Gebrekristos, S., Zhang, J., Rathbun, A., Barmer, A., Bullock Mann, F., and Hinz, S. (2017). The Condition of Education 2017. National Center for Education Statistics, US Department of Education.
Sherris, A. (2010). “Coaching Language Teachers.” CAL Digest. www.cal.org/siop/pdfs/digests/coaching-language-teachers.pdf
Andrea Honigsfeld, EdD, is professor of TESOL at Molloy University, Rockville Centre, New York, and an author-consultant with over 25 books published on topics primarily related to collaboration and co-teaching, language and literacy development, and equity for multilingual learners.
Maria G. Dove, EdD, is a professor in the School of Education and Human Services at Molloy College. Dr. Dove has published several articles and book chapters on collaborative practices, differentiated instruction, instructional leadership, and the education of English language learners.
Their latest book is Co-planning: Five Essential Practices to Integrated Curriculum and Instruction (Corwin, 2022). Follow them on Twitter at @andreahonigsfel and @MariaGDove.