Strategic Mentoring

Betty Achinstein, Susan O’Hara, Robert Pritchard, and Jeff Zwiers explore how specific training of mentors for new teachers improves English learner outcomes

The task of supporting new teachers to work with the growing population of culturally and linguistically diverse students has generated widespread interest in mentoring programs. Despite this fervor, such programs often provide emotional support and generic advice giving, and lack a focus on meeting the needs of English language learners. There is also a problematic assumption that mentors come ready-made or just need tuning up with technical tips, rather than situating mentoring in a complex knowledge base and repertoire of quality mentor practices. While attention turns to mentoring to develop novices, little is known about mentor professional development to strategically support new teachers to meet the needs of English learners.

This lack of knowledge comes at a critical time. A demographic imperative exists to support the growing English learner population in U.S. schools, with one in 10 students classified as English language learners (ELLs). New teachers, who are disproportionately placed in classrooms with students from non-dominant cultural and linguistic communities, often lack the preparation and practices to meet the needs of ELLs, and find themselves struggling. Not surprisingly, an achievement gap exists between ELLs and their English-speaking counterparts. At the same time that ELLs are struggling to keep up with their peers, and their teachers are struggling to meet their literacy needs, the new Common Core State Standards call for specific attention to Academic Language (AL) development for all students across all subject areas.

This article explores mentor professional development (PD) to strategically support new teachers’ capacity to improve Academic Language development in content areas for ELLs. It draws on findings from an innovative research and design (R&D) partnership between Stanford University and a network of secondary schools serving high numbers of ELLs in California. We identify three key domains for mentor PD and highlight “close-in looks” at actual mentor learning experiences from the R&D work in an effort to promote quality practices of ELL-focused mentoring.

Building the Foundation
Effective mentors possess a complex body of knowledge including an understanding of: pedagogy and curriculum to teach ELLs and to guide novices during mentoring sessions to promote ELL learning; learners and the learning of novices and ELL students; organizational, socio-political, and professional contexts within which novices work and students learn; and mentor and teacher’s knowledge of self as related to ELL issues (Achinstein & Athanases, 2010). One critical aspect of such foundational knowledge includes understanding how novices may experience a cultural/linguistic mismatch with their students, and may lack an understanding of ELL experiences. It is important to heighten mentors’ awareness of this cultural/linguistic gap, as evidenced in this exchange from a session during the R&D initiative. Participants watched a video excerpt of an interview with Ana, an ELL student of Guatemalan descent, addressing what math teachers need to know to be successful. The task was to explore what was useful for teaching and mentoring. In reflecting on the video, mentors heard comments from their novices. One new teacher (a monolingual African American teacher) explained, “Ana said students are scared to come up to the teacher. Scared. I never thought about that!” The novice is becoming aware of issues of trust that may block access to learning opportunities — information that her mentor can take up in their mentoring conversation.

Mentors also need foundational knowledge on the AL development of ELLs including understanding: the central role that language plays in content learning; components of second (and academic) language acquisition; the importance of teachers’ attitudes toward cultural/linguistic diversity and their assumptions about ELLs; and the broad range of academic and linguistic backgrounds that ELLs bring and their implications for learning (Lucas & Grinberg, 2008). In particular, this means fostering mentors’ awareness of linguistic obstacles that ELLs have in accessing content.

Close-In Look: Determining Linguistic Obstacles
To ensure that the mentors and novices had the same foundational knowledge regarding ELL issues, one PD session focused on determining linguistic obstacles. Teachers and mentors were given five versions of the same math problem, each written to represent what a student at each level of language proficiency (beginning, early intermediate, intermediate, early advanced, advanced) would be likely to understand. The table groups were told: (a) the first figure is what students at the beginning level of language proficiency might comprehend; (b) that blanks indicate words students likely would not understand; (c) to try to solve the problem, thinking about what they could determine from the information given; (d) to repeat the process for each level in the order presented; and (e) to note the features of each problem that create difficulty for students. This activity and its debriefing demonstrated the importance of determining whether ELLs are struggling with content concepts or language proficiency. For instance, mentors and teachers were able to see that at the beginning level, students could only decipher a few words and pick out the numbers in a problem. Consequently, even if students have the math background in their first language, they cannot determine enough information to solve the problem. At higher levels of proficiency, students may have acquired an active social vocabulary but still not possess sufficient academic vocabulary or an understanding of abstract concepts to solve a problem without significant support. During the debrief, one participant described his revelation: “Thinking about beginning and intermediate levels and what students are comprehending made me realize that the preparation of having them fill out a chart would be difficult for [certain ELLs]. To even do step one, you had to read and comprehend. If you’re lost at step one, then you couldn’t process more. It made me wonder how can I scaffold this reading further?”

Focusing on Core Teaching Practices
Teaching is a complex practice that can be deconstructed, rehearsed, and revised for the development of novices. While historically mentors have been trained to follow the lead of new teachers, a new approach focuses on a targeted set of teaching practices that are high leverage, impact student learning, and are deemed core to the content. Focusing mentoring on deliberate and repeated practice of elements of complex practices is critical for development of expertise. Mentors can develop a common framework and language to utilize in their repertoire in support of new teacher improvement, particularly in supporting AL development of ELLs. Thus, the R&D initiative developed a set of core teaching practices for AL development of ELLs from the work of an expert group drawing on previous research and tested in a range of classroom videos across subject domains, teacher experience, and ELL contexts (Anstrom et. al, 2010):
• Alignment of Language Learning to Support Content Learning: aligning AL objectives with key language demands of content objectives, activities, tasks, and texts.
• Modeling: explicitly modeling use of AL.
• Comprehensible Input: utilizing a range of strategies and materials to make target AL understandable to ELLs.
• Explicit Strategy Instruction: explicitly teaching language learning strategies (e.g., use of cognates, context, non-linguistic cues.)
• Output: providing opportunities for ELLs’ oral and written production using AL in support of content learning.
The set of core practices was expanded to create an observation protocol that specifies elements and lower and higher enactment, thus helping mentors and novices focus on moving along a continuum of practice:

1 Almost no evidence
2 Limited evidence
3 Evidence with some weaknesses
4 Consistent strong evidence

Strategy Use and Instruction
Teacher does not provide instruction about language learning strategies. This includes referring to strategies without discussion of why or when to use them.

Teacher introduces, and/or refers to language learning strategies and why or when to use them, or the teacher prompts students to use a specific strategy. However, the teacher does not provide explicit instruction on how to use the strategy.

Teacher provides explicit instruction about a language learning strategy, including how to use it. However instruction is insufficient for students to implement strategies independently.

Teacher provides explicit instruction about a range of language learning strategies, or detailed instruction about a single strategy, including how (and why or when) to use them. It is reasonable to infer that instruction is sufficient for students to implement strategies independently.

Close-In Look: Identifying Language Demands
The R&D initiative sought to facilitate mentors’ understanding of core practices for teaching ELLs. One PD session was designed for mentors to dive deeply into aligning language and subject matter/content objectives. The particular focus was to develop an understanding among mentors about the importance of AL in the teaching of content to ELLs and to introduce them to a framework for integrating language and content instruction. This framework (see Figure 1) begins with the development of content objectives (Stfep 1), proceeds through an analysis of the text, tasks, and tests to be used in a lesson as the basis for identifying language demands (Step 2), and concludes with the development of language objectives that are based on the language demands (Step 3). This close-in look focuses specifically on how Step 2 was introduced to and modeled for mentors.

The session began with a discussion of AL features (lexical, syntactic, and discourse). Mentors were provided with content-specific examples of these features and applied this knowledge to the process of identifying language demands. The approach was based on the assumption that mentors need to experience this process as learners, and then reflect on their learning and on the effectiveness of the process from a teacher’s perspective. This increases the mentors’ capacity for explaining and modeling to their teachers.

Mentors were given a set of instructional materials developed for use in a secondary history lesson: a content objective, texts used, and instructional tasks for students. The group was asked to work in pairs to find the key language demands in each of three AL features by: analyzing the content objective; considering data on students’ language strengths and needs; and analyzing texts and student tasks. Once mentors completed these steps and discussed them as a group, they were given a second set of instructional materials and worked independently through the same process. These experiences were designed to build mentors’ understanding of AL and how that knowledge can be used to identify language demands inherent in content-specific instructional materials. A subsequent session focused on how mentors and teachers could use this information to develop language objectives that support content objectives, texts, and tasks of a lesson.

Guiding Mentoring Conversations
Historically, mentoring conversations have been shaped by the cognitive coaching model, which often leads to conversations characterized by a lack of clear direction due to a “follow the novice’s lead” approach, and little critical feedback that can extend the novice’s practice. Just as educators seek to develop a common language of core teaching practices, we see a parallel need to develop a common language about mentoring discourse moves to allow mentors’ practice to move forward. Thus focusing on specific mentor moves in conversations about lesson planning or observations, analysis of student work, or individual students’ learning is critical for mentor and novice learning.

The R&D initiative involved collaboratively developing a common language about mentor conversational moves. Mentors served as a resource to one another as they collaboratively examined transcripts of their own mentoring practices to identify effective moves in mentoring conversations. This involved naming mentor moves, fostering norms of instructional dialogue about common practice among teachers and mentors, and deconstructing exchanges to understand mentoring practices that supported the AL development of ELLs. In so doing, the mentors identified the following protocol for guiding mentoring conversations.

Mentoring programs often lack quality models for the PD of mentors, particularly in regard to supporting new teachers to meet the needs of ELLs. The content of such PD must include building the foundation of mentors’ complex knowledge base, focusing on core teaching practices of ELLs, and guiding mentoring conversations. The profession needs robust visions of PD for English Learner-focused mentoring of new teachers in order to address the demographic imperative of our increasingly diverse student population.

References available online at

Dr. Susan O’Hara is a senior researcher at the University of California Santa Cruz and former executive director for the Center to Support Excellence in Teaching at Stanford University. Her research agenda focuses on teacher professional development and on instructional practice that are associated with improved outcomes for English learners. She has extensive experience in developing and evaluating large-scale professional development initiatives. She has co-authored articles for numerous journals including the Journal for the Education of Students Placed at Risk and the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy. She has co-authored two books, NETS Grades 6-8 Multidisciplinary Resource Units and Teaching Vocabulary with Hypermedia, 6-12.

Dr. Betty Achinstein is a senior researcher at the University of California Santa Cruz’s Center for Educational Research in the Interest of Underserved Students where she conducts research on: urban schooling in support of culturally/linguistically non-dominant communities; and new teachers of color. Her most recent books include: Change(d) Agents: New Teachers of Color in Urban Schools; and Mentors in the Making: Developing New Leaders for New Teachers.

Dr. Robert Pritchard is professor of Education at Sacramento State University. A former classroom teacher and reading specialist, Dr. Pritchard is a language and literacy specialist who works extensively with school districts and county offices of education on a wide range of professional development projects. Dr. Pritchard also worked internationally for nine years as an ESL teacher and teacher trainer. He has authored and edited numerous publications related to English learners, innovative uses of technology, and professional development for teachers, including Kids Come in All Languages: Reading Instruction for ESL Students, and Teaching Vocabulary with Hypermedia.

Dr. Jeff Zwiers is a senior researcher at Stanford University. He participates in the research and design of teacher professional development efforts that promote academic language development, interaction, critical thinking, and engaged learning. He has published books on reading, thinking and academic language. His recent work is about students’ academic language and communication skills.