Teaching in Tandem

Myryame Montrose Elder shares the success of co-teaching content and English

The current emphasis in ESL instruction is on a “push-in” rather than “pull-out” method of intervention: ESL teachers collaborate with a content-area teacher and co-teach in the content classroom to ensure ELLs can master vocabulary and concepts. Co-teaching is a great model, and I have had successful co-teaching experiences at the high school level in biology, algebra, and English language arts (ELA). However, my current position at a middle school, where I teach two different subjects (French and English as a Second Language (ESL)) to three different grade levels, does not allow time to co-teach in a content classroom or to attend PLC meetings with the various grade levels. Our daily elective classes for English language learners (ELLs) go beyond the “help them with their homework” approach to provide consistent, independent ESL instruction. We have a district-wide one to one laptop initiative, and we do lots of project-based work at every grade level in middle school.

In an effort to support my ELL students’ need to master vocabulary and the increasingly demanding coursework for a wide range of core and elective subjects, I have developed a form of collaboration based on “teaching in tandem” — using the same basic curriculum as a particular content teacher, but adapting materials, as well as the length of time devoted to learning them, to the needs of ELLs. I do this with a “speed dating” approach to collaboration, using frequent emails and quick chats in the hallway to touch base with content teachers and see how I can support the work they are doing in their classrooms with targeted instruction for my ESL students. Once I know what their curriculum objectives and upcoming projects are, I can come up with lesson plans that use the same vocabulary and concepts they are teaching: we are not co-teaching, but we are teaching in tandem. Research has shown that students need to encounter and use a new vocabulary word multiple times in order to “know” it (anywhere from six to 20 times, depending on the study), so previewing vocabulary and giving ELLs opportunities to use it are critical. My biggest successes with parallel teaching occur when I know content-area needs before students start that unit. This allows me to familiarize students with key vocabulary, so that when the content teacher introduces the unit, the students can focus on the ideas the teacher is sharing rather than struggle to understand what the teacher is talking about. However, it is also of value to mirror content work or repeat it as a way of helping ELLs review for EOC/EOG tests.

Teaching in tandem works for any subject and allows an ESL teacher to support students in every subject at some point, instead of only co-teaching one subject for the year. For example, when I learned all eighth graders would be doing a budgeting math project based on a specific job scenario (here’s your salary, this is how much your rent is, etc.), I was able to find a levelled article for teens on adult responsibilities and preview essential terms for the math project, such as wages, salary, financial, investment, etc. (My students did not know any of these words, and it took a week for them to start to sink in.) Because it takes time for ELLs to truly “get” new vocabulary and concepts, it is best to develop multiple-day lesson plans that start with the words, progress to levelled guided readings and videos, and then lead to a writing project. This also follows Krashen’s advice to have students encounter the same vocabulary in a variety of sources. In the case of the eighth-grade math project, this led to a separate investigation of the minimum-wage debate in my ESL class, and culminated with students writing letters to lawmakers in Washington, DC, to request a raise in the minimum wage, citing examples from articles and news broadcasts (such as a Latina single mother raising two daughters on a fast-food salary).

Science is another area where ELLs benefit from the increased exposure to difficult vocabulary and abstract concepts that teaching in tandem provides. I have found that hands-on activities and total physical response (TPR) techniques work especially well for science terms: for example, students stand in place and turn to learn rotate and then move around a fixed object to show revolve. We clog up straws with solid vegetable shortening and then see how “blood” (colored water in a pipette) can’t pass through the arteries when cholesterol builds up. We construct a digital clock using a lemon to conduct the electric charge. We toss pennies to get the genes for hypothetical children, and then students choose from preprinted characteristics to make a posters that show what the kids will look like and write out the experiment and results.

Providing ideas for content teachers to use with ELLs is also part of teaching in tandem: I might share a strategy, a website with easier access to the same material, or a graphic organizer. When we teach vocabulary to ESL students, we often use something like a KWL chart (what a student knows [K], wants to know [W], and has learned [L] about a topic): students indicate whether they a) don’t know the word; b) have seen the word before, but aren’t sure what it means; or c) know it well enough to explain to others. There is often a sample sentence with two possible meanings for the word (this helps the teacher judge if the self-assessment is correct), and then the students write their own sentences. A word wall with a menu of possible quick writes can be used to reinforce the vocabulary on subsequent days. I frequently recommend the websites BrainPOP and BrainPOP Jr., which have very accessible mini-lessons by subject area. And while there are many good graphic organizers online, I don’t think anything beats the student-created versions using Thinking Maps.

The keyword method — where a word like radius is associated with a phonologically similar word, such as radish, and then with an image (a radish swinging on the radius of a circle) — has been proven to help language learners retain vocabulary. I have also found that when you are teaching students difficult words and concepts, it is often useful to select levelled readings that are below the students’ actual level. I know this is counter to Krashen’s i+1 (input hypothesis) or Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, and I often use both strategies in my classroom. However, giving ELLs an “easier” text allows them to focus on the targeted vocabulary and ideas without being frustrated by additional cognitive demands. This makes them quickly feel successful. Once they know the target words/ideas, you can give them additional higher-level readings with scaffolding.

While teaching in tandem is especially important for ELLs, the technique can allow teachers to work collaboratively across an entire grade level. This is the idea behind such popular grade-wide initiatives as Party at the Parthenon, where each subject teacher does a project based on ancient Greece. At our school, I had my sixth-grade-French students do research on various Greco-Roman monuments in France, whether 18th-century neoclassical buildings or original ruins, such as the Arènes de Lutéce in Paris; the art teacher had students make pottery “Greek” vases. Almost any subject can do crosswalk activities that carry curriculum goals across content areas, but world languages are particularly adaptable. As Dr. Bronwyn MacFarlane of the University of Arkansas notes, “World language education offers a learning environment for natural interdisciplinary connections across content domains and a diverse array of instructional approaches for teaching the language content.” One wildly popular activity in my French class that dovetailed with math instruction was teaching students the vocabulary associated with exponents and then having them make up problems they had to relate orally in French to a partner, who wrote them down and solved. When seventh graders were learning how to say dates in French, I worked up a “Brief History of France in Ten Key Dates” and ran it by the social studies teachers to ensure it matched what they were covering. The students remarked, “This is what we are learning now in social studies!”

For schools with limited resources, “teaching in tandem” can allow greater support of ELLs across the curriculum: teaching in tandem does not require long meetings; ESL teachers can provide curriculum support in every class and cover a multitude of different subjects/ projects over the course of the year; and since each teacher is handling similar material in their own classroom, total collaboration on every element is not required. This can make it easier for an ESL teacher to quickly adapt materials for the individual ELL. This type of curriculum coordination between ESL teachers and content teachers is not difficult to implement: the only real requirement is willingness for content teachers to communicate their curriculum planning and projects ahead of time, and for ESL teachers to put in the effort to develop lesson plans and modified materials that support the content-area goals. The key element to successful parallel teaching is communication. Just looking at curriculum-mapping documents isn’t enough; the ESL teacher needs to cover the right material at the right time — starting just before or simultaneously with the content lessons. This will ensure that ELLs have the opportunity to capitalize on the extra instruction and are able to produce better results in the content classroom.

Myryame Montrose Elder is a French/ESL teacher for grades 6–8 at A. L. Stanback M.S. in Hillsborough, NC. She has taught ESL at a number of high schools in North Carolina and French at the Chapel Hill Institute for Cultural and Language Education (CHICLE), and at Newtown H.S. in Connecticut. She studied in France at both graduate and undergraduate levels, and she earned an MA degree in French from New York University and an AB degree from Sarah Lawrence College. She was drawn to teaching after a long career in communications.