Co-Teaching For Emerging Bilingual Learners: Theory And Practice

Co-teaching is an education buzzword frequently used in the context of instruction for students with special needs or English Language Learners (ELLs). When implemented thoughtfully and intentionally, co-teaching can be highly effective at meeting the unique needs of all learners. In this post, I will focus on co-teaching for English Language Learners, to whom I will refer to as “Emerging Bilingual Learners (EBLs), a more accurate label that highlights the assets these learners bring to the classroom. 

My argument, which is supported by research and my own professional experience, is that co-teaching is a particularly effective method for EBLs when one teacher is trained to meet the language needs of EBLs (and all learners) and the other focuses on grade level standards. Using co-teaching models, language is not the end goal, but rather a vehicle that enables EBLs to gain understanding of grade level content. The focus is not solely on the language that students are developing but rather on the academic content all students must acquire. This is important because it does not stigmatize students and it levels the playing field for each learner.

Not only does this inclusive model of teaching focus on the assets of every child, but it provides a more diverse learning environment while building trusting relationships amongst students' peers and teachers. The co-teaching model can be instrumental to fostering a greater sense of community within the classroom. Gloria Ladson-Billings (1995) stresses the importance of instilling community pride into a classroom, where teachers and students have a reciprocal autonomous relationship. EBLs need to feel a deep sense of belonging in order to be willing to take risks and make mistakes.

But relationships are not the only benefit of co-teaching. Once students feel like an equal member in their general education classroom, it is imperative to leverage their home languages so they reach academic success. This not only enables learners to develop academic language in their home language, but it helps them build understanding of English by making connections with their prior knowledge. Through co-teaching, EBLs are fully immersed in a rigorous learning environment and are held to the same standards as their monolingual peers. 

Co-teaching in theory

So, a bit of background: what does co-teaching look like in the EBL context? In the EBL co-teaching model, two teachers share a general education classroom. The "homeroom teacher" is the content expert and the "English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher" provides language scaffolding at various levels so that each child has the supports necessary to succeed.

Note that the ESL teacher in this model is not modifying assignments or providing accommodations, both of which are strategies more commonly used in special education classes. Rather, the ESL teacher is responsible for providing just enough language support so that EBLs can access grade level content. It is a delicate balance of providing additional support without watering down the curriculum, which can ultimately cause students to develop a sense of learned helplessness (Honigsfeld & Dove, 2010). Teachers are responsible for “providing academic work for ELLs that is culturally meaningful and that builds on the students’ own background that native language skills can support learning” (Honigsfeld & Dove, 2010). This allows EBLs to create meaning of the content while utilizing their home language. Teachers collaborate to ensure the content is relevant and responsive to all children. 

The result is a classroom fluidly differentiated based on the needs of each learner. Co-teaching is powerful because it enables the teachers to integrate content and language instruction instead of segregating students. The common practice of “pulling out” EBLs from the classroom can create a stigma that they require remedial support. This is not only inaccurate, but the opposite is the case. These students have an asset because they are soon-to-be bilingual, a skill that is highly sought after in the workforce. With co-teaching, students frequently work with both teachers within the general education classroom, are seen as equal to their peers, and are grouped fluidly based on their individual needs. This contrasts with "pull-out" groups, where students are “stuck” in one track and it’s extremely challenging for them to exit that track.  

Finally, I argue that the benefits of co-teaching for EBLs are not limited to the students. Done properly, co-teaching embodies a paradigm shift that is well-suited to a public education system that serves a linguistically diverse student population. Put differently, co-teaching facilitates Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy (CSP). CSP, as introduced by Paris and Alim, “seeks to perpetuate and foster—to sustain—linguistic, literate, and cultural pluralism as part of schools for positive social transformation" (Paris & Alim, 2017). It acknowledges the importance of sustaining students' home languages in addition to building their English skills.

This can be accomplished through various learning engagements, such as multilingual word walls where students collaborate to identify and classify words based on their meaning, synonyms, and antonyms. In this example, students work in groups and EBLs are often seen as the expert who can organize words in various languages. This is just one example of how CSP stresses the importance of redefining what achievement and success mean while sustaining and critiquing cultural knowledge. That being said, it is important to note that CSP is a mindset and requires a culture shift in the classroom, rather than simply a collection of learning activities. 

Co-teaching in practice

I was fortunate to begin my teaching career in Chennai, India, where the co-teaching model was employed schoolwide. In our elementary school, there were two teachers in the room for half the day. The model was based on the premise that all students are academic language learners. Likewise, “All elementary classrooms teachers and secondary content teachers must embrace their role as teachers of academic language and disciplinary literacy” (Dove & Honigsfeld, 2018).

Emerging bilingual learners (EBLs) remained in the classroom all day, regardless of their English language proficiency. When learning engagements provided opportunities for EBLs to share their expertise as bilinguals, the classroom culture began to shift and they were no longer viewed as having a deficit. For example, morning meetings could revolve around learning each other’s languages and greetings. EBLs were seen as assets to the classroom community and their language was valued and supported. 

When I transitioned to become a public school teacher in Colorado, I was disheartened to have my students pulled out of the classroom for 45 minutes every day. They missed critical grade level instruction as well as the opportunity to deepen their relationships with peers. Under this "pull out model," homeroom teachers must decide what they teach when their community is incomplete; this can create challenges for teachers who integrate all subjects and rely on their students being present for all instruction throughout the day. When EBLs are pulled out, the curriculum they receive is irrelevant to grade level content, and students also generally did not enjoy leaving their peers and community. This creates a discontinuity in their learning that does a disservice to students who benefit most from a streamlined academic experience. 

I proposed a co-teaching model in Colorado similar to that of my international school in India (but on a smaller scale). Despite being the only elementary school attempting this model in the district, we knew it was best for students and we fought for it. We found ways to meet the district criterion of 45 minutes designated for language, but also connected students' learning to grade level standards and integrated their learning across subject areas. This approach seems to have served my students well. When my EBLs were assessed with their annual language assessment, seven of the nine EBL students in my 4th grade class were redesignated out of the English Language program when they moved to 5th grade. Their reading, writing, speaking, and listening scores had surpassed the requirements.

As with many school initiatives, the impact of co-teaching programs should not be assessed immediately. When I attended co-teaching trainings, we learned co-teaching takes 3-5 years, on average, to produce results. There are many reasons for this. One is that co-teaching requires teacher training. It also takes time for co-teachers to learn to work together, develop relationships, and establish roles and responsibilities within the same classroom.

I truly believe co-teaching is imperative to enhance the experiences of our EBLs in public education. We should encourage students to utilize their linguistic repertoire, as the cognitive benefits of bilingualism are well-established (Marian & Shook 2012, Mills & Mills 1993). These underserved students deserve an equitable education with full access to grade level curricula. They deserve to cultivate and grow their linguistic assets while becoming bilinguals.

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