Teacher Education for English Language Learners: What We Know and What We Need to Do

Today’s blogger is Adrian D. Martin, New Jersey City University, whose essay (co-authored with Ana Maria Villegas, Kit SaizdeLaMora, and Tammy Mills) on preparing future teachers to teach ELLs appears in The Educational Forum.

In many respects Cecilia is a typical third grader.

She enjoys spending time with her friends, loves her family, and dreams about the possibilities for her future. Cecilia’s favorite class is art, where she creates masterpieces with watercolors, paints, brushes, scissors, glitter, and glue to adorn her bedroom walls. She hopes to one day become an art teacher and inspire boys and girls to create masterpieces of their own.

Yet in September 2017, her hometown of Corozal, Puerto Rico, experienced the widespread destruction and devastation of Hurricane Maria. Although Cecilia and her immediate family survived this tragedy, their home and her school suffered significant damage. As a result, Cecilia’s family decided that it would be best to leave Puerto Rico and live with relatives on the mainland United States.

The challenges of this major transition were compounded when Cecilia enrolled in her new school in Cleveland, Ohio. Although she had some instruction in English as a second language while in Corozal, Cecilia struggled to understand Ms. Williams, her new teacher; and as the only speaker of Spanish in her class, she experienced difficulty in communicating with her new peers. For Ms. Williams, teaching Cecilia was challenging. Like many mainstream teachers, Ms. Williams was a monolingual speaker of English and lacked professional experience with linguistically diverse students. Because Ms. Williams had never studied a second language, she had no personal insight into Cecilia’s experience learning English as a second language. Without preservice preparation or ongoing professional learning experiences to teach English language learners (ELLs), Ms. Williams struggled to identify ways she might aid Cecilia’s academic progress while simultaneously advancing her English language development.

Given the increasing number of students who speak a language other than English at home and are emergent speakers of English, along with the trend to place ELLs in mainstream classrooms, it is imperative for teacher educators to develop a teaching workforce that possesses the knowledge, skills, and dispositions conducive to the affirmative inclusion of ELLs in mainstream classes. Unfortunately, research suggests that ELLs are often marginalized in schools and classrooms, and that many mainstream teachers, despite best intentions, are unresponsive to these students’ academic, linguistic, and socio-emotional development. From a social justice perspective, such an approach to educating ELLs is not only negligent, but also antithetical to the aims of education in our democracy.

Yet despite this urgent problem, little is known about ongoing initiatives within preservice teacher education to promote teacher learning for linguistically diverse students. To address this knowledge gap, the article I co-authored with Ana Maria Villegas, Kit Saiz de la Mora, and Tammy Mills on the preparation of future mainstream teachers for today’s linguistically diverse classrooms offers a systematic review of existing research on this topic. Our critical appraisal of the empirical literature published since 2000 synthesizes the findings from 21 studies to identify the nature and outcomes of learning experiences provided to preservice teachers for teaching ELLs. Using the central tasks for learning to teach at the preservice level proposed by Sharon Feiman-Nemser to guide our analysis, we identified a variety of learning activities teacher educators are using to engage preservice mainstream teachers in learning to teach ELLs. Specifically, the review paints a detailed portrait of how teacher educators can help teacher candidates interrogate their beliefs about ELLs and how to teach them, develop their skills for learning about these students’ out-of-school experiences, and build their practices as linguistically responsive teachers.

To be sure, had Ms. Williams—and other teachers like her—been provided with professional preparation to teach ELLs along the lines depicted in the studies we reviewed, she would likely feel confident in her ability to support Cecilia in learning academic content while developing English language skills. Struggles to determine how to modify instruction, scaffold classroom activities, and promote a linguistically inclusive classroom would have been mitigated by professional knowledge, skills, and dispositions to engage in a linguistically responsive, affirmative, and sustainable pedagogy. Thus, our literature review serves as an entry point for teacher educators, education researchers, professional development providers, and other stakeholders in the field of education committed to supporting students like Cecilia, who struggle in schools due to linguistic differences.

KDP is proud to partner with Routledge to share Adrian D. Martin’s essay with the education community. Access the article at Taylor and Francis Online, free through April 30, 2018.

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