Moving Beyond Figuring It Out on Your Own: Preparing and Developing Linguistically Responsive Teachers

Today’s blogger is Meghan Bratkovich, Doctoral Candidate in Teacher Education and Teacher Development at Montclair State University, a contributor to the special issue of The Educational Forum on linguistically diverse students. See this month’s free article from that issue of The Educational Forum.

“How did you learn how to do this?” 

I had just observed a high school math teacher, highly effective by about every formal and informal measure, teaching a lesson to a class of English language learners (ELLs). Due to a shortage of credentialed bilingual teachers, Mr. Erickson, a self-described monolingual, had been identified to teach a section of bilingual geometry. As much Spanish as English rattled around the classroom as students excitedly reasoned through the differences between lines and line segments, actively debating their way through the classwork.

Though little in his prior education or experience had prepared him for this task, Mr. Erickson was managing to teach geometry under these constraints, and teach it well.

“I don’t know, I guess I just figured it out on my own,” Mr. Erickson said, breathing a heavy sigh. “I don’t even know if it’s what I should be doing.”

“What if you hadn’t agreed to teach this class?” I asked.

“They’d probably be sitting at the back of some mainstream classroom, not understanding anything,” he replied.

Every school has its “Mr. Erickson” among the teachers who are willing to go above and beyond, the ones who will work with students with whom they can only imperfectly communicate—the teachers who always seem to make it work. We also probably know the other teachers—those Mr. Erickson referenced—who are so unsure of how to help a struggling ELL sitting at the back of their class that they do nothing, which is exactly what they’ve been or feel prepared to do. The teaching of ELLs is too important to fall solely on the shoulders of good teachers who feel un- or underprepared.

Teachers looking to build or improve their teaching of ELLs can see this special issue of The Educational Forum as their invitation into an established community of inquiry seeking to make sense of the complexity of teaching ELLs and strengthen teaching practices. The community shares knowledge and research geared toward helping teachers feel as prepared to respond to the needs of their language learner students as they feel to teach their content. Collectively, the reviews, studies, and commentaries in this issue point to the need for linguistically responsive teachers—those who can teach academic content in ways that are comprehensible while simultaneously attending to and furthering the development of students’ language skills.

Teachers beginning their journeys into teaching ELLs might be drawn to Athanases and Wong (2018), who offer evidence that can help teachers to tailor their practitioner inquiry, systematically study their students, and develop an asset-based orientation that fosters inclusive practice. Individuals seeking research-based ELL writing programs can look to Haas, Goldman, and Faltis (2018), who provide a deep dive into transdisciplinary best practices for writing at middle and high school levels.

Those looking to better understand the broad landscape of research on how teachers learn to teach ELLs can look to literature reviews from Villegas, SaizdeLaMora, Martin, and Mills (2018) and Lucas, Strom, Bratkovich, and Wnuk (2018). These reviews provide readers with a succinct synthesis of research studies conducted to date, condensing decades of research and helping to situate, contextualize, and explain the anecdotal experiences that teachers like Mr. Erickson live every day in their classrooms.

Lastly, de Jong, Naranjo, Li, and Ouzia (2018) provide pathways for teacher educators and teacher leaders to support teachers in building their confidence and competence around their ELL teaching practices. The authors emphasize that transforming education for ELLs necessitates preparing the preparers and inclusively brings teacher educators, administrators, and supervisors into the cultivation of a linguistically responsive approach to education.

It is vital that all teachers feel confident and competent teaching ELLs. However, no teacher should be forced to figure it out on their own, to needlessly reinvent the wheel, or to start from scratch. Students deserve better. Teachers deserve better. This special issue offers multiple entry points into conversations and communities striving for better, practical, and pervasive understandings of linguistically responsive teaching to ground teacher leaders and teacher educators, prepare and support teachers, and ultimately serve students.

KDP is proud to partner with Routledge to share an essay from the special issue of The Educational Forum with the education community. Access the article at Taylor and Francis Online, free through June 30, 2018.

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