ESL is 'Language for Later'

equity esl instruction esl teachers inclusive practices multilingual learners sheltered instruction Feb 21, 2023

Walk a day in the shoes of an ESL teacher and you'll become quickly dizzied by the squall of requests:

Zala is struggling. I think she needs ESL. Can you help?
Armando is not completing his homework. Can you help?
They're missing their math test to come to you. Can you help?
Shira can't write an essay on her own. Can you help?

If you read our last blog post, The ESL Identity Crisis, or if you're an ESL teacher yourself, chances are this is a familiar set of asks. And, chances are, you've dropped your class plans now and again (and again!) in order to say, "Yes, I can help." Because we're all in this together. Because it takes a village. Because who wants to see a student struggle? And also, maybe, because you can't help it. You see a need and that need is now

Urgent vs Important

Franklin Covey, in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,  introduces us to the 4 Quadrants of Time Management. Quadrant 1 is labeled necessity. These are the pressing problems that crop up every day. Solve one and you're guaranteed a check in the box at the end of the day proving, "I have helped." CHECK. Quadrant 2, on the other hand, is labeled effectiveness. Q2, while not urgent like Q1, is also important.


Quadratic Function?

So what's the job, the function, of ESL? If we consider ESL teachers to be in charge of keeping students afloat, then today's ESL lesson? It can wait. But what if we consider, for a moment, that the job of the ESL teacher is not designed to be a Quadrant 1 position? Allowing ESL to be its own, very precious content, as Quadrant 2, is where we maintain connection with our mission and we ensure results in the form of independent, multilingual, successful students. 

Covey: "We spend our time in one of four ways, depending on the two factors that define an activity: urgent and important. Urgent means it requires immediate attention. Urgent things act on us and are usually visible. For example, a ringing phone is urgent. Important things, on the other hand, have to do with results. It contributes to our mission, values, and high-priority goals. We react to urgent matters. Important matters that are not urgent require more initiative, more proactivity."

The Asynchronous Nature of ESL

ESL is often seen as a fix for students. This is problematic on several levels:

1. ESL students are not students in need of fixing. They are not urgent fires to be stomped out.

2. Multilingual learners enrich our schools by bringing ideas, perspectives, solutions and more (more on that in a future post), and when included skillfully, excel in a tier 1 setting.

3. ESL as a content does not address the English a student needs TODAY.

Here's an example:
Santi is a 10th grader who is learning English while attending English only classes. What he learns in period 2 ESL, while valuable and necessary English, is not necessarily going to be the English he needs to unlock access to his US History class period 7. We need to trust that ESL will provide proficiency in time and moves Santi along a linguistic trajectory based on his current proficiency. It is Language for Later.

When we operate as ESL teachers in Q1 it positions us to chase content. We move, without a plan, in a state of urgency. Every content need that arises is a mole, popping up predictably unpredictably from every corner. 

Teaching English deeply and effectively requires systematic, sustained and explicit instruction (DOE). We need to understand the natural order of language, its dimensions and domains. And then, with intentionality, we design units to enable students to become independent navigators within English realms. We align to English development standards, building proficiency brick by brick. This requires time, feedback and practice. 

Chasing the language from 7th period? That may keep a Santi afloat today, but it's not sustained and certainly doesn't align to any systematic approach. So the next time you're thinking about asking an ESL professional to cast aside her lesson plans to explain the day's content, please reconsider. Would you be willing to get your math lesson aside to reteach figurative language? Please consider this request a signal of the need to shelter content more deeply, to accommodate for language and support students at all English levels while they're learning English. Classroom teachers with multilingual learners deserve the training and support to feel confident in their capacity to reach students WHILE they're learning English.

And ESL teachers? When we release them of the responsibility of putting out the content fires (Q1), we enable them to focus on effective practice of ESL as 'Language for later' (Q2). So that Santi, Zala, Armando and Shira can all add full proficiency in social and academic English to their linguistic resume. 




PD just for ESL teachers is here. Here's what they're saying:

"The Aligned ESL Teacher Cohort modules provided great clarification for me in my role as an ESL teacher and have had a great impact on my ESL teaching, planning, and collaborating. Although I have experience with working with ELs for almost 10 years, I came away from each of the modules with new knowledge and a deeper understanding of my role as an ESL teacher and the ways that I can tailor my EL curriculum while also working to collaborate with colleagues that also work with my ELs so we can work together to ensure their language development and success."

Click to learn more!

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