The Internet TESL Journal

Teacher Collaboration for ESL/EFL Academic Success

Margo DelliCarpini
Lehman College, The City University of New York (New York, NY, USA)
English language learners (ELLs) in US schools usually receive ESL services for a portion of the day and are in mainstream classrooms for the remainder of the school day. Mainstream secondary level (grades 7-12) teachers are often unprepared or under prepared to address the needs of ELLs in their subject area classrooms. In addition, many EFL programs focus on academic content learning in English. Meaningful collaboration between mainstream and ESL/EFL teachers is an important component in a program whose goals are to raise levels of academic achievement, content knowledge in English, and entrance into higher educational settings for ESL or EFL students. This article discusses the benefits of collaboration between mainstream and ESL/EFL teachers and ways to implement such collaboration.


Changing demographics across the United States have created classrooms at the PreK-12 grade level that contain large numbers of linguistically diverse learners. In fact, some demographic projections show that 40% of the school age population in the US will be ELLs by the year 2030 (NWREL, 2004).

Educational Attainment

In addition to the growing ELL population in schools, ESL students have an alarmingly high dropout rate. Although states vary in their definition of dropout, the National Center for Educational Statistics /NCES reported that the percentage of dropouts in the non-native born Hispanic youth population between the ages of 16 and 24 years old is 43.4% (Kaufman & Alt, NCES, 2004). This is significant since native speakers of Spanish comprise 80% of ELLs in the US (Batalova, OELA, 2006).

Although reasons for dropout rates are varied, these numbers illustrate the difficulty faced by many secondary level ELLs in academic settings. While large numbers of ESL students do attain educational success, students who are new arrivals and who lack the academic skills necessary for school success have different needs than traditionally prepared students. Increasing numbers of ELLs are entering middle and secondary schools with interrupted prior formal education. In fact, it has been found that as many as 20% of all high school and 12% of all middle school ELLs have missed two or more years of formal education since the age of six (Ruiz de Velasco & Fix, 2000). This factor contributes to the achievement gap that exists between native speakers of English and ELLs in terms of academic performance, as well as the gap between minority and mainstream students’ representation in science related majors at the higher education level (August & Hakuta, 1997). Science and math are recognized as critical content areas for academic success and future career achievement. If ELLs are ‘left behind’ in such critical subject areas, it results in both lower success rates in secondary school and lower achievement rates in terms of higher education and career opportunities.

Issues That Can Challenge ELLs in Secondary Schools

Secondary level ELLs face the dual challenge of language acquisition and the acquisition of academic content. When ELLs do not have access to bilingual or sheltered English programs mainstream teachers are responsible for meeting both the academic and language needs of these students in subject area classrooms. Frequently, mainstream teachers have had little to no formal coursework that addresses the needs of ELLs in their classrooms. This can make meeting the needs of ESL students in those classes difficult. The situation becomes even more challenging if the ESL students have had interrupted formal education, lack the requisite academic and literacy skills to make meaningful connections to the content, and are unable to or fail to apply this content knowledge to new learning. Meaningful collaboration between ESL and mainstream, content area secondary level teachers can enhance the language, literacy and academic content acquisition of ESL students across the curriculum.

Collaboration Between ESL and Mainstream Content Area Teachers

Although the benefits of collaboration and integration of curricula have been researched and documented (Chamot & O’Malley, 1994; Crandall, 1993; Short, 1994), meaningful collaboration between secondary level mainstream and ESL teachers is the exception rather than the norm. Enhancing such collaborative partnerships will have benefits for all students, teachers, and the school community.

Working in an interdisciplinary way accomplishes a variety of goals: First, collaboration between mainstream and ESL teachers facilitates the acquisition of language and content in the subject area for ESL students. ESL students are at risk of being left behind in the mainstream classroom when their academic skills are below grade level due to interrupted formal education. In addition, the dual acquisition of the English language and academic content places additional demands on ESL students and can make academic success challenging. Second, collaboration between English and ESL teachers creates a deeper and more meaningful understanding of the unique needs of ESL students in mainstream classrooms. Conversely, ESL teachers better understand the curricular goals of the content classroom and can develop ways to support these goals using appropriate methodology and instructional strategies. Finally, this collaboration promotes the growth of a community of learners in the classroom, one where native and non-native speakers co-construct meaning and engage in inquiry based, constructivist learning that bridges differences celebrates diversity and enhances academic achievement and language acquisition for ESL students.

Collaboration in Context

When ESL students use strategies across the disciplines that that are usually only used in their ESL classrooms to scaffold their learning they begin to see the connections between the disciplines and the relevance that the learning has to their own lives. Students can be given sentence starters in the ESL classroom, for example, as a way to help them begin writing responses to literature. In a subsequent lesson, their Social Studies teacher then can use a technique with document based questions that generates authentic discussions and provides important opportunities for ESL students in mainstream classrooms time to think and ask questions that can then become part of the class discussion to examine photographs, newspaper clippings, political cartoons, and other authentic artifacts from the historical period under investigation. The short text or image is placed on large newsprint paper and students gather in small groups to write responses and questions all around the image or text. Students can use the sentence starters they had learned in their ESL classroom to formulate their response in the Social Studies activity. Students can then work in the Science classroom in cooperative groups to observe experimental data, and again use the sentence starters and text-on-text conversations to write their scientific learning log entries. Collaboration between teachers can encourage transportability of skills across disciplines. When teachers collaborate to plan instruction they are aware of what is happening in the other classroom communities that their students are a part of and can build on those skills in their own subject area. Collaboration between teachers can help adjust instruction to the ESL students’ current level, particularly when conversations take place between teachers across the curriculum. These conversations encourage Math, Science, English, and Social Studies teachers to use techniques such as free writing and journaling to support ESL students in responding to ideas and texts more openly. When ESL students are able to bring their own lives and past experiences into the content classrooms the implicit message they receive is that their own questions and observations are valid sources of information and an integral part of the learning process.

Making these Strategies Work for ELLs

While strategies that allow ESL students to make sense of text independently and with support of their teachers and peers are enormously helpful to linguistically and culturally diverse students in developing competency as readers, writers and speakers of English, these strategies must meet the students where they are in order to be successful. Research has shown that an important factor in successful acquisition of English as a second language and academic language and literacy skills is students’ access to comprehensible input in English (Krashen & Biber, 1988). This means that teachers must be able to not only teach their subject matter, but they must do so in a way that makes the concepts and content comprehensible to ELLs in their classrooms. Mainstream content area teachers need to have a repertoire of strategies that will make input comprehensible for their English language learners while still enabling them to meet the needs of all students in their classroom. The collaboration between the ESL and mainstream content area teacher can serve to develop these strategies in meaningful and authentic ways.

Not only do students in ESL classrooms tend to exhibit a wide range of levels of mastery of English and experience with formal education, they also come from a variety of countries whose languages may be widely different in structure. ESL teachers who are experienced with working with students who speak a range of native languages can help content teachers anticipate potential difficulties students might have in understanding specific structural features of English. An ESL teacher can help the content teachers anticipate these difficulties, and their collaboration can help circumvent them.

In addition to the challenges that ESL students encounter with the language itself, ESL teachers can work with content area teachers to select supplemental materials that meet the ESL students’ needs both in terms of level and content. A salient finding in the research on content area literacy instruction is the role of schema in comprehension and engagement with text. In fact, in a review of learning from text, Alexander and Jetton (2000) stated that, “Of all the factors, none exerts more influence on what students understand and remember than the knowledge they possess” (p. 291). When students are familiar with a topic, or are able to connect the topic to events or situations in their own lives, comprehension is increased and motivation enhanced. In order to engage secondary level ESL students, teachers must find commonalities between the text under investigation and the learners’ lives. When ESL teachers work closely with content area teachers, curriculum can be developed that is sensitive to the linguistic, cultural and academic needs of the ELLs.

Teachers As Leaders

Since schools are unique in terms of their learning environment and group dynamics, and since teachers come from a variety of backgrounds, with different philosophies of education and approaches to pedagogical practice, rather than implementing a top-down model of collaboration and professional development, where teachers are given mandates to ‘plan together’ and have access to pre-designed workshops or courses, one that is bottom-up and inquiry based has the potential to be more effective in producing changes in beliefs and practices and increases the chance that the goals of student academic improvement will be met. Collaboration among teachers, teachers formulating their own questions about practice and student learning, and identifying challenges that are found in their own practice, guides teachers in becoming leaders and reflective practioners. In addition, it empowers teachers to take reflective action in their own classrooms.

Working Together to Achieve a Common Goal: Success for ELLs

Subject area teachers and ESL teachers can work together in integrated professional development teams. Teachers would participate in inquiry based activities in a cooperative learning environment that address the topics of:

Teachers can work together to identify questions and seek solutions that take into account their own classroom and school context. A district staff developer or local teacher education faculty member could be recruited to guide teachers’ inquiry and their development of questions and answers, and ultimately their integration of strategies in their classrooms. In addition collaboration between content and ESL teachers opens a dialogue across disciplines, which in turn enhances the collegial relationship among the educators. ESL and mainstream teacher collaboration is a necessary component to the success of linguistically diverse learners and such professional development initiatives would serve the dual purpose of building professional partnerships and increasing the academic success of ELLs


Addressing the Needs of Secondary Level ELLs in Content Classes

By engaging in joint planning, ESL and mainstream teachers can develop ways in which the skills of the content area and language and literacy development are mutually reinforced in the ESL classroom and the content classroom. At the least, a dialogue can be opened between the ESL teacher and content area teachers so the themes addressed in the content curriculum are represented in the ESL curriculum. This builds contexts for success for students who often struggle in their mainstream classrooms.

In order to address the needs of secondary students who are learning academic material in a second language, the curriculum must accomplish several goals: First, it must be relevant to learners’ lives. In this way, ELLs will be motivated to engage in the process and not see their time inside the classroom as unrelated to their lives outside the classroom. Further, strong connections must be made between curriculum and learners’ lives to facilitate application of the skills learned in the classroom. An important learning goal for students is the transfer of skills to new learning situations (McKeough, 1995), and the ability for students to transfer skills and apply knowledge to new situations can be used as an evaluation of success (Perkins, 1991). Teacher collaboration can foster this transfer and enhance learning experiences for ESL students in content classrooms. Finally we must create collaborative classroom contexts where second language learners are able to actively create meaning so that student motivation, self-efficacy, and purpose are increased and our ESL students connect with the content material in meaningful ways.


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XIV, No. 8, August 2008