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A Whole-School Approach to English Language Learner Achievement


English language learners (ELLs) have been in the margins for many years. Typically, they have been the responsibility of an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher or a few dual-language teachers. Yet, as schools now experience increased numbers of ELLs, and face accountability from the district and federal government for their performance, educators are looking for evidence-based solutions to support the academic achievement of ELL students. One solution that has been quite successful is the whole-school approach to ELL academic success.

We have developed and empirically studied a model of professional development and effective instructional practices for everyone in the school through grants from the U.S. Department of Education and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. After two years of implementing our program, we saw schools that were in the lowest ranks become exemplary due to the academic success of ELL students and their classmates. The premises for the whole-school approach focus on the following:

  1. Everyone participates in the same professional development on integrating language, literacy, social-emotional competencies, and content learning focusing on ELL success. The goal is to provide ELLs access to core content.
  2. The whole school participates in collaborative planning, coteaching, and coassessment with an ELL emphasis.
  3. District and school administrators and coaches participate, support the teachers, and monitor ELL progress.
  4. Everyone commits to the follow-up implementation efforts: coaching all teachers, participating in Teachers’ Learning Communities (TLCs), and engaging with ELLs and their families.

Everyone Participates in the Professional Development Goal

The school team begins with a three-day professional learning institute that provides theory, demonstrations, and practice on integrating language, literacy, and content with cooperative learning strategies and social-emotional learning (SEL) competencies. Then, review sessions occur throughout the year. All teachers participate in coaching and feedback practices. Although the main goal for the instructional shifts is to make core content accessible to ELLS students, teachers typically report that these strategies help other students as well.

Teaching Vocabulary, Reading, and Writing in All Subjects

Our five-year empirical study focused on the question, “What is the best way to teach reading to ELLs in secondary schools?” As we reviewed the literature and researched best practices, we discovered that explicit reading instruction was rare, even in the upper elementary grades. This means that ELLs (and other students) arrive in middle and high school not having developed deep reading strategies for learning math, science, social studies, and literature. Thus, reading and writing in the content areas became the focus of our work.

We discovered that in order to read and comprehend any subject, students must understand the vocabulary, grammar, and text structures inherent in that subject since each subject has a specific jargon/discourse. Therefore, content teachers are the best resources for identifying the vocabulary ELLs need to know. They typically identify subject-specific words (known as Tier 3 words) such as photosynthesis, rule of law, factor analysis, and constituents. However, without knowing other key words in the sentences where those Tier 3 words are found, ELLs still may not understand these more complex words, even if they memorize the long definitions. Thus, we asked the ESL teachers to concentrate on Tier 2 words (e.g., effect, affect, nevertheless, affinity, similarly, fraud).

Core content teachers identify text features and vocabulary to teach.

ELLs need to learn 3,000 to 5,000 words a year to catch up with their non-ELL peers. Teaching five or six new words at the beginning of a lesson facilitated reading comprehension for ELLs. After reading and verbally summarizing the contents after each paragraph, ELLs learned more words, how to use them in summaries, and how to use them in text-based writing. Specific instructional strategies for integrating reading comprehension and writing also are part of the initial training.

As a side benefit of this instructional sequence, ESL and core teachers developed coteaching techniques. This approach also brought ESL teachers out of the margins. 

ESL and Core Content Teachers Coplan, Coteach, and Coassess

ESL and core content teachers can work collectively to implement a whole-school approach by developing lessons, sharing successful strategies, problem-solving, and observing and coaching each other. Principals, site-based coaches, and central office specialists also collaborate by visiting teachers’ classrooms frequently to coach, give feedback, encourage, and plan next steps. The cycle of coaching, feedback, and next steps is guided by an observation protocol designed specifically to look at the key components of vocabulary, discourse, reading comprehension, writing, and SEL competencies. The goal is to measure access to grade-level core content in all subject areas.  

Teaching Language for Literacy

When it comes to teaching language for literacy, it is helpful to teach ELLs the same skills as their English-proficient peers, albeit with a coteaching effort. The ESL or English language development (ELD) teacher preteaches vocabulary connected to the lesson that the core teacher will present. During the content lesson, the core teacher uses visual supports such as pictures, short videos, and graphic organizers to represent complex vocabulary and concepts. The core teacher also uses verbal supports such as highlighting important words, sentence structures, and paragraph frames. Both the ESL/ELD and core teachers also may use graphic organizers such as diagrams, tables, and concept maps as well as illustrations and multimedia that show up in the materials/lesson. Teachers use partner reading, partner verbal summaries, small-group conversations, and whole-class discussions that focus on clarifying key ideas and using new vocabulary in discourse. 

ESL/ELD teachers also can provide ELLs with instructional materials in their home language to support them in developing their knowledge and skills while they acquire vocabulary and discourse in English. One of the key principles of instruction in a second language is structuring opportunities to interact with English-proficient peers via speaking, listening, reading, and writing.

Administrators Participate and Support Implementation

After a comprehensive institute, principals, assistant principals, core content coordinators, and instructional coaches participate in two additional days of professional learning on how to observe and give feedback to teachers as they work hard to implement the new strategies. Principals also analyze existing school structures that might be barriers to new approaches and plan with teachers how to shift to a more productive and collaborative environment.

Administrators plan the support system for teachers and ELLs.


Whole school improvement. We studied low-performing schools in New York and Kauai. We found that after implementing a whole-school approach for two years, the schools became exemplary schools because of the significant academic growth among ELLs and other students. We currently are studying middle and high schools in Loudoun County, Virginia, to identify the features of success. Thus far, we have identified the following attributes that support the successful implementation of  a whole-school approach to ELL instruction:

Commitment. When the whole school participates, educators’ mindsets shift from a deficit-based to assets-based perceptions of ELLs. The educators begin to recognize linguistic, cultural, and academic assets of students and their families. Most important, all members of the school community embrace responsibility for the success of multilingual learners. Additionally, we see more effective instruction, positive teacher attitudes toward teaching ELLs, high expectations that they can succeed, engaging school climates that foster ELLs’ motivation to learn, and increased commitment to their educational success.

Margarita Calderón, PhD, is professor emerita at Johns Hopkins University.

This blog is part of a series highlighting the voices of educators committed to supporting equity and fulfilling the promise of the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. To learn more about how you can support the legacy of this landmark case, join the Alliance for Excellent Education’s (All4Ed’s) #OurChallengeOurHope campaign.

To learn more about how educators can support ELL students, register for All4Ed’s March 24 webinar A Whole–School Approach for Supporting English Language Learners.