Traditionally, educating dual language learners (DLLs) has largely been the purview of English as a Second language (ESL) and/or bilingual teachers. But as the population of DLLs grows, and many schools focus on inclusion models, all educators need to be prepared to instruct students who are in the process of acquiring English. In fact, there is substantial research demonstrating the profound impact that individual teachers have on their students’ outcomes. But if all teachers are language teachers, what skills do they need and how can they be prepared to work with language learners? This week’s DLL Reader post discusses preparation for teachers working with DLLs.

Knowledge and Skills

In addition to subject-area knowledge and pedagogy, all teachers (and ideally administrators) working with DLLs should:

  • have an understanding of how languages are learned,
  • grasp the relationship between first and second language(s) and how students’ first language can be used as a resource for learning English,
  • consider the language demands of the content they are teaching,
  • plan for simultaneous language and content learning,
  • scaffold language and content,
  • use formal and informal assessments to understand DLLs’ progress,
  • interpret assessment data and plan for instruction, and
  • be able to discern how students’ backgrounds impact their learning.

Arguably, the knowledge and skills listed above would benefit all students, not just DLLs. In addition to these skills, it is also helpful when teachers have some familiarity with their students’ home languages both for communication as well as understanding the similarities and differences between those languages and English.

But it’s easier to identify these skills than ensure that all teachers have them. There are essentially two main avenues through which teachers gain this expertise — before they become licensed (pre-service) or during their teaching careers (in-service).

Pre-service Training and Licensure

The content of teacher training programs is largely determined by their states’ licensure requirements. Each state establishes its requirements — normally a combination of coursework, student teaching, and/or standardized testing — for the preparation required to obtain licensure. Since most states do not require that general education teachers complete coursework specific to the instruction of DLLs in order to obtain a license, most pre-service training programs do not provide this for their teacher candidates. This has produced a workforce of teachers who are underprepared to work with this population of students. In fact, practicing teachers regularly report that they feel ill equipped to instruct DLLs.

In addition to licensure requirements, the Council for Accreditation of Educator Preparation provides standards for accrediting schools of education. These standards emphasize the need to educate “all students,” but make no mention of the specificities of educating DLLs. The Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages International Association (TESOL) provides its own standards for teacher education programs, but these are largely aimed at programs that specifically prepare ESL and not general education teachers.

In-service Training

Fortunately, teachers’ professional training does not end once they have obtained licensure. In order to renew teaching licenses, states require that teachers complete a certain number of professional development (PD) hours. While PD can cover a variety of topics, it also presents an opportunity for training specific to DLLs. Massachusetts, for example, will require that all educators complete PD specific to the instruction of DLLs beginning in 2016. Specifically, and in response to the state’s English-only law all teachers are required to be trained in sheltered English instruction through the Rethinking Equity and Teaching for English Language Learners (RETELL) program.

Another program aimed at training all teachers to work with DLLs is Project Guided Language Acquisition Design (GLAD) created by the U.S. Department of Education and implemented in more than 50,000 schools. Project GLAD equips teachers with the skills to facilitate English language acquisition and literacy development and includes both PD and follow-up coaching sessions. According to Education Northwest’s 2014 evaluation of Project GLAD, a randomized control trial revealed improved vocabulary, reading, and writing growth for DLLs in classrooms with GLAD-trained teachers compared to those in classrooms with teachers who were not GLAD-trained. In addition, the DLLs’ growth did not hinder the development of their non-DLL peers.

The Understanding Language Initiative at Stanford University also aims to prepare teachers to work with DLLs. The initiative offers several massive open online courses (MOOCs) that focus on language and literacy learning under the Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards. While not all of the MOOCs are specific to DLLs, they all build skills around language development. 

Both pre- and in-service training are opportunities for teachers to gain the necessary skills to understand and instruct DLLs. While in-service training may fill gaps in new teachers’ knowledge, state policymakers and schools of education can also take action to make sure these teachers are better prepared when they first enter the classroom. States can assure that teacher licensure requirements include DLL-specific coursework, practical experiences working with DLLs, and/or exams that assess teacher candidates’ understanding of language acquisition. Likewise, schools of education and the bodies that accredit them can adopt the TESOL standards, many of which benefit all students, not just DLLs.

This post is part of New America’s Dual Language Learners National Work Group. Click here for more information on this team’s work. To subscribe to the biweekly newsletter, click here, enter your contact information, and select “Education Policy.”

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

Conor Williams

Conor Williams is a Senior Researcher in the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation. Find him on Twitter: @ConorPWilliams