Professional Development: Making a Difference for Diverse Students


The English Language Learner (ELL) Challenge

When Tracy Landon enters her first-grade classroom at the start of the fall school year, she will be in for a challenge. Out of her twenty-two students, only twelve will be native English speakers. The other ten will be non-English speakers who are in a U.S. school for the first time. Two of Ms. Landon’s new students may be from Puerto Rico, three from Mexico, one from the Dominican Republic, two from Vietnam, one from Russia, and one from Haiti. None of them can speak more than a handful of words in English.

Ms. Landon is a regular classroom teacher with five years of experience, but she has no English as a Second Language (ESL) training.  She is one out of approximately 50% of all teachers in the United States who have at least one non-native English-speaking student in their classroom.  Ms. Landon and her peers face a new reality, and their districts are struggling to fulfill the enormous responsibility of preparing teachers to help all students succeed in school.

The changes in the composition of the U.S. school population have skyrocketed in the past thirty years. The number of people in the U.S. who speak a language other than English at home has nearly tripled over the past three decades, vastly outpacing the 38 percent population growth, according to U.S. 2010 Census data. It comes as no surprise then that school improvement efforts over the past several decades have required teachers to not only study, implement, and assess learner outcomes as defined in their local, state, and national educational standards, but to also provide meaningful and engaged learning (cognitively, socially, and culturally) for a very diverse student population.

Facing the Challenge

This rapid change in the diversity of the student population requires an adjustment in the professional development provided to all preK-12 teachers. Ms. Landon is one of the 43% of teachers whose classes consist of a majority of English learners who have received no more than one in-service training session in the past five years on how to instruct these students. Schools and districts can no longer delay the implementation of professional development programs that include multifaceted training for ELL instruction.

Today, progress of ELLs may be charted through English language proficiency tests and achievement tests in their native languages, if available, for the first three years. Then, they must be tested in English on state-standardized academic tests. The bottom line is that within a relatively short time, ELLs must meet the same performance requirements as their native English-speaking classmates as measured by the same state standards-based testing instrument. This increasing accountability has caused educators to rethink the assessments, strategies, and services for ELLs so that they will result in academic performance.

Quality Teaching, Improved Achievement

There is a direct relationship between professional development and student achievement.  In a study by the REL Southewest At Edvance Research, verified the link between professional development activities and student achievement (2007).  At the same time, in another study by the University of California, Davis, confirmed that over 40% of teachers of ELLs had “little or no professional development in the past five years to help them teach those students”.

Testing ELLs is just the end of the cycle. Trying to make instructional determinations based on ELL test scores, without adequate teacher training, may be counterproductive and may even result in practices that delay the students’ progress. Quality teaching of ELLs needs to be grounded on research-based instructional strategies linked to the most widely respected language acquisition theory. Furthermore, understanding of the intellectual processes and developmental needs of ELLs can only be achieved with adequate training. Implementation of the right differentiated instruction and pacing of the curriculum is dependent on the educator’s knowledge on how ELLs learn.  Clearly, the achievement of the ELL student population is dependent on increasing mainstream and pull-out teachers’ access to high quality, ongoing ELL professional development.

In order to show a qualitative difference, professional development of ELL teachers needs to be comprehensive, embedded, accessible, and engaging.  Demonstrable student gains and achievement of instructional goals should be part of the professional development solution.  Teach n’ Kids Learn (TKL) supports educators through high-quality self-paced online professional development courses. Our online courses offer an engaging and interactive environment that does not take away teaching time.

TKL’s courses are designed to transform teacher practice through a virtual classroom and a virtual community of ELL teachers, coaches, and administrators with real evidence of teacher and student enhancing strategies. TKL’s learning platform provides teachers real-time opportunities for collaboration and communication with peers during which reflection on effective and ineffective practices can be shared and reviewed alongside our instructional coaches. Only when teachers are given ELL-focused professional development, will they make a difference to their students. TKL’s online courses would give Ms. Landon and her peers the right tools and support to make a difference in their diverse classrooms.