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4 Ways Teachers of ELs Differ From Reading Teachers

by Barbara Gottschalk |

“Are you teaching them to read?” asked the custodian as she unlocked the door to my classroom. I had forgotten my key and needed to get ready for my before-school class with English learners (ELs). I didn’t have time to go in to detail so I simply replied, “I’m teaching them English!” Unlike the helpful custodian, we TESOLers know that English language development for ELs is so much more than reading. In fact, the best way to help ELs learn to read better in English is to help their overall English language development.

So what do teachers of ELs do differently compared to reading teachers for native speakers? Last month’s blog with Pat Lathers discussed the differences when teaching adults; this month. let’s focus on how teachers of younger ELs may differ from their reading teacher counterparts:

1. EL Teachers Are More Likely to Think Long Term

Teachers of ELs may teach students over a period of years, and they also monitor former ELs’ progress after they’ve reached proficiency. Often in meetings about ELs, I was the only professional who had taught the students being considered for several years. This long-term perspective is powerful because it’s rare.

2. EL Teachers Tend to Look at Language More Holistically

EL teachers also teach reading, but they are more likely to consider all four domains of English language development. One simple explanation for this is English proficiency tests report out scores on each domain. Teachers who do reading intervention focus on one domain—reading. My impression is that general education teachers don’t think about all four domains very often either, especially speaking and listening. That’s unfortunate.

When I interviewed EL teacher Shuxin Chen for July’s blog, she described a disagreement over an EL’s reading level she’d had with a literacy coach and noted, “She was just looking at the reading part.” We EL teachers know that “looking at all the other parts” and teaching through all four domains produces the best results for each domain, reading included.

3. EL Teachers Tend to Focus More on Teaching for Meaning

Of course, we want our ELs to learn to decode, but we also realize that’s just the beginning. Unlike native speakers of English who have a larger oral vocabulary, an EL who can sound out the word mat in a decodable book may still not understand what it means. That’s why even ELs who can skillfully decode may still need support to improve their reading comprehension. In a book with predictable text, a picture of an egg won’t help if the student doesn’t know the English word for egg. With ELs, comprehension is critical.

4. Teachers of ELs see English Language Development as a Progression

It’s a long one to be sure, but still a progression. In contrast, others often view EL teachers as reading intervention teachers—but for ELs. That focus is deficit oriented. There’s nothing especially wrong with ELs; they’re just still learning English. Reading intervention teachers are trying to diagnose and remedy a reading problem. There’s nothing wrong with this perspective, either, but it’s an important distinction.

Many educators, like the custodian who asked whether I was teaching reading, view language development too narrowly. It’s far more than that, and it’s also different from that. I hope thinking about the things that distinguish you as an EL teacher can help you better understand the different perspective of reading intervention teachers. It should also help you be a better reading teacher for your ELs.

About the author

Barbara Gottschalk

Barbara Gottschalk is a veteran educator. She has taught English language learners from first graders to graduate students in five states in three very different parts of the United States plus Japan. Gottschalk has written many successful grants and served as a grant reviewer for TESOL, the National Education Association, and the U.S. Department of Education's Office of English Language Acquisition. She is the author of "Get Money for Your Classroom: Easy Grant Writing Ideas That Work" and "Dispelling Misconceptions About English Language Learners: Research-Based Ways to Improve Instruction."

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