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Teaching Content, Teaching English in the Elementary Classroom

Sandy, a U.S. elementary school teacher, tells Cristina Alfaro and Natalie A. Kuhlman how she has learned to meet the needs of the English learners in her mainstream classroom. See Jim Hughes' Home Room column, "Selling ESL, Part 2," Essential Teacher, September 2005 (pp. 8-9).

When I first started teaching everything was just random, it was kind of like you teach what they [the district and school] tell you to teach, you use the books that are there and that's it. It's more like being so frustrated in finding a sane way to do it.

While a growing segment of K-12 classroom teachers in the United States are being prepared to address the needs of the English learners in their classrooms, many other teachers are unprepared to do so. We spoke to an elementary school teacher, Sandy (a pseudonym), who struggled with how to teach the English learners in her classroom and evolve into a competent, reflective teacher.

If Language Development Is Important, Why Isn't It Discussed?

During her first years of teaching, Sandy was often frustrated by the situation in her classroom. She finally realized that she was doing more than teaching English in isolation, using a prepackaged curriculum.

I had thirty-three fifth and sixth graders in combination. Some were English only, some were ELLs [English language learners], who spoke Spanish only and then everything in between. I had to teach fifth-grade science content to fifth graders and sixth-grade content to sixth graders only. I did this my first two years, … not until year four or five did I realize that--well, during math time, when I am teaching this [lesson], I am teaching English language development at the same time. It took me a while to realize that … this may seem so obvious, but it took me a while to figure it out.

It is unfortunate that Sandy didn't have the support or resources to help her figure this out sooner. Sandy was frustrated with a system that neither recognized nor supported the needs of English learners in the mainstream classroom.

Then you get thrown in the classroom and beside administrative things, you are not really checked up on, I mean … you would sit down for your evaluation with your principal and/or literacy coach and were asked how are the students doing, but language learning was never discussed in my first three schools … there was conversation about math and reading and writing but never about language learning. So, if this is so important, why isn't this measured or even discussed …?

Learning about Spanish Opens Some Pathways

Sandy discovered that only speaking English didn't help her primarily Spanish-speaking students. By trying to learn Spanish herself, she discovered pathways to learning a second language. Finding out which aspects of her student's first language transferred to English and which did not gave her a clear and explicit focus, or roadmap, for her lessons:

Not having the student's language as a primary language, I learned some Spanish from books, and it wasn't a natural process for me when I learned it, so it's probably why I started teaching it that way. I realized that it does not make sense to teach ELLs with a rote, unconnected curriculum … particularly if it is not relevant to their real-life experience.

Looking for Help in the Right Places

The reason for Sandy's frustration is clear. For English learners to learn, in whatever circumstance, the whole school and district has to identify, recognize, and address their needs. Sandy is special in this regard: when she didn't find support at her school, she sought help in the right places. Prompted by the explicit challenges of teaching English learners, she became a teacher researcher and began attending conferences:

In looking for answers/ideas … I started going to the CABE [California Association of Bilingual Education] conferences to learn more about addressing the needs of my students; this was probably year three of my teaching career. This helped me gain a broader perspective in teaching ELLs, it also helped me confirm what I was doing well and identify areas of improvement. … because I am a learner and committed to my students, I am always looking for ideas….

Where Is the Accountability?

Sandy sees lack of accountability as a key obstacle to ensuring that mainstream teachers recognize and address the needs and abilities of English learners.

Those who teach  all-English immersion courses … I really don't think the majority of teachers are really conscious of ELLs' needs--because no one really holds us accountable to language learning "explicitly"….

Sandy's case is unusual. She felt unprepared to teach the students in her mainstream classes and unsupported by her principal and district. She sought help, but only after reflecting on several years of teaching English learners. As a result, Sandy developed a critically conscious pedagogical lens sensitive to the strengths and challenges inherent in the large population she serves.

What Can Mainstream Teachers Do?

What can other mainstream teachers learn from Sandy's experience?

  1. Reflect on what you know and what you need to know. Find the resources to gain that knowledge.
  2. Talk to your administrators about accountability to the students and discuss the kinds of professional development necessary for mainstream teachers to learn more about English learners and their needs.
  3. Visit TESOL/NCATE Standards for P-12 Teacher Education Programs on TESOL's Web site and see what the professional organization says teachers of English learners need to know and be able to do.
  4. Encourage your fellow teachers to talk to each other about workable strategies.
  5. Be as inquisitive, as Sandy was; find the workshops, organizations, and conferences that will provide you with the skills and techniques you need to meet the needs of this growing population of students in mainstream classrooms.

Cristina Alfaro ( is a biliteracy professor at San Diego State University, in the United States. Natalie A. Kuhlman (, professor emeritus of education at San Diego State University, is a member of the NCATE Board and the TESOL/NCATE ESL Teacher Standards Task Force.