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Together We Are Better

Patricia Hoffman and Anne Dahlman argue for effective ESL/mainstream collaboration and present some coteaching models. See Luz Rodriguez’s Out of the Box article, "Reading Club Gets ESL and Mainstream Students Together," Essential Teacher, September 2007.

Coteaching and collaboration can provide a powerful support system for mainstream classroom and ESL teachers who otherwise might feel isolated or frustrated about the challenges they face with diverse learners. The goal is to create a true partnership in which the mainstream teacher and ESL teacher work with the students to foster a sense of self-efficacy and ownership of learning.

At-risk students who remain in mainstream classrooms with instructional support achieve at higher levels than peers who receive instruction in a pullout model (e.g., Sakash and Rodriguez-Brown 1995). Students’ motivation increases in mainstream classrooms when they are engaged in meaningful learning (Cook and Friend 1995).

For English language learners (ELLs), communication with native English speakers allows the authentic use of language, including exposure to and practice with more complex vocabulary and linguistic structures. Students can become full classroom participants and have more opportunities as members of the school community. ELLs are also exposed to a wider range of instructional alternatives than they would be in a pullout program. Furthermore, students see the connections between English instruction and mainstream academic content.

Collaboration Is Not an All-or-Nothing Model

Flexibility is the main feature of a successful collaborative model. Committing to collaboration and coteaching does not mean that all classes during all periods must follow the same model. Much depends on the students’ needs, the teachers’ personalities, the schedule, and the school’s culture and resources. Connections to the mainstream classroom may vary and are based on local needs. In supporting ELLs in the mainstream classroom, teachers of ELLs might do any of the following:

  • integrate themes and topics from the mainstream classroom into the pullout ESL classroom
  • preteach vocabulary and structures
  • provide extended practice of material
  • identify language (functions, forms, vocabulary, and skills) from the mainstream classroom and focus on them in the ESL classroom
  • teach a small cluster of students within the mainstream classroom, using modified materials
  • serve as a language consultant for mainstream colleagues
  • provide professional development for mainstream teachers

What makes these activities collaborative is that they occur as a result of interactions between ESL and classroom teachers. Sharing information on students, curriculum, goals, and other issues is the fundamental step in maximizing student learning through systematic instruction.

What Makes Collaboration Successful?

Administrative Support

For collaboration to be successful, the administration must develop and fully support a culture of collaboration. Teachers need sufficient time to develop relationships, set goals, and receive training.

An Understanding of Each Other’s Work

The ESL teacher needs to understand mainstream standards, curricula, and assessment systems. The classroom teacher must understand how to diagnose learners’ gaps, determine strengths, and address differences through culturally responsive and linguistically appropriate teaching strategies.

In addition to learning about the instructional and pedagogical components of each other’s contexts, teachers should also seek to understand the more emotional and affective sides of each other’s teaching, including personal preferences, feelings about various aspects of teaching, and relationships to students. Collaboration involves creating an equal partnership with respect and appreciation for the strengths each teacher brings to the equation, including personal, pedagogical, and discipline-specific qualities and skills.

Flexibility in Desires and Preferences

Teachers that we work with often tell us that an important component in making a collaborative relationship work is always to keep the students’ best interests in mind and to be flexible about personal desires and preferences.

For example, one ESL teacher decided not to demand a fully equal working relationship, focusing instead on what was best for the students even when doing so meant that the mainstream teacher appeared to be more in control of the classroom. This sacrifice paid off, and the ESL teacher felt that the classroom teacher began gradually sharing control with her. Creating a working relationship and building trust take time, and both parties need to remain understanding, respectful, and flexible.

Models of Collaboration

Successful collaborations operate along a continuum that ranges from coplanning of instruction at one end to the full partnership of coteaching at the other. The table shows collaborative teaching activities that take place in the ESL classroom, outside class, and in the mainstream classroom.

In the ESL Classroom:
Connections to the Mainstream Curriculum

Outside Class:
Collaborative Tasks

In the Mainstream Classroom:
Connections between the Mainstream Curriculum and ESL

The ESL teacher . . .

  • preteaches language and vocabulary
  • integrates content-area standards
  • aligns content/curriculum with that in the mainstream classroom

Both teachers . . .

  • share information about students, curriculum, and strategies
  • plan instruction together
  • identify language embedded in content materials
  • cocreate language objectives for mainstream materials

The mainstream teacher differentiates instruction based on readiness, interest, and learning style.

The teachers coteach the curriculum (Cook and Friend 1995) . . .

  • through parallel teaching
  • through stations
  • with one teacher teaching while one observes
  • through alternative teaching (two groups, two different tasks)


For some teachers, the first step in moving to a collaborative model is coplanning, in which the ESL teacher and the classroom teacher identify language objectives in the content materials to teach in the classroom as well as vocabulary and concepts from the mainstream course to introduce and reinforce in the resource room. In addition, the ESL teacher can share culturally responsive teaching strategies and ways to differentiate instruction for all students.

Alternatively, the ESL teacher can deliver English instruction in a pullout fashion, with the ESL curriculum intimately intertwined with the mainstream curriculum. The classroom teacher emphasizes vocabulary and comprehension strategies, uses hands-on teaching strategies, and differentiates instruction, including the use of alternative assessments (Friend and Cook 1996).


Coteaching--the actual sharing of physical teaching space--may take various forms. In one scenario, one teacher does the instruction while the other observes students. Information gathered during this observation provides feedback to the instructor and facilitates planning.

In another model, one person teaches while the other circulates around the room making sure students are on task as well as monitoring students’ understanding, providing guidance, giving feedback, and asking developmentally appropriate questions.

A third model, station teaching, requires some modification to the classroom. The teachers create stations to allow small-group instruction and independent learning. Teachers can work directly at one of the stations or circulate.

Parallel Teaching

In parallel teaching, the classroom is divided into two areas, and each teacher instructs half the students at a time. The content of the lesson is essentially the same, though the teacher may modify the linguistic demands for one group of students. The teachers alternate, presenting different aspects of the lesson. Students or teachers may change places at various points in the lesson.

Barriers and Pitfalls

Some efforts at collaboration fail because teachers start out with a plan that is too ambitious and therefore not sustainable. Frequently, collaboration fails because teachers do not receive professional development concerning how to implement collaborative models. Here are some common errors:

  • The teachers spend too little time on setting common expectations and getting to know each other.
  • The school allocates too few resources for staff development or training in how to implement collaborative models.
  • The school makes little adjustment to the existing workload, and the teachers end up with too many responsibilities.
  • The school provides inadequate time for coplanning.

The following experience of an ESL teacher illustrates some of these barriers and pitfalls.

I signed on to work with a twenty-year veteran science teacher to teach the first collaborative ELL science class in our school. I don't think he tried to understand what collaboration really was. I believe he saw me as an educational support person there to be his secretary most days, taking attendance, recording grades, and so on. If we had both gone into the year with clearly stated expectations, I wonder if things would have gone better. I didn't know the personality type of the teacher beforehand either. Knowing that may have made me less stressed when working with him. Even a short teacher in-service session on what collaboration is (and isn't) before the year started would have been nice.

No Matter the Model, Some Ingredients Are Essential

The essential ingredients of successful collaboration remain the same regardless of the level of commitment: a shared vision with common goals; clearly defined roles and responsibilities for students, the classroom teacher, and the ESL teacher; clear communication, common planning time; and administrative support.


Cook, L., and M. Friend. 1995. Co-teaching guidelines for creating effective practices. Focus on Exceptional Children 28(2), 1-12.

Friend, M., and L. Cook. 1996. Interactions: Collaboration skills for school professionals. 2nd ed. White Plains, NY: Longman.

Sakash, K., and F. Rodriguez-Brown. 1995. Teamworks: Mainstream and bilingual/ESL teacher collaboration. Program Information Guide No. 24. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education.

Patricia Hoffman ( is an associate professor, and Anne Dahlman ( is an assistant professor, both at Minnesota State University, in the United States.