Promising Practices, Research, Teaching

Effective Collaborative Practices in ESL Education

Conditions that nurture best practices

English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers need to work with classroom teachers and other colleagues to ensure optimal learning for English Language Learners. This qualitative study looked at the barriers and facilitators to effective collaboration.

Contemporary English language learners (ELLs) have language learning needs that are often supported through a complement of in-school professionals, including English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers, classroom teachers, educational resource teachers, coaches, ESL consultants, and administrators. Integrating content-based teaching with appropriate skill-level tasks for ELLs requires a collaborative effort between classroom teachers and ESL teachers.

To understand the factors that facilitate collaboration in ESL education, we interviewed and observed the teaching practices of four ESL teachers in Southern Ontario. Based on the findings of these qualitative data, which complement and are supported by existing research, we provide some conditions that truly nurture innovation between ESL teachers and classroom teachers.

When ESL teachers and classroom teachers collaborate, each educator brings a unique perspective and repertoire of knowledge and experience, and it often takes time to negotiate ways of combining these lenses to create an educational plan. Thus, one condition of collaboration is for educators to feel supported in contributing their specialization area within a collaborative relationship. Administrative support is also essential. When collaboration is prioritized by school administrators, resources and allocated time for collaborative practice are designated with an ESL focus, facilitating more authentic collaboration.

Our research revealed that ESL teachers negotiated collaboration based on a desire to work together and a belief that a cohesive educator team is important in ESL education. However, these ESL teachers encountered barriers such as a lack of training, technology and tools to facilitate collaboration and lack of time to do so. This resulted in limited and informal, surface-level collaboration.

Teaching approach

ESL educators often work with several different students at several different schools, so collaboration with the classroom teachers is essential. When ESL teachers and classroom teachers collaborate, there is potential for consistency and efficiency in pedagogical planning of targeted learning strategies for ELLs. Caroline, an ESL teacher, told us, “I love collaborating with teachers because I feel like it’s taking a little bit of stress off of them, initially, but it’s also giving them a toolkit so they’re prepared the next time around.”

Echoing this sentiment, other ESL teacher participants talked about successful collaborative relationships with classroom teachers that develop over time. Professional relationships among ESL teachers and classroom teachers that were described as authentic extended beyond situational conversations about particular events in the classroom. These relationships were rooted in a sense of reduced role differentiation between the ESL teachers and classroom teachers.

The time crunch

To collaborate effectively, educators working with ELLs need to have dedicated time in order to meet and co-plan, co-teach to some extent, and co-evaluate curriculum planning for ELLs. This need for devoted time for teachers to meet is a pervasive issue cited by others as well.1 Grant, an ESL teacher, talks about the challenge of finding meeting time:

“The challenge I think in terms of collaboration is sometimes finding that time to meet with the teacher… Because classroom teachers have so many things going on, so it’s tough…”

Caroline spoke of the difficulty of carving out time for ESL among competing priorities:

“I try to invite myself to those collaboration meetings [laughs], because then you can put an ESL perspective on the table. We have a half day each term that we’re allowed to use… to meet with teachers, but a lot of us find that’s just not enough time to meet with all the teachers we need to meet with… I do a lot of my meetings unofficially… And I’m always apologetic for using their time, because I know that prep time for them is so precious. But… in the end, it’s beneficial for both of us, because I can do a lot to help support them. I might co-teach a lesson, or I might, you know, plan a lesson based around something that they’re working on so that they don’t have to plan that lesson, and now they have time to do something else.”

This is a testament to the struggle experienced by all ESL teachers to liaise and support classroom teachers’ practice as well as meet Ministry of Education mandates to complete required documentations for ELLs.

Central to this collaboration is a shared desire to approach curriculum mapping with an ESL-specific focus, to set goals for as well as with ELLs, and to evaluate and modify plans along the way. ESL teacher Nicole talks about collaboration to build on ELLs’ strengths: “It’s like optimizing the support, but seeing that all the kids are capable and competent. [Focusing on] what do they know, and how can we move them forward, instead of looking at them as having a deficit.”

When educators took the time to co-plan in preparation for an upcoming unit, observations showed that they used instructional strategies such as small groups or one-on-one conferencing with ELLs, and as a result, provide differentiated instruction. There are recent examples of ESL teachers and content-area teachers co-planning using the principles of differentiated instruction in cooperative learning-centered approaches.2 This is beneficial to ELLs, as each of these students has unique learning and language needs.

When ESL teachers and classroom teachers collaborate, there is potential for consistency and efficiency in pedagogical planning for English language learners.

The crucial follow-up to this teaching approach is creating opportunities for teachers to discuss their observations and review effective teaching strategies. Thus, in addition to planning and teaching systems, it is crucial to also incorporate assessment systems in order to adjust pedagogy to meet ELLs’ needs. Collaboration among educators on assessment that informs ESL instruction (and not just program placement)3 is also an area for professional growth.

Technology as a collaborative tool

We asked how ESL teachers collaborate with in-school teams of educators to use instructional resources (digital and/or non-digital) to promote language instruction with ELLs.

We found that ESL teachers supplemented non-digital resources with resources created by classroom teachers. Collaboration was focused on the goals of educational plans for ELLs, and resources to support ELLs in achieving these goals. In terms of non-digital resources, an emergent theme was that ESL teachers had over time created a repository of tools that could be adapted to fit individual ELLs’ learning needs. One aspect of collaboration that teachers considered valuable was how the ESL teachers shared these resources with other educational professionals (such as resource teachers) as a way of optimizing the time of all educators.

A second important finding was that, although ESL teacher participants saw the benefits of using technology to aid ELLs, collaboration in relation to the use of technological platforms in ESL education tended to remain at the surface level. For example, imparting technological resources was limited to sharing websites and pass codes for English translation or leveled texts.

Google Drive is one technology that is being used as a dynamic tool to support sharing and collaboration in literacy pedagogy and language instruction in the Canadian ESL classroom.4 Caroline, for example, had developed a bank of resources that she was willing to share with any teacher that could use them: “The beautiful thing about Google Drive is, once you kind of get it organized, it’s there for you. So next year, I don’t necessarily have to do that again, I can just pull it out and add or adapt what I need to do.”

To improve the use of technological platforms in ESL education, it is imperative that the technological tools chosen by educators provide students with immediate feedback, to prevent students from making schematic integrations of incorrect responses. In this way, students gain an awareness of where errors are made, and can apply this new learning in the future. Platforms such as chatrooms in educational apps are being used with great success.5 Educators need opportunities to collaborate on integrating technology in instruction in ways that promote critical thinking and problem solving to guide students to meaningful learning.

Expanding collaboration

Our research reveals that ESL teachers value shared professional development as a way of enhancing collaboration with classroom teachers.

ESL teacher participants in this research project recognized that collaborating with educators within as well as across other school boards, may introduce them to innovative practices that they had otherwise not considered. Lauren recalled her involvement in an ESL symposium during the summer hosted by the local school board. The symposium was focused on ESL instruction and included ESL educators from various boards. Lauren found it beneficial to share experiences with different ESL teachers. Her recommendation was for more ESL teachers to be aware of such initiatives and become involved in large-scale events to interact and collaborate with various educators. Both Caroline and Lauren talked about the benefits of partnering up with other school boards to collaborate and share strategies. These ESL teachers recognized that collaboration is required to improve and incorporate strategies that have been successful for other educators.

Facilitating connections among educators working with ELLs across the province to share successful approaches and develop tools that can be adapted and utilized in ESL education is a way to hasten the spread and uptake of innovative practice.

A collaborative approach in ESL education creates more supportive and nurturing environments for ELLs to thrive in. When ESL education is prioritized and approached as an inclusive practice aimed at blending the professional knowledge of several educators and backed by administrative support,6 ELLs as well as ESL teachers are not marginalized, and the success of students with various literacy requirements are considered as part of an inclusive practice.

Photo: iStock

First published in Education Canada, June 2020

1 A. Honigsfeld and M. Dove, “When Do Teachers and ESL Specialists Collaborate and Co-teach?” in Collaboration and Co-Teaching: Strategies for English Learners (SAGE: 2010).

2 G. M. Awada and K. H. Faour, “Effect of Glogster and Cooperative Learning Differentiated Instruction on Teachers’ Perceptions,” Teaching English with Technology 18, No. 2 (2018): 93-114.

3 B. A. Green, and M. Andrade, “Guiding Principles for Language Assessment Reform: A model for collaboration,” Journal of English for Academic Purposes 9, No. 4 (2010): 322-334.

4 N. Slavkov, “Sociocultural Theory, the L2 Writing Process, and Google Drive: Strange bedfellows?” TESL Canada Journal 32. No. 2 (2015): 80-94.

5 A. Sari, “EFL Peer Feedback Through the Chatroom in Padlet,” LLT Journal: A Journal on Language and Language Teaching 22, No. 1 (2019): 46-57.

6 Honigsfeld and Dove, “When Do Teachers and ESK Specialists Collaborate and Co-teach?”

Meet the Expert(s)

Ana Vintan Headshot

Ana Vintan

Professor, Seneca College

Ana Vintan, MEd, is a professor in the School of English and Liberal Studies at Seneca College in Toronto. She has a passion for teaching, and research in the areas of professional learning, connections among curriculum, instruction and assessment.

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Tiffany_Gallagher headshot

Dr. Tiffany L. Gallagher

Professor, Dept. of Educational Studies and Director, Brock Learning Lab, Brock University

Tiffany Gallagher, PhD, is a professor in the Faculty of Education at Brock University in the Niagara Region (ON) and Director of the Brock Learning Lab. She is recognized for her research that aims to enhance teachers’ professional learning through coaching, and the learning of students with literacy difficulties and learning challenges.

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