Is ESL Good for Everybody?

Aren’t ESL strategies simply good for everybody? Isn’t good teaching for ELs just good teaching?

I hear some version of these questions often. Here are some thoughts…

I would say that what’s hopefully intrinsic to ESL practices and what’s definitely good for everybody is when teachers adopt pedagogical mindsets, stances and approaches that are all about RESPONSIVENESS and SCAFFOLDING. The strategies themselves, however, should be specific to individuals or small groups. This distinction is rooted in the importance of being deliberate and thoughtful about what the student actually needs, not just following a checklist of “good strategies” or using a “good program.” I would also emphasize that ESL strategies are not one fixed set of moves that work for any child that carries the English Learner (EL) label–some strategies may be appropriate and helpful for some of these students and not for others. And, there may be “ESL” strategies that work for kids who do not carry the EL label/are not multilingual learners.

One way to think of it is to take inspiration from an idea that emerged out of the world of Special Education (I say this with great caution because language learning is not a disability and disabilities are not developmental linguistic processes, and we must be careful not to conflate them)–Universal Design for Learning. In a nutshell, UDL prompts us to anticipate everything we can to maximize accessibility to powerful education for any and every student. If teachers are anticipating a range of abilities, languages, cultural backgrounds, lived experiences, interests, etc. of their students, and designing a learning environment (e.g. widely diverse representation on walls and shelves) and practices that can be nimble (e.g. ready to group kids in multiple ways) and using approaches that inherently contain enormous potential for scaffolding (e.g. arts integration, building in choice and voice, using hyperdocs to pair a graphic organizer with tech-based resources)–all the students benefit from that. That doesn’t replace the need for specific strategies tailored to individuals, but it means that then there is fertile ground for more individualized scaffolding to happen more readily in response to students’ stages of language development or other particular characteristics.

I think the key is that teachers are diligent in knowing their students, considerate about the intention and design of strategies, and deliberate in choosing or adjusting scaffolds for learning in a way that has a clear rationale for use with the particular student(s) in question. This all is predicated on the idea that teachers need to trust and claim their own agency, which is hard because school systems do not necessarily encourage this and indeed sometimes punish teachers for exerting agency. If we hope to know kids well, be responsive to them, and raise up critical-thinking, problem-solving, innovative, self-actualized, empowered students as we purport to, we need systems that allow for these kinds of human-centered connections, that cultivate, support and honor teacher creativity and professional judgement, and measure success in ways that recognize these values.

Here are some additional thoughts about what we need to include if we want to build better systems…

Better educational systems…

…are built on a foundation of commitment to equity and justice. This implies a centering of humanity, of dignity, of empathy, of community.

…support teaching that begins with developing deep knowledge of our students, honors all facets of students’ identities, and responds nimbly to students with appropriate instruction and supports to reach worthy academic and social-emotional goals.

…are designed for learning as an experiential, meaningful, and memorable act–full of exuberant expectations supported by thoughtful and strong scaffolding.

…recognize, affirm, and amplify all the languages, cultures, and identities of our community and make multicultural and multilingual perspectives integral to policy and practice across all programs.

…Redefine what it means to be successful.

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