Why are there not more ESL/EFL teachers working in schools? A case for collaborative professional development

Years ago I was sitting in an informal training session with fellow English as a Second/Foreign Language (ESL/EFL) teachers listening to a talk on ways to support dyslexic students.  I remember thinking to myself at that time the talk should be retitled ‘Good Practice in Teaching’, for the strategies the trainer was suggesting were ones from which all students would benefit. For example, I remember her telling us that we need to make sure that we state clearly the aims of our lesson at the start, put key terminology on the board and check students’ understanding of it; and recap main points at regular intervals. 

Fifteen years on, and several dyslexia training courses later, I not only remain convinced that all students would benefit from teachers being trained in techniques to support students with specific learning differences (SpLDs), but also that language teachers, and ESL teachers in particular, have much to offer teachers across the curriculum in terms of classroom support strategies.

The reasons for this are multiple. First, ESL teachers are trained to use techniques that support meaning when understanding may be limited by linguistic and/or cultural knowledge. This means that we support what we say in the classroom with visual aids, gestures and also written instructions. We’ve also been trained to avoid asking ‘do you understand?’ in favour of concept checking questions like ‘when is the essay due? And how many words do you have to write?’ We tend to use demonstrations (e.g. two students showing the class what is required to carry out a task) and models of finished products (e.g. an essay) so that students can see clearly what is expected. 

Second, we are very conscious of the need to facilitate students’ processing. We monitor our own language very carefully, editing out, when required, slang, idioms, colloquialism, jokes and obscure cultural references. We aim to speak more slowly and clearly at times, we paraphrase, and we reformulate others’ contributions.  We understand the importance of silence; it gives students time to process information and a chance to formulate a response in a second language. We use techniques like think-pair-share or check your understanding with a partner (even in their first language) and give opportunities for students to clarify requests.

Third, we know not to introduce too many new words or grammatical items in one lesson, thus overloading students’ working memories. We also value repetition and recycling, particularly for vocabulary learning. Likewise, we break down our instructions into manageable chunks, giving information only when it is needed, one step at a time. And, again, these oral instructions are normally reinforced in multiple ways via demonstrations and written support.

Fourth, we teach skills – reading, writing, listening, speaking, organization, study, exam, proofreading, editing etc.  Skills teaching and learning is normally embedded into each and every language lesson, but it’s normal for entire courses (e.g. English for Academic Purposes (EAP)) to focus on just one skill, e.g. reading for university, in which we teach strategies like SQ3R (Survey, Question, Read, Respond, Review), again, useful for all students, not just ESL and dyslexic ones. In a similar vein, we teach note-taking and note-making skills, using abbreviations, symbols and mind-maps, equally purposeful for supporting dyslexic students’ auditory skills.

Finally, we emphasize the importance of metacognition (i.e. thinking about learning), asking students to think about how they’ve successfully approached skills-based tasks or grammar/vocabulary learning in the past and getting them to apply their knowledge and strategies to similar tasks and, ideally, sharing strategies with peers.

This list is by no means exhaustive and I have no doubt that SpLD specialists and ESL teachers have a lot to learn from each other. In fact, ESL teachers could also be of great benefit to schools supporting EAL learners (for all of the same arguments presented above and many more, not least of which is our second language acquisition knowledge), but this is probably just stating the obvious.  And don’t even get me started on oracy … I’m saving that for another post!

For so long now, though, school teachers and ESL teachers have inhabited their own worlds, drawing on the same educational theories but applying these in different contexts. But I’d argue that our worlds are becoming less distinct as our learners’ profiles change. We are both teaching more and more learners with diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds and who may also have more complex needs, including SpLDs. And as we are each constrained by limited funding, wouldn’t it make sense to pool our resources and engage in some collaborative professional development?

A good starting point for collaboration is asking in-school language teachers to offer input at training days on the type of language teaching strategies and techniques mentioned above. Sharing good practice at TeachMeets and Pedagoos would also be valuable, so too would inviting ESL specialists into schools to run workshops, ideally working alongside SpLD specialists.

And, then, of course, there is the insight that can be gained from consulting one of the rare specialists who span both spheres (SpLDs and ESL).  Colleagues like Dr Anne Margaret Smith at ELT Well offer a wealth of knowledge and also materials to support teachers in schools in identifying and teaching EAL learners with SpLDs. 

As our learners change, so must we. Recognising that we have a lot to learn from each other and engaging in collaborative professional development can only be viewed as steps in the right direction.