5 Approaches to Professional Development for EL Educators

Most educators of English learners (ELs) cringe at the thought of attending district-wide professional development (PD) programs. The content of many of these programs seems unrelated to the specialized needs of teachers of  their students. It’s torture for them to be subjected to a day with an “expert”  that expounds on a topic that doesn’t apply to their population.

Indeed, school districts seem to be wedded to this “one size fits all” method of PD. I feel an affinity with this topic. I stopped providing PD to school districts a few years ago because there was no follow-up. I would travel to a district, spend the day, and that would be the end. The district ticked “PD” about teaching ELs off their list. I felt keenly that I wasn’t meeting the PD needs of a good number of people in the audience in a “one and done” session. I read an outstanding article by Jennifer Gonzalez entitled “OMG Becky, PD is Getting So Much Better!!” about new ways that districts across the United States are personalizing PD for their staff. I used that article as a springboard to find ways that teachers of ELs could have more meaningful PD. Here are five ways this can be done.

1. Professional Learning Networks (PLNs)
A PLN is an ever-changing professional network where teachers go to both share and learn. Twitter is a popular example of this. I cohost a Twitter chat with Karen Nemeth called #ELLCHAT. We have a formal chat every Monday at 9 pm ET. The topic is announced in advance and 20–50 participants share information. However, the #ELLCHAT stream is a place that you can go to ask questions or discuss topics that interest you 24/7. You will meet other English language teaching professionals from all over the world. Check out this guide for personalized learning. Of course, a PLN doesn’t have to be online. It can be a grade-level group in your school or members of an organization that have similar interests.

2. Edcamps
These are unconferences that are usually free and open to everyone. The participants at the event determine sessions that are interactive and responsive to everyone’s needs. Presenters are educators who attend the conference rather than “experts” hired to present information. Participants are encouraged to leave a session that does not meet their needs. For teachers of ELs, this PD method is ideal. NJ Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages/NJ Bilingual Educators has started to hold Edcamps every fall for educators who work with ELs.

3. Peer Observations
This option consists of opportunities to observe other teachers in your school or visit ESL/bilingual programs in other districts. Visiting other teachers in your school is an excellent source of PD. It is usually followed up by a conference between the host teacher and the visitor. The visitor may be required to write an observation paper for their school district.

Don’t limit yourself to ESL teachers. If one of your mainstream colleagues has piloted a new program to teach reading, go watch her teach it. You need to know what the mainstream teachers in your school are doing. I learned a huge amount just by walking in my colleagues’ classrooms to pick up students for my ESL class. I would question teachers about something I saw that interested me and applied a lot of it to my own teaching. The upside of this is that I built strong relationships with teachers that ultimately benefited my ELs.

Visiting other school districts to observe teachers is another option. If you go to a conference and see a teacher who demonstrates methods you want to learn more about, ask the presenter if you can visit her classroom.

4. Pineapple Charts Observations
A pineapple chart  is a system for PD that allows teachers to invite others into their classroom to watch a lesson on a particular topic. A science teacher might invite others to observe a lab or a history teacher might demonstrate how students learn about blockades during the civil war. A calendar is hung in a place where teachers see it as they go about their day. They can “advertise” a lesson that they are teaching during the week that their colleagues might want to observe.

This is an excellent opportunity for ESL staff to showcase their teaching methods to colleagues and to visit their classrooms. This is a much less formal viewing than what is done in the Peer Observation mentioned in the above example. Pineapple Chart participation is voluntary. (Administrators: Resist the temptation to make it
mandatory!) There is no discussion at the end of the observation. You don’t have to write up a review of your visit. You can observe for 10 minutes or for the whole lesson.

5. Book Groups
Book groups are an excellent way for teachers to get together to explore an educational topic that interests them. In the past, when teachers have gotten together informally to discuss something of interest, administrators did not see it as PD. Now, however, professional book clubs are receiving more attention as one way to personalize PD. By reading and discussing professional books, teachers experience a social and intellectual forum to share thoughts and feelings about the book that they’ve read.

The goals for professional book clubs are to provide teachers with opportunities to examine their understanding, beliefs, and practices through reading about other perspectives. This is a way for teachers of ELs to expose colleagues to the cultures of their students. Books such as The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri and Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi are excellent examples of books that discuss the immigrant experience and the clash of cultures.

An online example of a book club is #ellchat _Bookclub. This is what is called a slow chat on Twitter. Questions are asked about each chapter in the book that has been chosen and participants have a week to answer using the #ellchat_bookclub hashtag. Books that #ellchat_bookclub has read over the past few years are 6 Principles of Exemplary Teaching of English Learners, EL Excellence Every Day, Refugee, and The ELL Teachers Toolbox.


If you don’t have these types of PD available to you, approach your administrators with this article. Schools need to differentiate for teachers just as they are already doing for students.

Are there other forms of PD that you’ve participated in that are meaningful? Or do you have experience with any of these types of PD? Please share in the comments.

About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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2 Responses to 5 Approaches to Professional Development for EL Educators

  1. Valentina says:

    I definitely agree that all of these professional learning experiences are valuable and I partake in them myself. However, I still love a face to face professional learning day too! I learn a lot from experts. There’s something special about connecting in person, meeting and collaborating for a day of learning. I have found that follow up is key to implementation of the instructional methods. Thank s for sharing your ideas.

  2. Monica says:

    I’ve attempted hosting virtual PD in the form of webinar/Google classroom. It went well just needed more promo. That said; webinars alone are fantastic. I think I’m on the email list for nearly every publisher; most will record and share that if you cannot join live.