Pull-Out vs Push-In ESL Programs in Elementary Schools

After lively discussions on the NJTESOL/NJBE member hotlist and during a Twitter #ELLCHAT, I realized that pull-out ESL vs. having ESL teachers push-in to the general education classroom is still a hot-button issue for practitioners in the field. I invited Monica Schnee, an ESL practitioner in River Edge, a K–6 district in New Jersey, to write a guest blog on this issue.  Monica has gone from teaching exclusively using a pull-out ESL model to mostly coteaching, and I feel that she sees the benefits of each model. Her ESL program is a NJ model program  benefiting all students and practitioners. 

Pull-Out ESL Instruction

Pull-out ESL instruction means that the ESL teacher pulls students out of the general education classroom to work in a small group setting in another room. During pull-out instruction, ELs miss instruction that takes place in the general education classroom. Some ESL teachers pull out mixed-level proficiency groups while others pull out by proficiency level (i.e, newcomers, beginners, intermediate, or advanced students). Some practitioners believe that teaching to meet the needs at each proficiency level is beneficial. Others find that students need that mixed proficiency level to receive comprehensible input +1.

Push-In ESL Instruction

During push-in instruction,  the ESL teacher comes into the general education classroom to support ELs during content-area lessons. The ESL teacher may be supporting ELs during a mini-lesson next to her students while the general education teacher is teaching, or he or she may wait until instruction is completed and then work with ELs in a small group in the classroom.

There are different configurations as to how to group ELs in small groups and where in the general classroom. One popular push-in model is collaborative or co-teaching, where the ESL teacher instructs side by side with the general classroom teacher, at times leading, at times interjecting with specific language pieces, or at times modeling language strategies for all learners. He or she generally calls on ELs so they get a chance to participate in oral discussions while she scaffolds language for them to communicate effectively and move on the language trajectory.

In both cases, coplanning is needed to define the lesson objectives. This can be done by email, short conversations, using google.doc, via text, or sharing a common planning time.

The Debate

Our NJTESOL/NJBE hotlist discussion was very heated, with practitioners at each end of the spectrum. Here are some of the exchanges:

It (push-in ESL) does not work very well; I do not recommend it at all! Students never get a chance to practice speaking nor do they really benefit. You are correct in that they never really develop the grammar skills they need to be successful writers. I know that push-in is the new wave and teaching grammar and reading skills directly are “old fashioned” but there is a reason ESL texts have a scope and sequence, it worked!

POE (Port of Entry) students need to be taught outside the classroom. They are not getting anything out of whole group instruction. I hear your frustration.

I would like to politely disagree with the anti push-in sentiment pervasive in many of these responses. I have done both pull-out and push-in for my ESL students and I can honestly say that both methods work quite well in our district. In fact, I am finding that push-in is every bit as effective/productive as pull-out.

The push-in model is more than providing support; it is planning lessons and teaching parts of the lesson to the whole class, including the non ELLs.

I believe it is crucial for us to be part of general education/content-classroom instruction, whether in a push-in or a coteaching model. In my experience, push-in works amazingly well if properly implemented, particularly in the primary grades. I have found that the key to students’ success is to offer ESL instruction in the classroom and also to pull out ELs at the lower levels of acquisition for an extra ESL period a day to meet the social-instructional and basic academic language needs. I call this a hybrid model of ESL instruction.

Best of Both Worlds: A Hybrid Model

A hybrid model requires buy-in from administrators, professional development for classroom and ESL teachers, and the willingness to collaborate and not work in isolation with a closed-door policy. It is easier for us to pull our students out of their general education classroom, to teach in small groups in our rooms with our strategies and materials at our own and their pace. The affective filter may be lower, they take risks using language, and the results may be faster. However, their lives are in the classroom except for the times we pull them out. Supporting our ELs in the general education classroom accomplishes:

English learners benefit when teachers are

  • scaffolding lessons so that they have a chance to shine amongst their classmates and participate in classroom instruction, discussions, projects, and assignments.
  • immersing them in a continuous communicative experience with their monolingual peers in order to acquire English.
  • implementing comprehensible input +1 so they can learn in their own setting.
  • allowing them to stay in the classroom every day so they don’t feel “different” from their peers.

Teachers benefit because they are

  • collaborating in planning lessons that include language, skills, and content goals ELs need to perform successfully.
  • modeling best practices/strategies for ELs and for all learners.
  • demonstrating what makes us language experts and what we can contribute to instruction.
  • working in small groups after the lesson is delivered, just like teachers differentiate throughout the day.
  • scaffolding so ELs can participate at every level of proficiency in accountable talk, academic conversations, and tasks.
  • providing a continuity of instruction that is seamless for the learner.
  • learning what the quality of a monolingual’s speech is like.
  • ensuring that our students’ experiences are valued the same way as those of their monolingual peers.

These are a few reasons why we should move to this hybrid model, combining push-in or coteaching models for all ELs while additionally pulling out newcomers and very low-proficiency students to support them in small group instruction.

In everyday life, we all work in groups with people who have different levels of skills and competencies, language being just one of them. Replicating real life in the classroom is a way to teach life skills to all students.

Monica Schnee has been in the field of education for more than 15 years. She is an educator/ESL coordinator for  River Edge Public Schools in New Jersey.  She also teaches assessment in the second language classroom at a graduate school of education. She collaborated on the Interdisciplinary Unit Exemplars for ELLs and on the Model Curriculum for the NJ Department of Education.  Monica is also a WIDA Certified Trainer, a contributor to the “Supports for ELLs” for the Preschool Implementation Guidelines for the NJDOE Division of Early Childhood, and a past member of the Bilingual Advisory Committee and the NJTESOLNJBE Executive Board.

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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10 Responses to Pull-Out vs Push-In ESL Programs in Elementary Schools

  1. Marie Cromwell says:

    We have to get out of the mindset that push in/pull out is a matter of geography! We can ‘push in’ to the same curriculum as the classroom in a small group outside of the classroom. I find it much easier to plan and pace, and the students have a safe place to participate without feeling self conscious. If I can pre-teach, they feel more confident in the classroom. I have noticed that principals have jumped on the “push-in only’ bandwagon because they think paraprofessionals need someone constantly peering over their shoulders–it is demeaning and ridiculous.

  2. J says:

    Our school is using the hybrid model. The only issue we are facing is that we need a common understanding as far as our roles (ELL Specialist and HRT). Does anyone have a document they would like to share?

  3. Betty Davis says:

    In California, ALL teachers are required to have certification to teach ELL’s. All new teachers automatically have it. Veteran teachers have to work for and get the certification. I think with California’s NEW ELD standards, the responsibility will be shared between the ELD teacher & the classroom teacher. Integrated ELD has to be taught all day, in every content area. Luckily it is not a daunting as it seems. Most teachers are already implementing this by differentiating instruction. Designated ELD is very specific, still linking to the content standards, but building skills necessary for students to have success in their regular classroom. CA also has mandated designated ELD time for this, so students cannot be pulled out during ELA, Math, Science, SS, etc.

  4. Okay, this is a perhaps minor haggling over terms but the label “push-in” strikes me as a bad way to describe a co-teaching situation which relies on both teachers’ cooperation and commitment. Our school system uses the term “plug-in” which isn’t a pleasant sounding term either. But at least it doesn’t raise the hackles of classroom teachers who don’t particularly like ceding some of their authority to another teacher whose qualifications they often misjudge und underestimate.

  5. Beth Wolff says:

    Push in and pull out both have their advantages, and I have used both models with much success. Unfortunately for many elementary ESOL teachers, their caseloads are too high and thus it is impossible to manage a push in schedule that meets the needs of learners and teachers.

  6. Sharon Jackson says:

    Pull-out vs. push-in is an interest of mine. I work with grades 5K-6 at four different elementary schools in my school district. Our school district has a relatively small population, which allows me to be stretched between so many locations. When I was first hired several years ago, I continued with the existing model of pull-out regardless of grade or proficiency and did that for several years. Every year my pull-out schedule was a work of art, missing all grade levels’ core academic content, related arts, lunch and recess schedules. Over time, I found that the best model was the model that best met the needs of the students I served. So, I decided to do a hybrid schedule and found it to be the answer to a prayer. I was able to split their time. For half of their time allotted for ESOL, I pushed-in during core academic content. Push-in allowed academic content in real time with native speaking peers and fostered community. During push-in I was able to observe how all of the students interacted in the classroom with each other and with the content on a regular basis. I could then step in as needed to assist all/ALL student(s), make helpful suggestions regarding strategies for content delivery and accommodations/modifications for expected outcomes. For the other half of their time, I pulled-out addressing academic content using “the same language” that the teacher used during the time of whole group instruction. During pull-out, students were able to ask questions they may not have been as confident to ask in the classroom. Students practiced using academic vocabulary (written and oral) without feeling like they would be penalized by a grade if they were not as proficient as their native English speaking peers. With pull-out I was able to better target specific skills missing in any or all of the four domains that affected overall communication within and beyond the classroom. Having a hybrid schedule gave me the power to say, “Remember when…” as a point of reference from the classroom when I had them in pull-out, whether the reference was for academics, behavior or level of skill expectations. The results were beyond what I could have ever hoped for. I gained another avenue to increase proficiency and my students gained another point of connection to learning. For me, the hybrid model truly is the best of both worlds.

    • Hi Sharon,

      I am glad to hear that the “hybrid model”, as I call it, works for you too. In the end, we have to meet the students’ needs but it also helps us greatly to know what kind of language and level of discourse is used in the classroom. It helps us provide that input + 1 in a more relevant way. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    • Dianne McDevitt says:

      This blog has been very helpful to me with my new position as ESL teacher. I too use the hybrid model. I agree that it is important that the ESL students are with the general population so they don’t feel like outcasts and receive the full experience of the classroom setting. However, I have level 1 middle school students who remain in the classroom but are alienated because they have no idea what the teacher is saying. There are not enough hours in the day to reteach all they need to know, and teach them English. I find it most frustrating that they are in LA and Literature classes trying to read and write material that is beyond their linguistic ability. The Lit teacher tries to accommodate by finding Spanish Lit books when available. But then I make them answer comp questions in English. Because ultimately they need to do so in order to be successful in high school and beyond. I would prefer to pull them out to read literature more suited for their English ability. Then we can have literature discussions and practice writing at their level. For social studies, science and math I agree that they should be in the classroom. For these subjects I can (and do) add extra support both in and out of the classroom. Thoughts?

  7. Georgia Miller says:

    This article is very timely. Unfortunate that finances rather than best practices often guide decisions. Have noticed that in several states and in our poorer systems the push is actually toward EL Coaching rather than teaching-leaving all the instruction to the mainstream teachers. Fortunately I work in a very diverse system with good financial resources and university partners. We use the pull out and the push in. As a Middle School teacher, about half my day is spent in directly instructing students during their EL class-during elective for grades 7/8 and during their half day block for language arts/Social Studies in 6th. Every student is offered this particularly encouraging those with 4.0 or below on WIDA ACCESS test. The other half day I am an inclusion teacher. I spend most time in lang arts classes but can go into other. For example, I go into a Social Studies class for the first ten minutes to co teach their short reading selection. Sometimes we both teach and others we split the class into two groups. Then I go to the language arts class that block for 45 minutes. This is the best of both worlds-our students progress much rapidly since going to this model.

    • Hi Georgia,
      It is unfortunate, as you say, that finances are guiding instructional decisions. Reading your reply makes me think that push-in and co-teaching may alleviate some of the concerns of having classroom teachers not trained in second language acquisition, be responsible for 100% of the instruction of ELs. Classroom teachers are skilled and effective in so many other areas of instruction and are asked to differentiate based on all their students’ needs. ESL practitioners in the general education classroom provide models of instruction for these teachers as well as allowing them more time to devote to other students,either needing extra support because they are low or more challenging instruction because they are high.
      Thanks for sharing your day. It looks like your district has a wonderful ESL/ENL model of instruction.

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