The Changing Role of the ESL Teacher

This week’s primary education blog is guest authored by Shaeley Santiago, an ESL teacher and instructional coach from Iowa. Shaeley and I first met 4 years ago on #ELLCHAT, a Twitter chat that I comoderate. We have since met up at TESOL and other conferences. I’m sure you’ll learn a lot from her.

When I first began teaching at a middle school in a small Iowa town just before No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was passed, ESL was about helping students learn survival English and American culture. Today, however, increased accountability for subgroups like ELLs and a greater focus on college- and career-ready standards for all students have caused educators to recognize the necessity of instructing ELLs simultaneously in language and content (see Hakuta’s “Freedom to Talk” video).

English language proficiency (ELP) standards aligned with core standards are driving this movement. Gone are the days of an ESL teacher worrying only about a student’s cultural adjustment and progress in English language proficiency. Now the stakes are much higher with proficiency in reading, math, and science being the ultimate goal.

Valdés, Kibler, and Walqui write about the changes in the ESL field as a result of the standards in a March 2014 report published by TESOL, “Changes in the Expertise of ESL Professionals: Knowledge and Action in an Era of New Standards.” They list the two main challenges for ESL teachers as placing ELLs in classes where instruction is aligned to rigorous content standards and teaching disciplinary practices. Disciplinary practices are not only about the discipline-specific language of core content areas but also about how those practices connect to an understanding of concepts and analytical tasks (see Figure 4 on p. 10 of the report). New ELP standards such as ELPA21’s ELP Standards or WIDA’s ELD Standards address the overlaps between the disciplinary practices and the language needed to access core content areas.

So what does this mean for ESL teachers? In short, while we have much-needed expertise, we can’t do it alone! The complexity of the discipline-specific language demands in the new standards requires that we work closely with content-area teachers to ensure that ELLs will achieve at high levels.

Let’s explore collaboration and professional development as two areas where the role of the ESL teacher is evolving to meet these challenges.

1. Collaboration

As ESL programs have moved away from pull-out instruction, coteaching has become more popular. This approach allows the ESL teacher to model sheltered instruction techniques while the content-area teacher serves as the expert in the content. While there are several models of coteaching, it is important to ensure that roles are clearly defined and the strengths of both teachers are honored. Otherwise, as Diane Staehr Fenner reports from teachers in the field in “Implementing the Common Core State Standards for English Learners: The Changing Role of the ESL Teacher” (TESOL International Association, 2013), it is all too common that the ESL teacher will become a glorified aide, which will likely not maximize instructional benefits for ELLs.

In addition to coteaching, there are other ways for ESL and content teachers to collaborate. As Honigsfeld and Dove explain in their book, Common Core for the Not So Common Learner, collaboration ranges from informal means (e.g., short conversations before or after school) to formal instructional approaches such as coordinated planning, curriculum alignment, codeveloping classroom materials, and common assessments. Formal instructional approaches such as coteaching have a greater potential for a positive impact on ELLs, but they require more time and resources for adequate implementation.

Regardless of which approach is selected, teaching in isolation is no longer a viable option to ensure student achievement. It’s time for ESL and content teachers to join forces for the benefit of all our students.

2. Professional Development

The specialized training of ESL teachers in second language acquisition and their experience working with families from diverse cultural backgrounds can be leveraged to provide professional development for local school staff, according to TESOL (2013). In addition to traditional formats such as whole staff meetings, ESL teachers can also provide professional development through mentoring, modeling strategies beneficial for ELLs such as sheltered content instruction, or even participating in a professional learning community (PLC) with content-area colleagues. Some districts even hire ESL teachers as instructional coaches to provide job-embedded professional development specific to improving instruction for ELLs.

Research about the effectiveness of professional development suggests it should be contextualized, collaborative, and ongoing. Given the tight budgets of school districts, utilizing in-house experts such as ESL teachers makes it easier to meet these conditions. However, TESOL (2013) cautions that not all schools recognize the specialized training of ESL teachers and the ways in which they can contribute. According to TESOL, the culture of the school must be one “in which the entire staff shares responsibility for EL’s success” (p. 8) in order for professional development to have the greatest impact and collaboration to thrive.

Shaeley Santiago taught secondary ESL in central Iowa for 14 years before becoming an instructional coach for teachers of ELLs. She also teaches as an adjunct in Drake University’s ESL endorsement program. She is active in Mid-America TESOL, having served on the board since 2010. She loves to read and is active on Twitter. 


Honigsfeld, A., and Dove, M. G. (2013). Common Core for the not-so-common learner, grades 6-12. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Valdés, G., Kibler, A., & Walqui, A. (2014, March). Changes in the expertise of ESL professionals: Knowledge and action in an era of new standards. Alexandria, VA: TESOL International Association.

TESOL International Association. (2013, April). Implementing the Common Core State
Standards for ELs: The Changing Role of the ESL Teacher. Alexandria, VA: Author.

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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One Response to The Changing Role of the ESL Teacher

  1. Sharon Simon says:

    I think this article makes a good statement about the direction that ESL teaching is moving. I would welcome more involvement from classroom teachers, and would be a willing collaborator to the best of my ability.

    One of the problems that will have to be addressed is the fact that many ESL teachers are part-time. This could limit interaction in the classroom and collaboration efforts. One idea may be to do job sharing in situations where teachers do not wish to work full time. Getting ESL teachers to the right place at the right time may be problematic.

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