4 Characteristics of Effective Teachers of ELs

The number of English learners (ELs) in U.S. schools has increased 51 % over the past 10 years, and the achievement gap between ELs and general population students has grown wider. The percentage of English learners who score “below basic” on standardized tests was 72% on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) math exam, which is three times lower than the general population of students. In addition, 66% of ELs live 200% below the poverty line.

A Stanford University study showed that that characteristics associated with effective teachers for students in general are not necessarily associated with effective teachers of ELs. Here are some of the characteristics that I believe define practitioners in our field.

Effective teachers of ELs are the following:

1. Certificated professionals

Multiple studies have shown the benefit of ESL teacher preparation and professional development. According to Staehr-Fenner in her book Advocating for English Learners: A Guide for Educators, specialized preparation for working with ELs is essential. Professionally trained educators in the field of English language acquisition feel competent to teach ELs and are more successful in that endeavor.

2. Empathetic educators

Teachers of ELs model empathy to colleagues and general education students. They are able to put themselves in the shoes of others, understand what ELs are feeling, and demonstrate a caring and supportive attitude for the special needs of their students. An effective EL teacher helps their students build relationships and become a part of the school community. They understand the cultural background of their students and how it may affect academic achievement.  Teachers of ELs need to appreciate the cultural differences of students and respond to them in a way that helps students acculturate to the U.S. school environment.

3. Communicators

Personality traits and ability to relate to and communicate with other professionals about how to teach ELs is a key attribute of effective teachers of ELs. In my opinion, they have a calling to the profession. The effective teacher must be able to communicate with all of the teachers who work with ELs as well as administrators and the parents of this population. These educators provide a bridge between their population of ELs and their families and the school community. Research shows that teachers who have received professional development in teaching ELs are more successful with this student population.

4. Advocates

An effective educator of ELs is the voice for students and their families within the school and the community at large. These educators are not afraid to stand up for their students in a public arena. They have the power to change the school ambiance and make ELs feel welcome and valued through advocacy. The effective educator advocates so that ELs in their district receive the services to which they have a legal right.  Effective educators respond effectively when injustices occur. They also go beyond their schools to advocate: We see them on the state and national level getting involved with policy that affects ELs.

What do you feel are the characteristics of an effective teacher of ELs? Please add additional ideas 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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4 Responses to 4 Characteristics of Effective Teachers of ELs

  1. Nasrin Anjuman Runi says:

    Of course an EFL teacher needs professional development training, As he /she has to teach those who are not the native speaker. And professional development course must develop a teacher professionally again it will increase confidence.

  2. Rosa Morales says:

    Definitely these four characteristics are so true. ESOL Professionals are very well prepared to work with ELL students. Sadly to say the wrong placements of the ELL students are the consequence of these low scores. We need to address this problem and find solutions now that we have the data. Do not sleep on this, it’s very important for our ELL students who are seeking for the best education and support from the Land of Opportunities. Let’s not fail them due to the ignorance of others and politics.

  3. Samantha says:

    Of course it’s best if the teacher must have all of the qualities above, but a good or (even a bad) teacher does not a student make. Basically how well a student does on a test, and later in life, depends on how motivated and eager a student is willing to learn and pass it. As an ESL educator for 8 years, I’ve watched my students very closely, saw how many threw the handouts and materials in the trash bin afterwards and who took them home and studied them, brought them back, wrote notes, etc. I can see the ones who insist on speaking English in the classroom and the ones who only sit with people who speak their own language and constantly use their L1 in the classroom. I’ve seen the students who are actually there to LEARN instead of just being in the class to keep their student visas valid and who know the exact number of attendance marks acceptable to keep their attendance at 70%. Then we have the students who arrive before I do, ready to learn. Who do you think scores better on the tests? I’ve had great and horrible teachers in my life but I realized that my education ultimately depends on me. So many students abd parents are quick to, if their children fail, blame the teacher for not being helpful, caring, available and supportive enough., when it often isn’t the case. I’m always there for my students but they often ask me “can you tell me what are the best books I can buy to pass the toefl?” I lovingly remind them that they can have the greatest books ever written, if they don’t study enough and are dedicated to learning the material, they are not going to pass.

    • BC says:

      That’s so true. We can have a room full of the best technology , materials, and highly trained teachers but students also have to put in effort on their end. They have to study, try, and use the materials and technology. Respecting and supporting the highly trained teachers as they educate plays a part too. Is there a balance between effective EL teachers and motivated students?

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