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What Do You Think an Ideal Teacher of ELLs Knows and Can Do?


July 27 Update: The comment period has now closed, but you can find the standards document here.

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards is inviting the public to comment on standards it has developed for what the organization calls "teachers of English as a new language." I call them teachers of English-language learners. (Find information about the standards-writing process here.)

The standards will be used as a basis for requirements for teachers who become nationally certified as teachers of English as a new language by the organization, a process that is open to content teachers as well as English-as-a-second-language teachers.

Diane Staehr Fenner, a member of the committee that developed the new standards and a senior analyst/ELL specialist for edCount, said, "The philosophy behind [the standards] is teaching English through content. This would apply to a math teacher who is teaching English-language learners."

She said the standards also apply to bilingual educators. The value of bilingualism and recognition of students' native languages is a thread throughout the document, she said.

The standards are meant to be met by exceptional teachers who go beyond what most teachers do, Staehr Fenner explained.

The window for commenting on what accomplished ELL teachers should know and be able to do will be open July 13-26. I'm telling you about it now because I'm about to begin a vacation and won't be around to post the standards document when it is released. You'll be able to find it here.

I've read a draft overview of the standards. It provides a picture of what the ideal teacher of ELLs is like. He or she has a deep knowledge of the English language and understands the language needs of his or her students, for example. He or she makes an effort to partner with parents to support their children's education. The teacher delivers instruction that is informed by the best research, the overview says.

It also says the final standards document will include an elaboration on various topics underneath the overall standard for what a teacher should know and be able to do. For example, within the standard of knowledge about the English language, the document will elaborate on "academic English language," "vocabulary," "phonology," and other topics.

The new standards are a revision of standards for teachers of ELLs created by the organization in 1998.


The ESOL teacher knows that that vocabulary lists, spelling tests and constructed reading passages do not develop the English language. Communicative approaches develop English language competency by best matching real life conversation and communication. The speaker and listener must negotiate meaning and to learn English the learner must have comprehensible input and output. Reading material must be at a level in which only a few words are new and most are familiar. The students should be able to read books and materials they can comprehend and are understandable to them. They should not be looking up words in the dictionary or rely on someone else to translate meaning. Materials can be completed or discarded as desired by the reader. For academic development, "narrow" reading on a topic is best. If you want to learn about Andrew Jackson, read several books and materials about the man that the reader can comprehend. You can add a student's writing about a topic, a power point, etc. to sum up information. Most of what I am putting down here is based on research by Stephen Krashen. Virginia C. Collier et. all. also documented the "traditional" English programs don't work and that the students who go through those programs never achieve the same gains as students who are in bilingual, dual language, or programs that use "content" information (social studies, math, etc.) to teach class there's something very wrong.

The ideal ELL teacher likes languages, cultures, collaborating, and solving problems. He or she should be fluent in a second language and should have undergone a language learning experience in another country or in the American school system. In addition to a thorough knowledge of English morphology/grammar, strategies for teaching vocabulary/reading/pronunciation/pragmatics/ writing, etc., the most important and neglected area is the ability to understand the context in which students are learning English. Learning English is as much a socio-political process as a discipline. For wealthy sojourners,college students, or adults the ideal ELL teacher would offer a very different program from that experienced by immigrants being prepared for standardized tests and assimilation in public schools. ELL teachers need to change the curriculum to meet the needs of the context; they need to modify or change curricula when new students arrive. ELL teachers have to bridge the context for the student and help the student first. When teachers work in isolating contexts, lack leadership support, or are expected to be or expect themselves to be the world for their students, both they and their students are diminished. Being admitted into the context and learning how to move on is a crucial part of successfully learning the language for most ELL students; teachers who can't or are not permitted to work effectively with others are not ideal, no matter how much they know about ESL/linguistics.

The ideal ELL teacher strives to help students become a part of their school by encouraging them to participate in all activities. On the academic level, the teacher constantly looks for ways to help the students master all curriculum and standardized tests. Reading in the content areas must achieve a figurative comprehension as well as a literal one.

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