Michael Toth in EdWeek: Differentiate for ELLs by ‘Establishing a Welcoming and Safe Classroom’

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This excerpt was originally published in Edweek, Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo Blog

Michael D. Toth is the author of the award-winning book, Who Moved My Standards, the co-author with David Sousa of Improving Social, Emotional, and Cognitive Learning Through Academic Teaming (forthcoming, 2019), and the co-author with Dr. Robert J. Marzano of The Essentials of a Standards-Based Classroom, School Leadership for Results, and Teacher Evaluation That Makes a Difference. Toth addresses teachers, school leaders, and superintendents at national conferences, policy forums, and workshops, including past addresses to the U.S. Department of Education and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

ELL Students in Team-Centered Classrooms

English-language learners can thrive in inclusion or mainstream classrooms, as long as an effective instructional model is in place. Team-centered classrooms benefit ELL students’ speaking skills while giving them a personalized, rigorous experience, even in large mainstream classrooms.

Close Monitoring and Support by Students and Teachers

Differentiated instruction is more focused on what the teacher does. What we have found is that student teams actually personalize instruction for each team member through team structures, as illustrated in Improving Social, Emotional, and Cognitive Learning Through Academic Teaming (Sousa & Toth, in press).

In a team-centered classroom, students are expected to monitor the team tasks and verify the team’s accomplishment of a learning target. The team members and teacher ensure that all students in the team can demonstrate evidence of their learning.

If an ELL student needs extra support, that need will become more visible in a team-centered classroom than it would in a traditional, teacher-centered classroom, where it’s much harder to know what students are thinking. Through observing students discussing, questioning, and debating within their teams, teachers can decide what kind of extra support ELL students need.

Engaging Peer Support in Academic Teams

Students are often capable of providing support to each other. Students can be amazingly perceptive, and when given the chance, we have seen them step up to coach their peers.

One example comes from a 3rd grade inclusion classroom we observed. A student with disabilities felt he couldn’t keep up with the pace and became upset; the team encouraged their frustrated team member to write down only page numbers for the evidence they were citing together, rather than the full quotes. They came up with this solution entirely on their own, the teacher approved, and this adjustment to the task allowed the team to reach their learning target while still keeping the task rigorous. Besides practicing their problem-solving and critical thinking, these students were also practicing crucial social-emotional skills in an authentic situation.

As a last resort, the teacher can step in to remediate students, correcting misconceptions or providing different learning strategies (the teacher will have more time for this kind of individualized support in a team-centered classroom than in a traditional classroom, due to less time spent on direct instruction).

ELL Teaming Success in the Des Moines Public Schools District

Des Moines public schools shifted toward team-centered instruction and saw promising outcomes with their ELL students. 2017-2018 math and reading assessment scores indicated that ELL students in Des Moines public schools where teaming was implemented outperformed ELL students in Des Moines public schools where teaming was not implemented.

In addition to the impact on student academic achievement for ELL students, our IE Applied Research Center has also observed evidences which show positive student-behavior changes and increased social-emotional-learning competencies correlated to academic teaming.

Team-centered instruction has enormous potential to reach English-language learners in mainstream classrooms without having to separate them or offer them less rigorous tasks than their peers.