Working on the Development of Teachers' Understanding to Workwith English Language Learners

by Aida Walqui

To appear in: Scaffolding for The Development of Expertise in Working with English Language Learners. San Diego County Office of Education.


How has our understanding of good professional development for teachers –and in our specific case for teachers who work with English language learners- changed? What forces have driven this change? What are some of the goals that guide teachers' professional growth? What are some of the features that contribute to the quality of professional development options that are constructed for teachers working in diverse settings? In this article I explore these questions, and what they entail for teachers of English language learners, and for the colleagues that help them structure and implement inservice opportunities. To contextualize my discussion I will start with a personal story about my experience as a professional developer in this country. The story will serve as a point of comparison for the educational changes that have taken place since that event.

I remember the first time I conducted a workshop for collegues in California. It was in 1988. I had been working in the United States for three years, and at the high school where I was teaching many teachers were dissatisfied with the way their lessons were working. Their students did not speak English well or at all, and asking them to read subject specific materials was not a possibility. If their students could not read, they could not write, they could not discuss course ideas, they could not learn their subject matter. In a faculty meeting some teachers said they needed guidance in order to help their students learn better. A couple of friends knew that I had done research, developed materials, and used them successfully in the teaching of reading in English as a foreign language in Latin America. They proposed that I run a workshop during the next inservice day at school.

I accepted reluctantly. I did trust that I knew a few things that could be helpful to some, but having observed my fellow teachers during previous inservices, I was concerned that many of them did not really feel it was their job to change in order to meet the needs of a population they never prepared to teach. Many teachers felt that once they had received their certifications they had been recognized as ready to teach forever, and that if students were not ready for their classes it was either their students' problem, or the result of poor prior teaching, in any case, not their responsibility. Blaming middle school teachers (junior high schools at the time) and students was the name of the game. In fact, those teachers who could, asked to be transferred to the district high school that had fewer LEPs (an unfortunate acronym common at the time). Remaining teachers became either increasingly dissatisfied with the situation and angry against the school and their students, or continued automatically doing the same thing they knew was not working. Lecture-type of course teaching prevailed in most classrooms regardless of whether students were engaged or not. There were always the marvelous teachers, the islands of excellence, those who kept actively searchng for effective ways to work with their students, whose students were encouraged and enticed to work hard, who spent extra time with them, who were cherished by their students, but who were basically ignored by the rest of the school and did not impact it.

As I reflect on that moment, I realize how much the situation and my own understanding of teacher knowledge and professional development has changed. Although the picture I paint here from twelve years ago is still valid to describe what goes on in some schools, the overall context in which education takes place has changed dramatically, and the teaching and learning panorama is changing rapidly. In facrt, it needs to accelerate its transformation to use what we know about teaching and learning in diverse circumstances to better serve teachers, students, and the societies they live in. Let us analyze some of these changes.


Population Changes

An unprecedented migratory movement to the United States during the last decade has resulted in a steep increase in the number of English language learners in the educational system. In five years, between 1990 and 1995, students who had to learn English as a second language increased almost 45% nationwide (Macías & Kelly, 1996). In California, a magnet for immigrants from Mexico, Central America, and countries on the Pacific Rim, the growth of immigrant students was twice that of the rest of the nation. This higher presence of English language learners – most of them children of poverty – has coincided with higher indices of segregation in schools (Orfield & Yun, 1999). Latino students, who constitute the largest percentage of English language learners in the country, have the second highest drop-out rate of any major group in American schools after Native American students. Segregation leaves Latinos in schools that have both high levels of concentrated poverty, and from where college enrollment is extremely low. At the same time, high school graduation makes a significant difference in the potential income of workers, and post-secondary education is increasingly crucial for obtaining good jobs.

The Impact of Educational Reforms on English Language Learners

There is a growing recognition that the failure of schools to educate children of poverty, among them English language learners, needs to be reversed. Well-intentioned but ill-conceived school reform efforts sometimes trigger consequences that exacerbate the already difficult situation of educating English language learners. Class size reduction, (CSR) for example, implemented with no prior provisions to better prepare teachers while at the same time increasing the teaching pool, is having disastrous consequences in districts with a heavy presence of language minority students. These districts applied CSR at a slower pace, due to their inability to recruit teachers to replace the ones they were losing to more affluent schools, and due to their lack of space to offer more classes. When impacted districts did implement CSR, they experienced a big increase in their number of emergency-credentialed teachers. Students who needed the best prepared teachers ended up getting teachers with lower qualifications, who besides needing to survive in the classroom, had to use evenings not to better understand their craft, but to take courses in order to clear their emergency credentials. Darling-Hammond and Ball (1997) in a recent study of what it takes to teach to high standards, compare the resulting growth in students per $500 dollars spent on different changes. They conclude that CSR results only in 0.04 growth, raising teacher salaries produces a 0.16 increase, growth in teacher experience gives 0.18, and increase in teacher preparation and professional development produces 0.22 growth. Academic standards have thus taken a back seat to political measures and market demands. Stecher and Bohrnstedt's study on the impact of CSR in California (1999), for example, shows the increasing divide between the haves and have nots. On a per-pupil basis, the study concludes, more resources go to districts serving few minority students. Districts that serve larger proportions of English language learners and low-income pupils receive less of the CSR money, and obtain minimal results.

Figure 1: Percentage of minority students in district

This is a dangerous trend that needs to be reversed. It is especially dangerous because the public at large forms opinions about programs based on superficial or biased information, and then votes accordingly. If CSR works for certain groups of students, and not for others, people may jump to the conclusion that this is due to inherent properties of the populations involved, not understanding the different contexts and conditions of applications of the measure. As can be observed in the following table, before the implementation of CSR, the quarter of schools with the highest percentage of low-income students and English language learners, had a slightly higher percentage of teachers lacking full credentials. Since CSR was implemented, the gap has increased almost tenfold as schools serving more affluent populations attracted better qualified teachers.

Figure 2: K-3 Teacher credentialing in schools with differing proportions of low income students

As we study this situation, it is easy to see how being a teacher in a linguistically diverse classroom is not an occupation for the faint of heart, nor for the unprepared. At a time when 42% of all public school teachers in the U.S. have at least one English language learner in their classes, (Han & Baker, 1997, cited in Olsen et al, 1999, p. 17) it is imperative that more attention and hard work be dedicated to the education of educators who work with them both in classes comprised exclusively of second language learners, and in classes where these students study with their native English-speaking counterparts. To fulfill this task effectively we need to help all teachers acquire the attitudes, knowledge, skills, and dispositions needed to work efficiently with a culturally and linguistically diverse populations (Zeichner & Hoeft, 1996). Above all, as Goodlad (1994) proposes, teacher education programs ought to prepare teachers to transform schools into the institutions that they should be, and not prepare teachers to fit into the status quo and maintain it.

Changes in our conception of education

Learning as a life-long endeavor. The need for higher standards

Changes in the demands placed on schooling have come from varied sources, from historical changes, the realization that the country was falling behind other leading nations in the word, and developments in our understanding of the teaching/learning process.

During the industrial period, the United States did not educate all of its citizens alike. One of the coping mechanisms employed by schools in trying to balance societal demands for a unified citizenry was educational triage, i.e. , they invested resources only in those students who were considered likely to succeed. There were two ways of legitimating this "creaming" of students, the first through a functional ideology that stated that schooling was the way in which more capable individuals were chosen for the important positions. The other one, a conflict ideology, maintained that the investment of larger resources on some students was justified by virtue of their station in life. (Pallas, Natriello and McDill, 1995). Whatever the rationale invoked, society agreed that this was the way things were supposed to be, and an emphasis on lower skills in the education of most students was not perceived as too problematic because there were plenty of jobs, especially for unskilled workers.

As the country moved from an industrial to a knowledge- and communications-based society, and with changes in the economic position of the United States in the world economy, the demands on schools changed. Successful high school graduates today are required to have higher levels of literacy, to be able to generate, use, and transfer knowledge, primarily through communication. Those who can generate and communicate knowledge are those most likely to obtain, hold and advance in jobs. Those who have not developed sophisticated knowledge and skills take up the responsibilities of earlier servant classes (Heath, 1995). A great proportion of English language learners hold these lower types of jobs. Since today fewer and fewer unskilled jobs are available, and holding them condemns workers to a life of poverty, the importance of higher educational levels to achieve a decent standard of living is unquestioned.

Calls for reform of educational processes and content also resulted from the realization that while American students’ efforts were focused on the development of basic skills, these were no longer enough in a world where requirements for success had increased. There was also an acknowledgement that the United States suffered from a comparative economic disadvantage in world markets, and that this situation needed to be corrected. While educational critics mostly emphasized the need for national success, and a concern that the country did not fare well in international comparisons of educational achievement, fewer voices set forth the idea that the attainment of higher educational standards by all students was essential for the existence of a democratic, participatory system.

A third impetus for educational reform has resulted from changing views of learning, language and knowledge. In opposition to behavioristic transmission-oriented understandings of learning, social-constructivist notions consider learning a process of apprenticeship in which children grow into the intellectual lives of those around them (Vygotsky, 1978) through a social process of modeling and appropriation. Similarly, language, knowledge and skills are today considered as jointly constructed by human beings. Based on this view, language becomes perceived, noticed, used, and elaborated as part of the activity of the learner in tasks, projects, and interpersonal relationships that are meaningful, challenging, interesting, and well scaffolded (Walqui, 2000). These views challenge static notions of a ‘banking’ form of education (Freire, 1974) in which the teacher is the depositary of knowledge, and teaching is the passing on of this knowledge to a passive, receptive student.

Responding to these three major forces for change, the Goals 2000: Educate America Act was signed into law by President Clinton on March 31, 1994. This act codified the national education goals and provided resources to states and communities to help them develop and implement educational reforms aimed at helping all students reach challenging academic standards. The act was based on a recognition that the educational system must serve all students equally well, and that in order to carry out system-wide reforms, a ‘sticks and carrot’ approach needed to be implemented, thus the emphasis on accountability. Standards and assessment became rallying concepts around which educators nationwide expressed their support or disapproval of the new reform concepts.

Reform issues were also in the mind of educators concerned about the impact of the provisions of Goals 2000 on English language learners. In September 1993 a group of scholars met at Stanford University to discuss the implications of a standards-based reform for these students, and published a report on their deliberations and consensus (August & Hakuta, 1993). These meetings were followed by others that addressed more specifically the research and development that would be needed to incorporate English as a second language students in the thrust of school reform. Two overarching principles guided their work:

1. Language-minority students must be provided with an equal opportunity to learn the same challenging content and high level skills that school reform movements advocate for all students.

2. Proficiency in two or more languages should be promoted for all American students. Bilingualism enhances cognitive and social growth, competitiveness in a global marketplace, national security, and understanding of diverse peoples and cultures. (August, Hakuta, & Pompa, 1994, p. 6)

It is good to keep in mind these principles when framing the reform agenda for English language learners: it would be unfair and un-American to provide less for students who during their schooling are also in the process of developing a second language. But the Stanford Working Group went beyond that basic statement of justice to insist that the connotation of compensatory education –an inheritance from its federal birth during the Great Society era- be removed from bilingual education by emphasizing the value of bilingualism for all and proposing that it serve not just minority students, but all students in the country. Four years later there is some isolated progress to report, and there are still many more tasks to tackle in the endeavor of improving the education of English language learners. Understanding what is entailed in the setting up of clear standards, in ensuring that teachers and other school personnel know how to design and implement them, and in developing and implementing richer and more appropriate assessment tools are the topics we now turn to.

The knowledge base for teaching

Given the dramatic statistics shown above, and the estimated need for two million new teachers within the next decade, it is essential that the educational experiences of future and practicing teachers reflect a combination of our state of knowledge regarding what works best in the education of future educators, and a vision of what is desirable and possible. For that purpose I present here a model of teacher understanding which can serve as a starting point to organize theoretically our conceptualization of teacher learning. Preparing teachers to meet the needs of all students, especially students who are linguistically and culturally diverse, necessitates teachers who continuously develop and adapt their expertise to better respond to a situation that is never static. To do this effectively, teachers need not only possess technical mastery, but also the inclination and ability to think about the goals and consequences of their practice, to engage in reflections, and to articulate justifications for the choices that they make as they engage in their everyday teaching and learning. The model I propose here has been adapted from Lee Shulman’s (1995) model of teacher learning which views development as taking place along six dimensions, which in turn can be unpacked into categories. Although it is possible to discuss aspects of the domains one at a time, they constitute an organic model, and they overlap, coexist in mutually supporting relations, thus they cannot really be thought of as existing independently or related to one another in a linear fashion.

Figure 3: Model of teacher understanding to work with English language learners


This construct encompasses teachers’ ideologies, objectives, and dreams, all of which provide a sense of direction to their students’ learning. The education of educators can help them explore and refine their position in the two dimensions of vision.

a) Optimal instruction with English language learners, a process of learning that assumes that students develop cognitively and linguistically when they participate in scaffolded social interactions that engage them in the consideration of key ideas within a theme, with important connections between and across concepts made explicit.

b) Vision of students as capable individuals for whom limited proficiency in English does not signify deficiency and for whom limited academic skills do not represent an incurable situation. Vision in this sense may be thought of as short-term vision, focused on developing students' potential as learners, within the time frame that a teacher works with specific students (a semester, an academic year) and long-term vision, which imagines them as future capable actors in the societies they form a part of. (Walqui, 1997).

That having this vision cannot be assumed in teacher education is confirmed by many studies, among others, Goodlad's national study of teacher education, which found that "the idea of moral imperatives for teachers was virtually foreign in concept and strange in language for most of the future teachers we interviewed. Many were less than convinced that all students can learn; they voiced the view that they should be kind and considerate to all, but they accepted as fact the theory that some simply cannot learn" (1990, p. 264)


This category represents the range of cognitive understandings that inform instruction: general pedagogical knowledge, subject matter knowledge, pedagogical content knowledge, knowledge of the teaching context, of the students, and teacher self-knowledge.

General pedagogical knowledge (Shulman, 1985) comprises the general corpus of knowledge and skills concerning learning, learners, and the goals and processes of education. Knowledge about how children and teenagbers learn, general principles of instruction, such as the importance of substantive interaction in class, the role of wait time, the development of metacognitive skills, issues on curriculum development, etc. belong in this area.

Subject Matter Knowledge comprises the teacher’s knowledge of what Schwab (1964) calls the substantive and the syntactic structures of the subject area. The substantive structures include main concepts in the field and the paradigms that give structure to the subject and that guide future developments in the area. The syntactic structures of a field include the canons of evidence and proof that are shared by subject matter communities. In the education of English language learners subject matter knowledge includes not only knowledge about the subject being taught, science, for example, but also knowledge of educational linguistics, sociolinguistics of English, teaching English as a second language, and knowledge of and about other languages if education is to be carried out bilingually.

Pedagogical content knowledge is the knowledge teachers need about how to teach a specific subject, and themes within that subject, to specific groups of students. It includes access to multiple forms of representations for concepts, the availability of appropriate examples, metaphors, similes, and ways of structuring the teaching of a specific concept and its interconnections to make it accessible and promote the development of deep understandings in English language learners. This weaving of new concepts together with ways of presenting them to second language learners is what makes the teaching of immigrant students especially complex. Pedagogical content knowledge also encompasses an understanding of how English and disciplinary discourse are best acquired by English language learners and how to embed content in the teaching of English.

Knowledge of students

Knowledge of students, their strengths, what they bring to the classroom, who they are outside of school, is essential for teachers of English language learners. It is easy to correlate linguistic limitations with academic weakness, and the combination may end up being unappealing to teachers. Two thirds of the white teacher education students surveyed in the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE, 1990) Survey of teacher education students across the U.S. indicated that they would not like to teach in a situation where L.E.P. students were present, This is almost inevitable in most schools. What can in-service education offer to help transform teachers' negative visions and understandings about students? If they are not willing to do this, they are working in the wrong profession, because as Bartolome (1994) affirms, the most pedagogically advanced strategies are sure to be ineffective in the hands of educators who implicitly or explicitly "subscribe to a belief system that renders ethnic, racial, and linguistic minority students at best culturally disadvantaged and in need of fixing".

At the same time it is important that teachers know how to observe and learn about the cultures represented by the students. Their knowledge in this area needs to be generative rather than fixed. As McDiarmid and Price (1990) explain, the presentation of information on ethnic and religious groups may actually encourage prospective teachers to generalize and, eventually, to prejudge pupils in their classrooms. "More commonly, teacher education students may become unsure about how to think about culturally different children. On the one hand, they are taught to be suspicious about any generalization about a group of people, on the other, they encounter materials and presentations that, in fact, make generalizations about normative values, attitudes, and behaviors among different groups" (p. 15).

Knowledge of self

As they evolve professionally, teachers also need to develop their notions of themselves. Being able to see themselves not only in their accomplishments, but also in their failures and contradictions enables them to grow and improve. Lack of self-knowledge among educators can impede their ability to create optimal learning experiences for immigrant students, but it can also help perpetuate the "hidden curriculum" of schools which transmit meanings such as what it means to "be good", what matters, the value or hierarchy and authority, the demeaning of learning, and so on.


This area represents the teachers’ skills and strategies for enacting their goals and understandings in practice. Understanding alone is not enough without the ability to act on it in effective ways. In fact, at times we meet teachers who can articulate a coherent grasp of what ought to be happening in a class, but who demonstrate a discrepancy between their knowledge and the ability to implement it. It is in the translation of understanding into practice when failure is common, thus suggesting strongly that support during implementation is absolutely essential.


This category is comprised of the reasons, incentives, and emotions that give energy and meaning to a teacher’s visions, understandings, and practices. Given the current anti-immigrant climate and the difficulties school systems face to meet the needs of English language learners, this component is a crucial one for teacher effectiveness, since without it good teaching will not be possible. Furthermore, in many districts good teachers are encouraged to move away from classrooms that contain language minority students, so it takes a stronger kind of motivation to keep teachers in these classes.

Teacher motivation increases with professional sharing and collegialship. Not all schools, however, have the structures that allow for real collegiality to take place. Instead time is allotted to meetings that promote "contrived collegiality" (Hargreaves, 1995).


Reflection in teaching occurs when knowledgeable practitioners try to make sense of their actions in classrooms by engaging in – among other activities – evaluating, planning, remembering, and contemplating, all of which contribute to the understanding of their work in schools. The model of teacher understanding draws from van Manen’s (1991) view of four types of reflection: anticipatory, active/interactive, recollective, and mindfulness.


Professional development always takes place within a specific context, with a particular setting and diverse participants. It is shaped by the relations that are established, and at the same time it shapes individuals within it. A collegial context in which future teachers can share their ideas and concerns with ease, and where they assist each other in the development of understandings about how to work with students, is optimal and conducive to improvement for all. In California, teachers of English language learners have been pushed and pulled by the state's political climate, and there has been a lot of resentment in schools as a result of the passing of Proposition 227. It is hard to imagine how an optimal collegial context can exist in such a climate.

How do these changes impact the professional development of teachers who work with English language learners?

As understood today, the preparation of teachers is a job that extends beyond the pre-service university experience and into and throughout a teacher's career. Not only is the knowledge base required for teaching complex and impossible to master, but knowledge is not static and keeps evolving. An information and knowledge-based society requires that teachers retool themselves continuously to meet the changing demands of their job: new and more diverse populations to address, wider and more sophisticated uses of technology, metacognitive ways of approaching learning tasks, the need to posess a deeper and more generative knowledge of the role of language in schooling and society, etc.

Socio-cultural views embed the learning process in a community of practice

Characteristics of good professional development

1. long term and focused

2. time is used creatively

3. engages teachers in indivudual and collaborative reflections on elements of their practice

4. collegial

5. builds a pedagogical repertoire and focuses on specific content knowledge