Wednesday, August 21, 2013

What is an ESOL specialist and what do they do?

I'm starting a new series here on my blog called "Putting the Pieces Together for Effective ESOL". Throughout this series, I will share information about what is going on in the ESOL world, up-to-date research, different ESOL instructional models and how you can maximize the knowledge of your ESOL Specialist to improve the quality of instruction for your English Language Learners. The intended audience for this series is mainstream teachers who work with ELLs and ESOL Specialists.

In my career, I've encountered many misconceptions about ESOL professionals and what they do, and I want to take some time to correct some of those misconceptions. An ESOL specialist can be a great resource for you and your school, if you take the time to understand what they do.

What kind of education does an ESOL specialist have?

At a minimum, an ESOL specialist must have a bachelor's degree in elementary or secondary education, teaching certification, and an endorsement by Praxis in ESOL PreK-12. In reality, most ESOL specialists have a bachelor's degree (may or may not be in education) and a master's degree in ESL Education or TESOL, and a teaching certification. Many ESOL specialists have a background in linguistics, language development or second language acquisition.

What does an ESOL specialist do?

Most ESOL specialists have a caseload of LEP students. The number in the caseload varies from state-to-state and district to district. During most of my career, I have had a caseload of about 60 students. Sometimes they have all been in one or two grades, sometimes they have spanned grades K-6 or grades 6-8.  An ESOL specialist is generally responsible for providing a certain amount of service time (often legally mandated by the state) to each student on their caseload. Specialists who span multiple grades also often have multiple levels of students in each grade level as well. This means that they are doing a separate lesson plan for each level and each grade every time they see those students. I have had as many as 7 daily lesson plans to prepare each day at times in my career.

In addition, the ESOL specialist is responsible for sending out and collecting much legally mandated paperwork, much like Special Education professionals. We do testing accommodations forms, parent permission letters, testing notices, personal education plans, and more. If our paperwork is not in order when we get audited, then our teaching license could be on the line.

ESOL programs vary widely from state to state, district to district, and even school to school. In my school district, the ESOL program format is up to the discretion of the principal. Some principals mandate co-teaching, others leave it up to the discretion of their ESOL professionals.

Whether an ESOL specialist is co-teaching or not, he or she must attend grade-level planning meetings to stay abreast on what their students are working on. In addition, he or she must also attend data meetings and collect and analyze data pertinent to the LEP subgroup.

Often, ESOL specialists also have other duties that classroom teachers do not have- such as morning and afternoon duties (busses, car riders, breakfast, etc) as well as a lunch duty. I have had years where up to 1.5 hours of my instructional day was spent doing "duty".

Much of an ESOL specialist's time is also spent providing testing accommodations during district-wide and state-wide standardized testing. The testing accommodations often require small groups of no more than 5-10 students depending on the accommodations, and often the ESOL specialist spends a substantial amount of time testing accommodated groups beyond the testing time of the rest of the school.

What do ESOL specialists know?

Your ESOL specialist is a wealth of information on second language acquisition and language development. Chances are that your average ESOL specialist is also well versed in reading strategies and interventions, as well as content-based literacy. ESOL specialists not only generally know the English language proficiency tests inside and out, but the content area tests as well.

ESOL specialista  are often familiar not only with their state's ESOL standards, but with the Language Arts standards, and often those of many of the other content areas as well.

What is an ESOL specialist's stake?

Many teachers think that ESOL teachers do not have a stake in standardized testing scores, and that is not true. When I taught at the secondary level, I was my students' Language Arts teacher of record, meaning that I was 100% responsible for whether or not my students met the state objectives, as well as their progress on their English language proficiency tests. In my years in the elementary level, I have been held equally accountable with mainstream teachers on my students' reading and math progress, as well as solely responsible for my students' English language proficiency scores and progress. If the LEP subgroup for my grade level (or school, if I am the only ESOL teacher in a school) does not meet AMAOs or AYP, I am in the spotlight. The truth is, ESOL teachers often have double or triple the stake in their students' scores as a mainstream teacher, even though they are able to spend only 10% of the time with these students.

How does the ESOL specialist speak all of those languages? Why won't he or she translate my document/conference/phone call?

The truth is, many ESOL teachers do speak more than one language (I speak 4 myself) or have been ELLs themselves, but not every ESOL specialist speaks the languages their students speak, and not every ESOL specialist is bilingual or multi-lingual. Since ESOL methodology relies primarily on scaffolded instruction in English, proficiency in another language is not required or necessary. Don't presume your ESOL teacher can translate your document or parent conference; you might be unpleasantly surprised!

Even if your ESOL specialist is bilingual, save the translation requests for emergencies. If you have parents who do not speak English, find out how to schedule a translator for conferences and do so in time. It is not your ESOL specialist's job or responsibility to do this for you OR to translate your conference/document/phone call if you fail to do so. Your ESOL specialist is paid to teach ESOL, not to translate.

As a multi-lingual ESOL specialist myself, I have often been pulled away from providing service for my students to translate, even in non-emergency situations. Let me be clear: I do not mind standing in when there is a true emergency. But it is not my job to translate every parent question or phone call that comes in in a language other than English. The district hires and pays people to do that. I do not get an additional stipend for doing this, like others do for managing the technology or serving as department chair. When it is not directly related to one of my students, it is outside the scope of my job.

Why doesn't the ESOL specialist work with me like other para-pros in the classroom?

I'm going to say this only once: Your ESOL teacher is NOT a paraprofesional. Your ESOL teacher is a professional teacher with a degree in education. Do NOT treat your ESOL Professional as a paraprofessional. Give him or her an active role in the classroom. Co-teach, co-plan, and play on one another's strengths to provide the best education for your students together.

What does an ESOL teacher teach?

In the not so distant past, most ESOL standards were focused on social and instructional language. Modern ESOL methodology has taken a turn to focusing on academic language and literacy in addition to social and instructional language, which is inherently necessary for newcomer learners.

When I was in the classroom, my language goals were aligned with content goals (CCSS, State Curriculum, etc) that my students needed to meet curriculum requirements and pass tests. I based what I taught on the data, and I focused on the language that my students needed to more successfully access the content in the areas and skills where they were lacking.

My goal is to teach the language of the content, and I choose to do this through scaffolding, teaching, and reinforcing the content in certain ways so as to emphasize the language.

I hope this has helped to dispel some of the confusion surrounding the role of an ESOL teacher. If you have additional ideas or comments, please feel free to pipe in!


  1. These are so true! I encounter these misconceptions all the time. I wish all classroom teachers knew this information about ESOL teachers!

  2. And I am only going to say this once: Do NOT treat your paraprofessionals like they are any LESS important. Paraprofessionals should have an active role in the classroom as well. They are great support not only for classroom teachers and other staff but most importantly, for the students. It is frustrating to be undermined as an educator just because they might not have a degree in education. We are all working towards doing what we can to be the best we can be for the students. Let's not undervalue the support staff.

  3. I love that she stated that the ESOL teacher is not a paraprofessional, but a co planner and co-teacher. I have been very blessed to have worked with great teachers that we co-plan and co-teach together. However, sometimes I do just walk around the class while my co-teacher is in instructing and helping in any way that I can; that works, also.

  4. I try to keep communication open with the ESOL teachers. I welcome her comments and co-teaching. I inform her of the students' success so she can also celebrate with them and me.