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Epiphany: Co-teaching is NOT a Panacea

Arguing in my head has led to a lot of Aha moments in my life, but I just had one that takes the cake. Often I have seen it argued that we are assuming that our students are dumb because they cannot complete the work because of their language level. However, it’s not that the students are incapable of the higher level thinking, they cannot do the work because we are incapable of teaching those skills at their level. Either we cannot teach the content through the higher level thinking in their home languages, as this would be an incredible stretch to attempt, or we cannot teach thinking skills such as deconstructing an argument or analyzing biases without complex language. Again, this isn’t to say that it is impossible for these students to learn these skills and content, I am simply saying that with our current resources, both human and material, we cannot reach these desired goals.

This has and continues to be the biggest problem to be solved in my current position and in most school districts without sheltered instruction programs or language immersion programs. How do you reconcile having a curriculum designed for a particular set of students and still aim that teaching at an entirely different population? One educational fix to this problem is co-teaching, where the content teacher shares their classroom with an EL specialist. Co-teaching was originally designed to assist and mentor future teachers, not assist students. It is only recently that co-teaching has been coopted by schools to be applied with SPED and EL students. While co-teaching can have great benefits for students who are in the higher levels of EL, which numerous studies have shown, it doesn’t work for students for whom the curriculum is absolutely unobtainable due to reading abilities, lack of translations, lack of background information, level of listening comprehension (which as a side note I’d like to make the point that all classes taught, ESPECIALLY math are taught in English. Math is not just numbers on the board.), and many other factors that play into language learning and abilities.

One argument for not having a structured sheltered program in place is that the students are not “exposed” to the language. However, as Nation (2013) and many others have clearly stated, exposure alone is not enough, and even if it is, it is not fast enough to get these students where they need to be. Case in point is people who come to this country, work in an all English speaking location, and still never acquire the language to a college level degree of proficiency. They eventually can understand English and can usually communicate well in English after some time; however, their gains are nowhere near that of those who are in intensive, focused English courses, especially courses aimed at content knowledge.

As an EL co-teacher, it’s my job to go through the content and determine proper scaffolds based on the linguistic needs of the students we are serving. When every part of the curriculum needs to be scaffolded, this simply doesn’t work.

So I guess to sum everything up into one idea, my epiphany has just driven me further into the stance that we need a diverse set of instructional methods of our students including co-teaching, entry-level English language courses, and sheltered instruction for those students who are between newcomer status and proficient enough for co-taught only courses.

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