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Five Ways Leaders Can Support Dual Language Teachers

My former boss, principal Giselle McGee, used to tell new dual language hires: “You can take the New York City Department of Education teacher contract, and shred it. If you accept this job as a dual language teacher, you will be working far more hours than the contract states.” Giselle had seen me and my colleagues strategize, plan, teach, assess and re-evaluate our program. When she retired, she told me: “Everybody else was in planning and perfection mode. The dual language teachers were always in survival mode.” 

I couldn’t believe Giselle was acknowledging how much work it was for me and my colleagues. Giselle had been focused on making sure dual language teachers and students were treated no differently than other staff or students in the building. If dual language teachers were given extra planning time, it was because I had secured another grant to cover the cost. However, no funds from the school were ever used to alleviate some of the work dual language teachers had to do. 

With the funds I applied for, we worked on creating five programmatic supports for teachers. I couldn’t tell you which accommodation is most effective, as I believe each teacher would answer that differently. However, as a consultant, I find that the more accommodations a building leader implements, the higher their rates of  teacher retention are. So, you will want to find many ways to create teacher equity across a school.  

1. Allow for Curricular Flexibility

The first year of a dual language teacher’s life is what I call the survival year. All they are doing is creating or finding curricular supports. In English, a teacher can find lots of books on the American Revolution or Light and Energy. In French or Spanish, these resources either do not exist or are way higher than the students’ oral comprehension or reading levels. Teachers end up creating numerous resources to try to match existing curricula. When I started on a new grade, creating texts used to take me about 10 hours a week. No contract plans for 10 hours of resource creation. So, let’s talk about curricular flexibility. 

No to Translation! Yes to Adaptation!

Did you know that a bilingual person’s worst nightmare is having to translate? When you are fluent, you enjoy being able to speak, read or write in whichever language. It is extremely tedious to transfer a message into another language. I say this because I have come across countless situations where a teacher was asked to translate a read aloud or a text, sometimes even an entire workbook!

Translation is not the key to good dual language teaching. First, a direct translation of a grade-level text in English may be far too complex for a student who is learning the immersion language. Instead of translating, it is best to adapt a text so that the content is at a comprehension level or readability level that the student can approach.

When I taught  at PS 58 The Carroll School, we worked with math Exemplars. These math word problems posed real world issues and required students to make their mathematical thinking clear and detailed. I saw the word problems in English, and knew instantly that simply translating them wasn’t going to work. My students wouldn’t have the stamina to read such long paragraphs. Sometimes, the context for the math problem was one my students had not been exposed to in my immersion language. Simply translating meant I’d have to spend precious minutes explaining new vocabulary instead of teaching math. 

Finally, there was the eternal problem of no visuals at all. My language learners needed to see some visuals. So, I adapted word problems (hundreds of them!).  Here’s a general outline of how I adapted them: 

  • I use simple language. 
  • I have a visual to show context for what the word problem describes. 
  • I also have a visual glossary (not a bilingual dictionary) that shows what some words mean. 

After these adaptations, my text was about half as long as what my colleagues had in English!

Example of French Worksheet with Visuals

Go for Authentic Voices

Sometimes, a curriculum exists in English, and the district or school leader requires that the entire grade level read the same text in English and the immersion language. This approach smothers authentic voices: the voices of native Spanish or French speakers. If English is always our starting point, everything in the immersion language will be a translation or an adaptation at best.  

Recently, I’ve been working with a district in Illinois who requested a customized list that aligns French resources to their American curriculum. More specifically, they were looking for read alouds. The district did not want texts translated from English, they wanted alternative texts, many with authentic voices. Their goal is for students to be exposed to Francophone cultures and ways of thinking. 

Frontloading Instead of Pacing

One common way dual language teaching differs from monolingual teaching is that dual language teachers need to first develop students’ oral language (oracy) before teaching them to read and write. This period where teachers introduce new vocabulary and language structures around new content is called frontloading, and it takes about 1-2 weeks at the start of every unit.  

Many schools require all teachers to be on the same pacing calendar, teaching the exact same lesson at the exact same time. When the target language teacher is asked to dive into reading and writing without frontloading, students are very limited. They can only copy what the teacher writes because they cannot formulate thoughts in the immersion language yet. The pacing race results in student work that is not independent. It’s not a reflection of what they can do; it’s a reflection of what they imitate.  

One way principals can make room for oracy is by identifying which lessons in a pacing calendar aren’t imperative. For instance, when planning writing units for Forsyth, GA, I look at what skills students absolutely need to have on that grade level, and plan content objectives around those. Many times, curricula have enrichment lessons that are out of reach for non-native speakers. Shaving even 20% of those lessons makes room for quality language development activities around additional read alouds, gallery walks, class discussions, field trips, short videos, Zoom interviews, community gatherings that all support productive language growth.  

Fifth grade students taking notes while doing a gallery walk before the Meso-American Civilizations Project

2. Give Teachers Dedicated Planning Time

Quality instruction in dual language settings results from tight co-planning. There are eight ways teachers can co-plan. Some forms of co-planning are best done before the year starts or at the start of each quarter. For example, establishing a bilingual curriculum map or divvying up a unit’s lessons. Other ways of co-planning are best done on a weekly basis, such as touching base about formative assessment checklists and discussing student work.  

Grade-Level Planning as an Outline

We are in a culture of grade-level planning, which I fully support because I learned so much from Ms. Lippo, Ms, Jabs and many other teachers. When I hear dual language teachers get upset about grade-level planning, it’s because they are asked to write up lesson plans for their fellow teachers, or they receive lesson plans that they simply cannot implement for linguistic reasons. 

The goal of grade-level planning should be to create a framework. The format should be a list of weekly content objectives, but it does not need to go into greater detail.  When we co-planned at PS 58, we would decide on a week’s worth of content objectives for six components: five literacy components and math.  

Strategy-Based Teaching planning examples

Team Co-Planning
Team teaching, where two teachers share two sets of students, and yet never see them learn in the other language, involves a certain level of coordination to make sure students do not slip through the cracks. At PS 58, each dual language team was given two consecutive periods a week to co-plan in addition to the grade-level planning time. The two periods were usually a working lunch, plus a planning period where we did not have to go pick up the kids. A school in Gwinnett County gives teachers their last period and pays them an extra period after school. An aide gets the students ready for pick up.  

What should teachers discuss during these two consecutive periods? Progress and course correction. Formative assessment checklists are fabulous tools to talk about skills that need to be retaught with a different strategy. Once teachers identify high need areas, they can start creating small groups that will specifically target those students. 

Remember that this isn’t about giving the green group the same attention as the yellow group. This is about giving students equitable amounts of small group time that reflect their skills. A great series of questions to ask at the end of these co-planning sessions are: 
  • Which groups of kids are you meeting with next week?
  • Why are you meeting with them? Specifically, what skill do I need to teach differently?
  • How will you be teaching differently? What new strategies will you use with these groups? 
Individual Language Planning Time

In a dual language program, English teachers and teachers of the other language should have language goals that meet the specific needs of their students. If I am teaching in French, and my students are mostly non-native speakers, I have very different linguistic expectations than my English counterpart. Teachers need to have time to create the linguistic scaffolds that support this language growth. They’ll need to plan for vocabulary and language structures. They’ll also want to reuse language goals in their morning messages, and make specific time for social language learning during morning meetings.  

School leadership can give individual language planning time on a monthly or quarterly basis. During these designated planning times, teachers create scaffolds that support language learning and are specific to their languages and students’ proficiency levels. See examples of shared reading language goalsmath dialogue charts, and a thematic writing word wall. Making time for teachers to create these scaffolds is what fosters language growth programmatically.

3. Peek Into Peers' Classrooms 

I used to teach in a school that had two team-teaching models: 
  • In the special education integrated co-teaching (ICT) model, a general education teacher co-taught at all times of the day in the same classroom as her special education colleague. They shared one set of students. Forty percent of their students had IEPs.  
  • In the dual language co-teaching model, two teachers teach in separate classrooms. They share two sets of students. At least fifty percent of their students are language learners in one of the instructional languages.  

My ICT colleagues had the privilege of seeing each other teach every single day, and learning from each other’s approaches with students. My partner teacher and I did not. Here are two ways principals can really foster this much needed trust and alignment.  

Beginning of Year Peer Observations

When we talk about the first six weeks of school, there are three things that must happen during that timespan:  build community, teach classroom routines and iron out all of our procedures. To smooth things out in both classrooms, giving teachers even 15-20 minutes to see each other during “high traffic” times is beneficial. Think: at pick up or drop off, before a transition to the other classroom, on the way to specials, or when students get ready for independent reading.  

Instructional coaches and administrators can support their dual language teachers by being on both sides of the mirror during those observations. For example, a lunch transition in Spanish, and a lunch transition in English. Then, together with teachers, they can discuss what had been planned, and how it is implemented differently or similarly in both classrooms. More importantly, the teachers should walk away from the discussion with any necessary course corrections or positive feedback.  

End-of-Year Linguistic Reality Check

At the beginning of the year, we all say something like this: “I’d forgotten how little they were, and how much I needed to go over ____ with them.” In dual language settings, there’s another reality that we need to take into consideration: students’ linguistic continuum. Teachers forget how “low” the students are linguistically when they first enter their grade level. After a year of teaching a language, it’s difficult to remember what it was like at the very beginning.  

One way schools can really prepare teachers for this new reality is to have dual language teachers from the upper grades observe their future students in the context of their classrooms. This is best done when there are high levels of productive language being spoken, such as: during read aloud turn and talks, and guided practice for math, reading and writing.  It’s a great time to listen to students’ academic language. Teachers should also take that time to converse about students’ written work, and let the lower grade teacher show them samples of low, medium and high level students so they can have an idea of what to work on the following year.  

4. Tailor Professional Learning

Not all learning opportunities are immediately relevant. We don’t invite students to every small group; that would overwhelm and inundate them. We target our learning for them, and the same should be done for teachers. I work with districts who have very different entry requirements for their teachers. Some require teachers to be fully certified as early childhood educators with some extension in the language of instruction in the United States. Others give a transitional teaching certificate, and teachers must demonstrate that they will complete all coursework necessary to get certified.  

Most certified teachers have a good grasp of literacy. Their learning curve is steep, but their starting point is much higher up the slope than a teacher who has never taught literacy. Teaching reading and writing in a second language is not the same as teaching it in the first language. The best course of action for teachers who are totally new to elementary education is not the same as one for a certified teacher.  

 Check the Basics
  • Establish a daily schedule. 
  • Teach classroom management. 
  • Assist with classroom set up. 
  • Show which resources are used during which part of the day.  
Establish Mentorship Around Best Practices

Administrators should observe dual language teachers very soon after they start to see what their next professional learning steps are. Once identified, administrators  should introduce them to a resource person in the school who can mentor them, whom they can observe, and who will observe them weekly to provide feedback.  

Strong dual language programs have teachers who model so well it feels like they were born doing it. However, we know that exceptional modeling didn’t happen overnight. Teachers are taught how to model by observing it, identifying the key practices, and replicating them over and over again.  Strong dual language teachers are the ultimate planners because they plan for both content and language. Mentors can teach to plan in three different ways: through pre-planning for the teacher, co-planning with the teacher or checking teachers’ plans. These approaches are organized from most scaffolded mentorship to least.   

Observe with an Ear for Language Growth
Administrators need to observe for language growth. If you don’t speak the language, here are some red flags to look out for. 
  • Teacher is always speaking. 
  • Students are always quiet. 
  • Teacher only calls on those who raise their hands. 
  • Teacher always calls on the same students. 
  • Students are copying what the teacher did, instead of generating their own work. 
  • Lack of visual scaffolds. 
  • Language objectives (vocabulary and language structures) are not evident. 
  • Kids’ language has not grown.  
  • Other instructional language is spoken more than the immersion language. 

If this is what you are (or are not) hearing, then it’s time to consider professional learning around best practices specific to dual language immersion. Your teachers may be fantastic content teachers, but still need guidance on how to teach for language as well as skills and knowledge.

5. Give Program-Specific Feedback

I strongly recommend that district and building leaders attend all dual language workshops, seminars, presentations for which they are registering teachers. The most effective schools and districts I work with are those where leaders are highly involved, and understand that the best feedback they can give their teachers is feedback on specific best practices I presented (math dialogue charts, productive language goals, strategy-based teaching, flexible groupings, co-planning, staggered review, morning messages…). The teachers I work with who receive positive feedback on what I have taught them become star teachers very quickly.  

By attending professional learning opportunities, leaders show that they are invested, that they are willing to learn and adapt, and that they will help smooth out any disconnects between building or district expectations and dual language instruction.  Leaders, you are vital to your teachers’ success!

If you’re interested in learning more about webinars, please schedule a time to talk with me.  

Your partner in dual language learning,


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