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Evaluating Using a "Language Lens"

Posted by Sarah Ottow on

We know that our ELLs need to accelerate their academic language growth in all classrooms, whether we support elementary classroom teachers, secondary content teachers, or K-12 specialists.  Yet what actionable data do teachers need in order make this happen effectively and efficiently? How do we coach and evaluate to improve academic language production for ELLs? To achieve immediate results for students, coaches and evaluators can follow these three steps in observation and feedback cycles. First, have a “language lens” when observing.  Second, provide actionable data from your observation.  Finally, provide a concrete next step for lesson design going forward more focused on language use in the classroom.


1. The Language Lens

When going in a classroom to observe and support any teacher of English learners, we must look through a “language lens.” This language lens reminds us that the content standards should never be “watered down” for ELLs. Content should be rigorous, language-rich and appropriately scaffolded. Lessons should be relevant and engaging. ELLs should be using all domains of language (reading, writing, listening, and speaking). Our language lens reminds us to consider the quality and quantity of language that students are processing and producing. ELLs cannot be expected to improve their English if they are not using it meaningfully and often in every classroom. Likewise, teachers cannot be expected to provide this kind of language-rich instruction if we don’t explicitly support their development to do so.

Recently when I was supporting a school leader in an evaluation, we conducted a drop-in observation of an 8th grade teacher. Here are my notes. During the 35 minute observation, I collected data of how many times students actually produced spoken English, which came to 15 brief instances that students spoke aloud. In all, out of the 35 minutes observed, 5 minutes comprised of student talk. The remaining 30 minutes were teacher talk. I also noted the levels of academic language at play (word/phrase level, sentence level, and discourse level, as defined by the WIDA Consortium).  By collecting data through this “language lens”, we could see the quantity and quality of the language spoken by the students during this lesson.

2. Actionable Data

Coaching and evaluation data is only useful when teachers can act upon to get better. In analyzing my observation data, we could see that students were speaking only 5 out of 35 minutes, or 14% of the time observed. Plus, we found that mostly students were producing language at the word/phrase level. In other words, students were not using a lot of sentences or extended discourse, but they were speaking mainly one word or one short phrases at a time. We knew that this was not the intention of the teacher, yet this is the story the data told. We decided that an immediate action step for the teacher would be to increase student oral language production in general and, in doing so, provide more opportunities for students to produce more than just single words and phrases. We also decided that we needed to support the teacher in more intentional lesson design to make this happen. The teacher needed to take stock of instructional tasks for students and what specific language supports allowed them to produce richer language.

Please note: This lesson was taught by an ESL teacher for ELLs at the beginning levels of English language development (ELD Levels 1-2). Some may ask, Aren’t these ELLs just beginning, thus only able to speak small amounts of English?  The answer is resoundingly No. Even beginners, under supportive learning conditions and with the guidance of a skilled and caring teacher, can produce spoken (and written) language beyond the word/phrase level. Not only can beginning ELLs use academic language in sentences and extended discourse, but we, as leaders, should be facilitating this growth to happen. Leaders can ensure that teachers of ELLs plan for meaningful tasks and appropriate language supports in classrooms that promote risk-taking and a growth mindset. We should never “cap” students at a current ELD level; we should consistently be nurturing and nudging them go slightly beyond their zone of proximal development to increase their language development (Krashen, 1981).

3. Language-Focused Lesson Design

To prepare for the post-observation conference with the teacher, the school leader planned to first focus on the data then the action needed to make immediate changes. We practiced coaching questions like, “What do you notice about this data?” “What this was you intended?” “How do you wish for your students to take ownership of their language and their learning in general?”  “What will that look like and sound like?” The conversation would then lead to the action step of lesson design and delivery with a more intentional language lens. I shared a tool for analyzing the domains of language that teachers and coaches use for lesson design and delivery. We know teachers shouldn’t require students to solely listen for long amounts of time but should plan for rich reading, writing and speaking tasks as well. ELLs need this and all students benefit as well (remember, too, that CCSS shifts call for more oral language usage, reading complex texts and writing across the curriculum).

Granted, additional training and coaching on academic language is needed with this teacher to make the gains we want. However, this three step process is a starting point for this leader developing his “language lens” for evaluating teachers of ELLs. By supporting teacher development in this way, leaders are more likely to ensure specific shifts in practice that matter for students. Shift by shift, we can improve outcomes for ELLs. It’s what our students deserve.

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