Using the ELSF Guidelines for English Learners: Setting the Stage for Success

In response to Every Student Succeeds Act policies and the academic performance gap between English-proficient students and English learners, districts and schools across the country now require that professional development focuses on meeting the needs of English learners for all teachers in all content areas. Given this new reality, it makes sense that professional development will engage both language and content teachers learning how to provide language development supports in curriculum, planning, and instruction. When implemented, the ELSF math and ELA Guidelines for English Learners can play a critical role in setting the stage for this work. While this may seem daunting at first glance - especially for teachers without prior training or adequate resources to support English learners - implementing and following the Guidelines can play a key role in rolling out professional learning opportunities.

Know thyself and your staff!

One of the biggest misconceptions is that we must simplify instructional materials, core content, instruction, and assessment for our English learners; however, this practice significantly hinders students’ ability to learn language. It limits their exposure to the rich, complex language that they must engage with in order to access grade-level content and standards. The goal is to amplify (i.e. providing multiple opportunities for learning through varied modes) instruction by thoughtfully embedding scaffolds and supports throughout lessons, units, and assessments for English learners to support their conceptual, analytic, and linguistic capacities (Valdes, Kibler & Walqui, 2014).

To begin to think about goal-setting, pair what you’ve learned from “Taking the Pulse” with quantitative data to formulate your focus. Most state test score data rolls into the school during the summer months. Once you access the data, carve out time to identify areas of need so that you can form a focus area for this work. Carefully study the data to identify the content area where your English learners need the most help. Are your English Learners struggling more in math or ELA? How do their scores compare with their English-dominant peers?

Goal-setting: One elementary school’s experience

How does this goal-setting play out? School leaders from PS 182, a school in NYC where English learners comprise 38% of the student population, noticed that 2018 state ELA scores rose significantly while math scores were unsteady and needed a boost. Additionally, there was a remarkable difference between English learners and non-English learners in the percentage of students deemed proficient. As a result, the principal adjusted the school infrastructure by significantly increasing time allocated for math instruction in order to better support math. However, more time was not the only piece of the puzzle.

The assistant principal, a former ESL teacher, determined that she and the math coach would lead a Professional Learning Community (PLC) inquiry team to review the current math curriculum using the ELSF Guidelines in order to identify areas in need of improvement so that every English learner, regardless of proficiency level, had an entry point into the math content. It was her goal to fortify the curriculum in an effort to boost quality instruction for English learners and, through this process, build capacity among teachers who had limited expertise in supporting these students.

Identifying allies, stakeholders, and influencers

As you think about getting started with using the ELSF Guidelines and setting goals for improving instructional materials and teaching practices for English learners, consider the following questions:

  • Who are my allies, stakeholders, and influencers?
  • Who is going to support this work for the long haul?

What has the biggest impact on the efficacy of this work? Leadership. It’s critical to identify one or two instructional leaders who will lead this work with fidelity and regularity, and will commit to holding high expectations for teacher capacity-building and student achievement. After all, change takes time and effort. Consider your assistant principal(s), math and literacy coaches, or teacher leaders who are eager to advocate for your English learners (Cheung, Reinhardt, Stone & Little, 2018). Next, consider who will be on your Inquiry Team as you engage in this work. Who will you bring in as collaborators? Consider your language (i.e. teachers of English learners) and content teachers. What foundation does your school have for collaboration across teachers, content, and grade levels to support English learners (Honigsfeld and Dove, 2012). What might contribute to an impactful professional learning community that will entice others to join?

Voice from the field

Back at P.S. 182, the assistant principal admitted that math was not her strong suit, but she realized that it was time to jump out of her comfort zone and enter unchartered territory into a content area that made her uncomfortable, but eager to learn. In an effort to craft a small (but powerful) PLC, the assistant principal identified six teachers (with both general and special education expertise) and one math coach whom she felt had the interest, drive, and intellect with which to carry out this ambitious work.

The assistant principal held brief informal meetings with these teachers and asked them to join her journey while being transparent about her own “not-yet-mastered” knowledge of the math content. This was an important piece of setting up the PLC, as she felt teachers needed to trust that the team was learning together alongside the school administrator as well as having their content expertise in math valued.

Using ELSF’s Protocol for Introducing the Guidelines & Setting an Inquiry Focus the assistant principal jump-started this vertical team’s inquiry with a half-day professional development. Giving teachers time and space to pore over data, reflect on their own beliefs and understandings, and dig into the Guidelines was invaluable.

Next up! Your Inquiry Team has developed a what?

At P.S. 182, spending time delving into the guidelines and determining a focus area left the Inquiry team with more questions than answers. One teacher reflected: “What is mathematical rigor through language?” Another wanted to know: “How do we incorporate students’ backgrounds and experiences into math learning?” As the Inquiry Team came to agree on a focus area for their work together, it was clear that they had many of the same questions. This led to a collaborative approach to determining which of the five focus areas were of biggest urgency in their math teaching. Their next steps include fleshing out understandings of the ELSF Guidelines’ specifications related to the selected area of focus.

Stay tuned as we follow this amazing group of educators on their journey to improve their language and math teaching!


Honigsfeld, A., & Dove, M. G. (Eds.). (2012). Coteaching and other collaborative practices in the EFL/ESL classroom. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Cheung, R., Reinhardt, T., Stone, E. & Little, J.W. (2018). Defining teacher leadership: A framework. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (3), 38-44.

Valdes, G., Kibler, A., & Walqui, A. (2014). Changes in the expertise of ESL professionals: Knowledge and action in an era of new standards. Retrieved from Alexandria, VA:

Rachel Rosenbaum Mandell has dedicated the past 16 years to working with children in the NYC Department of Education. Currently, she is an assistant principal at a public elementary school in Jamaica, NY where she serves as instructional leader for 770 students, 35% of whom are English Language Learners. Prior to this role, Rachel served as an ESL teacher in East Harlem, and Midtown, Manhattan. She also worked in public relations for 3 years before diving into the world of education and spent 13 years as a volunteer for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rachel received her B.A. in Art History from the University of Pennsylvania, her M.S. in Education (TESOL) from the City College of New York, and her M.S. in Education (Educational Leadership) from Baruch College. In her free time, Rachel enjoys floral design, restaurant hopping, and spending quality time with her husband Matt and two young children, Jesse and Becca.

Felice Russell brings over 15 years of experience to ELSF as a teacher and leader educator, educational researcher, and K-12 collaborator focused on meeting the needs of K-12 English learners through teacher development and support. Having worked across multiple teacher education programs in K-12 TESOL, elementary, and secondary teacher education, as well as leadership education, Felice is dedicated to preparing and supporting teachers and instructional leaders that are committed to meeting the needs of English learners. A former K-12 teacher in Seattle and Portland (OR), Felice received her B.S. from Cornell University, her M.Ed. from Portland State University, and her Ph.D. from the University of Washington. Her teaching, research, and community engagement focus on the intersection between English learners and the general education/content classroom, family and community engagement, and equity for culturally and linguistically diverse students. She resides in Connecticut with her family.


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