Co-Teaching: A Best Practice that Benefits Emergent Bilinguals and Entire Classrooms

Colorful speech bubbles

The practice of co-teaching, in which educators collaborate on both the planning and delivery of classroom instruction, has become a popular educational model for supporting students who are in the process of learning English.

These students, known as emergent bilinguals, benefit from co-teaching arrangements that typically involve a partnership between a general education teacher and an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) specialist. 

Including these students in general education classrooms and providing them with the support of a TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) co-teacher in this context is highly preferable to the common practice of separating bilingual emergents from their peers. Taking them out of a regular classroom for rudimentary English lessons can be stigmatizing and actually set bilingual emergents back academically, according to Dafney Blanca Dabach, PhD, an education researcher and assistant professor at the University of Washington.

Dafney Blanca Dabach

“Let’s say the whole class is working on a thematic unit about science, such as butterflies and climate,” she explains. “The children getting pulled out [of class] are learning discrete grammar skills and are disconnected from the curriculum.”

In addition, staffing trends show that many of the instructors assigned to teach emergent bilinguals in separate classrooms are among the least experienced in the profession, compounding these inequities.

Kerry Soo Von Esch

The Benefits of Co-Teaching
Co-teaching tends to result in positive outcomes for all students in the classroom, including members of other underrepresented populations such as children with disabilities and gifted students. This model helps them improve their mastery of academic language, according to Kerry Soo Von Esch, an assistant professor in the College of Education at Seattle University who specializes in increasing educational equity for culturally and linguistically diverse students.

Anne Pomerantz

Anne Pomerantz, PhD, a professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, says co-teaching also provides increased adult support as all students work to cultivate soft skills such as participating in group work, taking turns in class discussion, and expressing their opinions.

Furthermore, it helps teachers improve their practice. “A lot of learning to be a teacher is about seeing the classroom through the eyes of a student,” Pomerantz says. “Having the opportunity to collaborate with someone who may see things differently or make sense of what’s happening in the classroom in different ways is incredibly helpful.” 

A Caveat
Despite the many benefits of co-teaching, it may be necessary to occasionally pull new English-language learners (ELL) students out of the classroom for separate instruction if their general education teacher is struggling to create an inclusive environment. 

“If a teacher is talking really fast, uses very few visual aids, or makes lots of references to pop culture, a newly arrived immigrant child or someone who is learning English as an additional language may feel overwhelmed and check out,” says Pomerantz. In this case, it might be a good idea for the ELL teacher to work with the student in a separate space more conducive to their needs, she says. 

Dabach’s research supports this advice. She has found that students newly arrived to the U.S. tend to interpret being pulled out of the classroom as a form of specialized assistance — as opposed to a form of stigma or punishment.— as they work to acclimate to so many new changes. 

Choosing a Co-teaching Model
Co-teaching can take many forms, and a teacher’s preferred model may depend on the physical layout of their classroom or how well they know the colleague with whom they’ll be working side by side. 

Above all else, choosing a co-teaching method should put students first. “The decision you make really has to stem from the students in the classroom — who they are and what are their specific needs,” Von Esch says.

Such needs are wide-ranging, as the emergent bilingual population in America is incredibly diverse. Although the vast majority of ELL students in the U.S. come from Spanish-speaking countries— each having their own distinctive cultures and dialects—there are also hundreds of thousands of students in American schools whose native language is Arabic or Chinese, for example. 

Emergent bilinguals can also have vastly different educational backgrounds. It may be helpful for one co-teacher to spend time observing and identifying ELLs who struggle with knowing how to self-advocate as well as those who have academic difficulties. Alternatively, if teachers are working with a group of students who are recent arrivals to the U.S., a team-teaching model — described below — can be a good way to build a sense of community and group rapport. 

Standard Co-Teaching Strategies

One teaches, one observes
With this approach, the observing teacher collects evidence of student learning to inform future instruction. In this model, it’s important for the language specialist and the general education teacher to take turns observing and instructing to ensure that the relationship is truly collaborative and that they maintain equal authority over the class, according to Pomerantz. 

One teaches, one assists
This strategy allows students who are struggling with course content to receive individualized attention. As with the previous approach, it’s important to rotate roles as the leader and the assistant to maintain an authentic co-teaching relationship, according to a 2019 Edutopia article by Sean Cassel, assistant principal and supervisor of instruction at Lenape Regional High School in New Jersey.  

Parallel teaching
This technique allows both teachers to instruct a smaller group of students by dividing the class. While this requires more planning and also necessitates that both teachers have a certain degree of content knowledge, research indicates that small-group instruction can help struggling learners, according to Cassel. “More students have the opportunity to ask questions throughout the process than they would in a larger group,” he writes.

Station teaching
With stations, small groups of students rotate between teachers who lead instruction in specific content areas. Cassel says one benefit of stations is that teachers can choose subjects or instructional modes that suit their individual strengths.

Alternative teaching
This technique allows one instructor to lead the majority of students while the co-teacher works with a group of bilingual emergents. Although this method helps close instructional gaps for students who need language assistance, it takes careful coordination to ensure they don’t miss out on new content.

Team teaching
This strategy allows both teachers to “tag team” in front of the class when it comes to instruction. It can be highly engaging for students, as they have the benefit of interacting with two adult leaders who bring different perspectives and communication styles; however, it requires a strong bond between co-teachers that can sometimes take considerable time and experience to develop.

Balancing classroom authority

When it comes to co-teaching — especially in a team-teaching model.— maintaining an even power dynamic can be difficult if one instructor has more experience or seniority than the other, according to Von Esch. This situation poses a barrier to the ideal of a fully collaborative relationship where both professionals have equal influence.

Another issue to bear in mind, she says, is the fact that general education teachers are sometimes viewed as having greater authority than specialists like ELL educators. It’s important that students see both as leaders, says Von Esch, adding that it can be helpful to integrate “teacher timeouts” during lessons or set aside time while students are doing group work to confer with one another. 

In terms of pairing co-teachers, Pomerantz says it’s not always easy to predict who will work well together. “Giving teachers some voice in the pairing process is helpful,” she says. “It acknowledges their expertise, their role, and their authority.”ν

Ginger O’Donnell is the assistant editor of DiversityIS.