Preparing Teachers to Equitably Serve ELLs in Worcester, Massachusetts

Sarah Ottow is director of the Worcester ELL Teacher Residency at the Center for Collaborative Education in Boston, Massachusetts.

Sarah Ottow describes Worcester ELL Teacher Residency and what makes it different from other teacher training programs.

The Worcester Public Schools has the largest percentage of English language learners (ELLs) of any district in Massachusetts. And, like most districts across the country, it has an insufficient number of teachers trained to teach this rapidly growing subgroup. The Worcester ELL Teacher Residency (WELLTR) – a partnership between the Worcester Public Schools, Cambridge College, and the Center for Collaborative Education – was created to address this shortage.WELLTR will graduate teachers with a master’s degree and teaching certification in English as a Second Language (ESL) in four semesters of coursework and residency hours.1 The first cohort of twenty-one residents will graduate in December 2013, and the second cohort of twenty residents started the program in summer 2013 and will graduate in August 2014.

An Emphasis on Equity and Strong Ties to the Community

Equity is a guiding principle of the program. The goal is to ensure that all ELL students in the district are prepared to succeed academically – and also that the teacher graduates have a positive impact in their classrooms, schools, and the overall district well after they complete the program. The residents all are invested in the community. The bulk of the funding for tuition comes from federal Race to the Top allocations, so that each resident receives a 72 percent reduction in tuition and, in turn, signs a contract committing to teach for three years in Worcester Public Schools. Each resident was recruited from the pool of Worcester Public School (WPS) employees. Instructional aides make up 25 percent of the two current cohorts – others are content area and special education teachers. One-quarter are ELLs themselves, and therefore have experienced first-hand the challenges of learning a new language and culture, which gives them a deep sense of empathy and urgency as educators. One resident said:

Because I was a refugee myself, I can understand ELLs’ perspectives better and understand their feelings. WELLTR gave me that chance to become an ESL teacher and help the students who are like me. I would love to be a good influence in their lives.

Learning New Strategies and Applying Them in Practice

Application of new learning is at the heart of the WELLTR program. Many residents have ELLs under their care whom they previously did not know how to reach, and they are eager to learn new ways to reach them. One resident, speaking to the reality that traditional training programs often leave content teachers underprepared to work with the ELLs in front of them every day, explained:

I wanted to join WELLTR because of my own insecurities when it comes to teaching ELL students. It pains me to watch them struggle with day-to-day tasks that so many mainstream students simply take for granted.

Under the support of a mentor teacher, residents consistently choose new strategies, based on the students’ needs and the teachers’ goals. They then practice these strategies in their classrooms and reflect on their continuous improvement. Also, residents are exposed to new strategies to add to their repertoire through coursework that requires teachers to try specific strategies and report back on them (see, for example, the list of strategies in the ​Sheltered Instruction.

For example, one high school algebra teacher resident applied two new strategies: cooperative student grouping and writing in the content area of math. Having read about and discussed the value of interaction for ELLs (and all learners), he has employed cooperative groups more intentionally in his instruction. He has noticed a higher level of engagement and higher achievement on unit assessments. He also has more time during cooperative work time to circulate and formatively assess students, compared with his previous strategy of having a more teacher-centered classroom. He also now uses writing in his math class, having learned about the need to embed all four language domains (reading, writing, listening, and speaking) in every lesson. Students are asked to write about how they solved a problem, much like a “constructed response” question on a standardized test. He uses this task to assess students’ understanding of the process they are learning (for instance, the mathematical concept of slope), as well as to build their academic vocabulary through writing.

Action Research: Addressing Real Problems, Developing Reflective Practitioners

The culminating assignment for residents is an action research project, in which residents use an inquiry cycle as a framework to examine an issue of equity in their own classroom, school, or district at large – and design a way to address it. The resident’s choice must be backed by data or other evidence proving that addressing this issue will increase equity of opportunity for ELLs. The residents must also provide empirical evidence of whether or not the improvement effort made an impact. Action research, therefore, is both a vehicle for addressing an urgent problem and a tool for creating more autonomous, reflective practitioners.

WELLTR residents are still early in the process of developing action research projects, and the work so far has shown very encouraging results. One resident, for example, tackled the issue of misclassifying ELLs as special education students:

I am frustrated about special education students and ELLs and the overall confusion between the two. Students who have been identified as having a disability may not actually have one and may be misplaced. I am trying to gather information and get answers about this issue.

This resident’s action plan includes a set of recommendations for the district special education department so that it can be more culturally and linguistically responsive and prevent further misidentification of ELLs as having learning disabilities.

In another action research project, a high school teacher is creating a “best practices toolkit” for her vocational/technical high school, for the benefit of many of the teachers who come from vocational backgrounds and may not have been formally trained in pedagogy for academic subjects. The principal and the resident plan to roll it out across the school by having collaborative discussions and perhaps collegial observations around what strategies are working for ELLs(as well as for all students).

Another resident noticed that her third-grade ELLs often stumble over words with multiple meanings (e.g., table has several definitions). She is doing some short-term studies on teaching multiple-meaning words and their impact on reading comprehension and overall vocabulary development. She is using a variety of strategies, like graphic organizers, vocabulary notebooks, and games, to make explicit vocabulary instruction part of her daily routine. So far, she has seen students’ awareness rise in recognizing multiple-meaning words, which not only increases their reading comprehension but is also helping her see the value of metacognition in general. She is also sharing this work with her grade-level team members, and they are, in turn, swapping ideas for integrating vocabulary instruction across the curriculum more intentionally.

Creating a Powerful Force for Equitable Change

The influence of WELLTR in preparing teachers will continue after teachers’ participation in the program ends. One resident shares,

WELLTR brings together a group of people who offer their teaching experiences, personality, and ideas, which, when combined with the wealth of knowledge of our professors, creates a powerful force able to bring change needed for a fair and good education system.

For more on the Center for Collaborative Education, see

1. Residency consists of 300 total hours, 150 of which are instructing ELLs. The other 150 are flexible and differentiated for each resident. For instance, 70 hours might be in support meetings with a mentor, 35 observing others, and 45 in pre-practicum coursework. Each resident has an Individualized Residency Plan, developed in collaboration with his/her mentor and WELLTR staff. Many residents surpass the 300 required hours.