August 2012
Fostering Content-Based Instruction Through Collaboration
by Laura Schall-Leckrone and Kevin O'Connor

English learners face simultaneous pressures to master academic content through English as they develop proficiency in English (Lucas, Villegas, & Freedson-Gonzalez, 2008). This is especially pressing in Massachusetts, USA, due to a 2002 ballot initiative that replaced transitional bilingual education with mainstreaming ELs within one year, despite evidence that academic fluency takes much longer. However, this is not just a Massachusetts problem: U.S. educational policy, particularly the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation of 2001, created a national trend towards rapid EL inclusion (McClure & Cahnmann-Taylor, 2010). In addition, an increasing number of nonnative English speaking students study academic content in English in secondary schools, colleges, and universities throughout the world (Hyland, 2009).

To succeed in school, ELs must read and write academic texts in varied content areas; yet, there is no generic academic English (Hyland, 2009. Disciplines use language to construct and present knowledge in different ways (Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008). Given these factors, there are several approaches to supporting content-based language learning for mainstreamed ELs:

  • Content teachers can learn about second language learning and, specifically, how to shelter instruction.
  • ESL teachers can gain content knowledge and content certification.
  • Language specialists and content teachers may collaborate to varying degrees.

Each approach has its benefits and challenges. Content area teachers need to learn how to identify and teach the language demands of their disciplines. Conversely, ESL teachers need to become proficient in the standards, pedagogy, and discourse practices of content areas. If each discipline has a specialized knowledge-base and configures language in its own unique way, how can ESL teachers be equipped to teach ELs content-based language when it takes years of subject matter study for content specialists to learn the skills and knowledge of their field?  

Participant discussion at a 2012 TESOL annual convention session about this dilemma provides a snapshot of knowledge in the field and touches on significant theories and practices in research. (Responses have been synthesized and augmented here.) Discussion focused on these three essential questions:

  1. What strategies have you implemented that equip ESL teachers to teach content-based language?
  2. What strategies have you used to foster collaboration between content and language specialists to advance the content-based language learning of ELs?
  3. What challenges persist in identifying and teaching the language demands of the content areas for ESL teachers and content teachers?

Equipping ESL Teachers for Content-Based Instruction (CBI)

Gaining Content Knowledge
In order to prepare for CBI, ESL teachers need to become familiar with the epistemology (how content experts know), pedagogy, and discourse practices of the content area. Participants in the TESOL discussion suggested ESL teachers do so by:

  • observing content classrooms,
  • engaging in professional development including book studies with content specialists, and
  • coteaching or “pushing in” instruction in content classes.

Resources and tools that aid ESL (and content) teachers in teaching content to ELs include:

  • manipulatives,
  • realia,
  • electronic textbooks,
  • adapted readers, and
  • scaffolding approaches like the sheltered instruction observation protocol (SIOP) (Echevarría, Vogt, & Short, 2008).

Utilizing Language Expertise
Given their expertise with language, ESL teachers can analyze language and literacy skills in content standards and instruction. Then, they can develop language-based content curricula tailored to EL proficiency levels and, more specifically, craft language objectives that align with content objectives but go beyond teaching vocabulary. Such instruction ideally provides ELs with ample opportunities to interact as they engage in instruction targeted to develop discipline-specific reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills. In sum, ESL teachers can identify language demands of particular content areas and work collaboratively with content specialists to teach them.

Strategies to Foster Teacher Collaboration

Ideally, collaboration should draw on ESL and content teachers’ pooled expertise in equal measures. In reality, ESL teachers fill a spectrum of roles from serving as teacher assistants in mainstream classrooms, providing push-in or pull-out instruction, and coteaching alongside content teachers, to coaching content teachers in sheltering techniques. Engaging in genuine collaboration takes time and support; in the interim some ESL teachers may feel marginalized.  

Two key strategies that foster collaboration between content and language specialists emerged from the TESOL session:

  • Engaging in two-way observations to identify aligned content and language objectives
  • Planning together how objectives will be implemented in strategic, complementary instructional approaches.

When to Collaborate
Time to collaborate can be built into

  • workshops
  • flextime
  • professional learning communities
  • “happy hours” (or any extracurricular teacher gatherings) with incentives (food/door prizes)

Communication between content and language specialists also can be facilitated through electronic media when teachers post curriculum, lesson plans, and assessments online.

However, successful collaboration requires a shared vision and responsibility for EL learning guided by supportive school and district leadership. Status and logistical issues need to be tackled given the move in the United States toward mainstream inclusion and the largely positive and “unproblematic presentation of co-teaching as a panacea for educating ELs” (McClure & Cahnmann-Taylor, 2010, p. 101).

Equipping Content Teachers to Teach Academic Language

Challenges persist in equipping content teachers to teach academic language. Beyond addressing issues that may otherwise undermine the collaborative planning and coteaching of language and content teachers, some practical problems also must be solved. Discussion participants suggested that these include providing adequate time and sufficient ESL personnel, instructional resources, training, and administrative support to help content teachers prepare to teach ELs.

Possible Solutions
Overall, content teachers must be equipped with the orientations and skills of linguistically responsive teachers, such as

  • knowledge of language,
  • processes of second language acquisition,
  • awareness of the linguistic challenges of academic language,
  • impact of sociocultural factors on learning, and
  • willingness to examine how their own perspectives and backgrounds influence instructional practices  (Lucas, Villegas, & Freedson-Gonzalez, 2008).

ESL teachers can serve as allies and coaches to content teachers as they develop these dispositions, understandings, and skills. Similarly, content teachers can support and guide ESL teachers toward a better grasp of the knowledge, pedagogy, and discourse practices of their discipline. Ideally, all teachers might embrace roles as language teachers and share responsibility for ELs’ development of content-based language skills that are key to academic success.

Collaboration between ESL and content teachers holds the promise of boosting ELs’ academic achievement. For this promise to be realized, supports can be provided to content and language specialists alike to enable them to pool knowledge and learn from and with one another. School and district leaders can facilitate this process by promoting a shared sense of mission, establishing common meeting times, and providing material resources. When those with complementary areas of expertise together identify linguistic demands of content areas, develop and implement strategies that integrate language and content instruction, and study their efforts, knowledge of how to meet the needs of ELs will continue to advance (Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008).

We would like to thank session participants for sharing their knowledge with us, especially Francis Bailey, who reviewed this article before we submitted it.


Echevarría, J.,Vogt, M. E., & Short, D. (2008). Making content comprehensible for English learners: The SIOP model (2nd ed.). Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.

Hyland, K. (2009). Academic discourse. London: Continuum.

Lucas, T., Villegas, A. M., & Freedson-Gonzalez, M. (2008). Linguistically responsive teacher education: Preparing classroom teachers to teach English language learners. Journal of Teacher Education, 59, 361–373.

McClure, G., & Cahnmann-Taylor, M. (2010). Pushing back against push-in: ESL teacher resistance and the complexities of coteaching.  TESOL Journal, 1(1), 101–129.

Shanahan, T., & Shanahan, C. (2008). Teaching disciplinary literacy to adolescents: Rethinking content-area literacy. Harvard Educational Review, 78(1), 40–59.


Laura Schall-Leckrone is a doctoral candidate at Boston College with teaching and administrative experience with bilingual learners in U.S. public schools. Her focus is on preparing teachers and school leaders to work with ELs. She currently is studying how novice history teachers learn to teach bilingual students the language and content of history from  preservice coursework to classroom practice.

Kevin O’Connor has worked as an adult ESOL teacher and administrator for more than 15 years.  He is currently associate director at Framingham Adult ESL Plus and is pursuing a doctoral degree in curriculum and instruction at Boston College.  His focus is on preparing mainstream teachers to work effectively with ELs.