February 2021
Quick Tip: 2 Strategies to Help Content Teachers Embrace the Role of Language Teacher
by Adam V. Agostinelli and Patrick McQuillan

Many content teachers feel neither qualified, nor able, to meet the needs of multilingual learners (MLs). We experienced this phenomenon in a history methods course for preservice teachers when, after a lesson on creating language objectives for MLs, one student commented, “I am not qualified to do this.…I don’t even speak a lick of Spanish.”

Jimenez and Rose (2010) believe that teachers expressing such uncertainty should not be held accountable for their reticence to embrace the role of language teacher, as “we still need to know more concerning what baseline knowledge and understandings prospective teachers bring with them” (p. 404) and how this baseline knowledge may pose difficulties for teachers. However, when teacher educators encounter such situations, practical strategies can help prospective teachers embrace this role.

Dr. Maria Brisk (2020, personal correspondence), a renowned TESOL scholar, notes that when presented with such comments, instructors should “push back as soon as possible.” She offered two strategies for doing so.

1. Cite Statistics

Share statistics with your preservice teachers that reveal almost all new teachers will have MLs in their class at some point in their career. For example, telling them that more than 10% of all public school students in the United States are MLs, or presenting them with the exact percentage of MLs in their state, can have a great impact (U.S. Department of Education, 2020). Presenting content teachers who have limited ML teaching experience with hard statistics can help guide them to embrace the role of language teacher.

2. Try “Language Shock Lessons”

In language shock lessons, students

  • encounter culturally distant historical texts,
  • are taught a history lesson in a foreign language, or

  • are assigned to interview an ML about their home county’s history.

Dr. Brisk sees language shock lessons as a way to help inexperienced teachers build empathy for MLs by “dispelling harmful attitudes and inaccurate stereotypes” (Jimenez & Rose, 2010, p. 405), which preservice teachers may hold. As Jimenez and Rose (2010) maintain, the more positive experiences preservice teachers have with MLs and their linguistic communities, the more likely they will be to “identify with the struggles and strengths of their students” (p. 404). Such lessons also represent opportunities for teachers possessing the technical knowledge to teach MLs (i.e., a toolbox of language-focused activities) to truly embrace the role of language teacher at emotional as well as intellectual levels.

In practice, these suggestions complement one another: The statistics set a context for understanding the nature of the challenge—it’s not going away. You will need to deal with this matter. The suggested activities offer teachers strategies for building empathy with MLs, to see them not as foreign and different, but as very real people, with genuine needs and interests, a far better attitude to bring to one’s classroom teaching than seeing MLs as an insurmountable challenge.


Jimenez, R. T., & Rose, B. C. (2010). Knowing how to know: Building meaningful relationships through instruction that meets the needs of students learning English. Journal of Teacher Education, 61(5), 403–412.

U.S. Department of Education. Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics. (2020) English language learners in public schools. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cgf.asp

Adam V. Agostinelli spent the past decade teaching English in the United States and Korea in both K–12 and higher education settings. His passion for teaching has led to an interest in researching and writing about language education in international contexts. He is currently pursuing a PhD in education from Boston College.

Patrick McQuillan, an associate professor in the Lynch School of Education & Human Development at Boston College, has a PhD in cultural anthropology from Brown University. He teaches courses on curriculum theories, qualitative research, and history methods. His research focuses on educational change examined through the lens of complexity theory.