TESOL Connections

9 Ways to Support ELs in 2021: How Leadership Enacted Teachers' Recommendations

by Marisa Ferraro

In Part 1 of this series, we learned about a study of nearly 2,000 teachers' recommendations, which revealed nine categories that call for a shift in how leadership plans for collaboration and allocates resources. In this follow-up, we learn how leadership in one district enacted those recommendations, along with what you can do in your own context to "privilege teachers' voices." 

In my January 2021 piece, “9 Ways to Support ELs in 2021: Privileging Teachers’ Voices,” I enumerated nine ways educational leadership could support, promote, and ensure equitable initiatives by centering emergent bilingual students in the design and delivery of instruction. I shared an analysis of nearly 2,000 educators that had been surveyed directly following a series of sheltered instruction workshops (Echevarria & Graves, 2014). Participants recorded what they could do in their own classrooms and what they needed from their school and district administration to support these steps. The recordings were analyzed, synthesized, and categorized, resulting in 54 clear, concise recommendations for administrators.

Support from leadership at both the building and district level must be a prerequisite in order for teachers to practice the kinds of pedagogies that research has proven effective for emergent bilinguals. Just as teachers play pivotal roles in conceiving educational reform, administrators are responsible for creating learning environments that are conducive to such change. Implementing newly learned sheltered pedagogies takes time and human resources. Teachers highlighted supports needed to make the workshop to implementation cycle sustainable throughout the district. Organizational support for the pedagogies that equitably educate emergent bilingual students is necessary in order to enact the practices in the classroom.

Heeding the Call Through Actions

Since the analysis of teachers’ recommendations, I had the opportunity to chat, albeit virtually, with district leadership. That is, the administrative leadership from the very same school district, (herein referred to as the District), in which the nine areas of recommendation originated. Cynthia Manifold, Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment for Grades Pre-K–6, and Monica Lahiri-Hoherchak, Coordinator of K–12 English Learners (ELs), spoke with me. Having served as a K–5 classroom teacher, reading interventionist, and English as a second language (ESL) specialist, Cynthia currently works with administrators and teachers to deliberately choose instructional strategies to make content comprehensible. Monica oversees a team of approximately 100 EL professionals and EL programs ranging from new arrivals centers, bilingual, ESL, and native language support.

Specifically, I wanted to know how the leadership had responded to the teachers’ requests. Had they enacted any of the recommendations? The goal of sharing the data was to prompt district change around policies and practices for ELs. Cynthia and Monica took time to share how the District has made efforts to privilege their teachers’ voices:

1. How to Plan, Revise Curriculum (34%)

Collaboration is key to curricular planning. Curricular flexibility is conducive for interdisciplinary exploration of ideas. Finding time for teachers to collaborate in lesson design, planning, and revising is critical to the success of every student, and, I’d argue, teacher.

What They Did
In subsequent professional development (PD) workshops, teachers were afforded the opportunity to meet in small groups or one-on-one with instructional coaches. The notion of a dedicated time for teachers to elicit feedback from instructional coaches specializing in sheltered instruction was born from the educators’ recommendations at the end of the initial 10-hour workshops. Time was embedded for lesson planning, alongside coaches, for designated teachers who engaged in 45 hours of PD. Instructional coaches coplanned and codelivered lessons, modeling effective instruction for ELs. This more advanced workshop focused on applying new learnings into the practice of pedagogy. Additionally, ESL teachers are included in grade-level interdisciplinary team meetings so they can partner with grade-level teachers to share information about emergent bilingual students.

What You Can Do
Earmark one staff meeting a month for teachers to come together to modify and revise curriculum for ELs. In curriculum mapping sessions, encourage alignment of interdisciplinary themes across grades. Ensure curriculum delivered by ESL teachers is consistent with curriculum delivered in grade level, mainstream classrooms. Include ESL teachers in every school curriculum committee, and provide funding for curricular resources, such as modified texts.

2. How to Allocate Resources (17%)

Sharing resources is paramount when it comes to modifying lessons for emergent bilinguals, as the process is labor intensive. Centralizing files for teacher-made modifications is critical. Resources having to do with funding also need to be examined to ensure they are going to the proper places of need.

What They Did
Online folders were created throughout the District for Grades K–12 so that teachers could voluntarily upload accommodations and amplifications of concepts, meeting grade-specific standards, and share with colleagues. When it comes to funding, schools throughout the District receive monetary allocation for each EL student from the District. This is in addition to their allotment per pupil on each school’s budget to ensure equitable funding per student. Principals earmarked money to directly benefit ELs within the school, perhaps for instructional materials, textbooks, bilingual children’s books, as recommended from the EL specialists.

What You Can Do
Encourage educators to create and leverage resources like this online library, EL Curriculum Library, which consists of more than 350 modified, K–12, curriculum units. Examine funding-related resources to ensure they are going where they are most needed.

3. How to Cultivate Communities (11%)

Attention and dedication to cultivating communities can strengthen partnerships. The term “community” was used in several contexts throughout the teachers’ recommendations: community within the classroom by enacting culturally responsive pedagogies, community within the school by valuing difference and diversity, and community in the neighborhood by cultivating relationships with local nonprofits and youth-based organizations. These kaleidoscoping communities can offer layers of support to teachers and students at the epicenter.

What They Did
The instructional coaches facilitated role-play experiences in a fish bowl activity to model effective practices, to offer helpful ways principals provide feedback, and to problematize the teacher evaluation system. The District included instructional specialists for ELs (TESOL or bilingual education certified) in grade-level meetings and focus walks with administrators to maintain an objective lens. Experts in sheltered instruction helped guide conversations with leadership in highlighting pedagogies that may be beneficial for ELs that perhaps would have been overlooked.

What You Can Do
To alleviate the stress of finding child care, translators, and/or transportation to and from school for parent/teacher conferences, consider partnering with your local community-based organizations (CBOs) who can provide such services, likely free of charge. Or, given our new ways of coming together online, inquire if the local CBOs can host a virtual meeting with translations provided. Several CBOs in my geographical area have gone above and beyond to put together questions to ask during parent/teacher conferences so parents understand family/school partnerships in our American eduscape.

4. How to Support and Trust Teachers (9%)

Teachers are change agents. They are often underpaid and woefully overworked. School leadership that supports teachers by respecting their time and contributions fosters intrinsic community investment. Providing and protecting teachers’ planning and collaboration time will pay dividends throughout the year.

What They Did
They organized teachers’ schedules with flexibility to observe teachers in their own school, voluntarily. A module in the PD I delivered addressed peer coaching, building capacity within districts where teachers learned how to use the 2 + 2 model of peer feedback (Allen & LeBlanc, 2005).

What You Can Do
Invite teachers to use the 2 + 2 peer performance appraisal model (Allen & LeBlanc, 2005) in your own school. Teachers find it incredibly empowering. Teachers who voluntarily agree visit one classroom per week, observing other teachers for 15–20 minutes. The observing teacher records two compliments and two suggestions. Both teachers may discuss the feedback at a later date, but this is not a requirement of the model. Collegial communities are most effective when given agency and independence to grow, authentically. Be sure to allow teachers common planning time.

5. How to Reconsider Assessment (7%)

Teachers are frequently asked to submit evidence of student learning to demonstrate students’ growth over time. This can be challenging for ELs as the default language of assessments is English. So what, then, are some ways we can more accurately assess learning?

What They Did
An entire module of PD, 2.5 hours, was dedicated to assessment, to include a detailed walk-through of linguistic assessments as well as alternative assessments (e.g., portfolio-based assessments). To differentiate language learning from content learning, teachers offered students two grades: one to reflect understanding of content and concept while the other reflects acquisition and use of academic language. Administrators now include a checklist of sheltered strategies, specific to ELs, on walk-throughs, to ensure teachers are differentiating cognitively and linguistically.

What You Can Do
In addition to standardized assessments, consider portfolio-based assessments, which may effectively document growth over time for your ELs. I invite you to have students include writing in their native language, when possible, as well as the students’ reflection of their work. Consider ways in which ELs can accomplish the grade-level standards through multimodal demonstrations (e.g. graphic narratives).

6. How to Rethink Instruction (6%)

Sheltered instruction calls for a shift in how teachers deliver lessons and how background knowledge is cultivated.

What They Did
The District received grants to provide teachers a stipend to create modified materials during summer institutes. I provided PD around summer school hours, within the same building. Within such a model, instructional coaches model and codeliver lessons to summer school students, working with small cadres of teachers to lesson plan and provide daily feedback.

What You Can Do
No longer can we rely on oral language to remind students about previous concepts or build background to warm up to new understandings. Consider flipping the instructional sequence:

    • Rather than: talking → reading → doing activity
    • Try: doing activity → talking, learning the academic language in context and concert with activity → reading and writing

Language learners benefit from intentional oral language development prior to moving to text, receptively (reading) or productively (writing). Highlight a new sheltered strategy each week by posting samples in highly visible spaces throughout the school or in shared Google classroom folders.

7. How to Make Students Visible (5%)

In order to make students visible, educators should be familiar with the diversities of countries, cultures, and languages represented throughout the world.

What They Did
Several advanced PD modules addressed linguistic differences through contrastive analyses, comparing ELs’ native languages to English. Such knowledge illuminated teachers’ understanding of anticipated challenges in learning, speaking, writing, and reading academic English. Every teacher received a brief overview of 20 languages most commonly spoken by ELs in the state: Country Culture Cards. These country culture cards are intended to provide teachers with a snapshot of cultural and linguistic differences. Embedded in these discussions were suggestions for further problematizing learning differences and language differences.

What You Can Do
Download the Country Culture Cards for every educator in your school. Dedicate one faculty meeting per month to sharing information about ELs or newly arrived students. Request PD workshops around culturally responsive instruction. Assign newcomer students to a buddy, who act as school ambassadors.

8. How to Streamline Identification and Placement of ELs (5%)

In order to help make dual language visible in our communities, we must disseminate student information in a timely fashion, to include home country, language and English language proficiency.

What They Did
At the beginning of my PD relationship with the District, the general education teachers in mainstream classrooms were unfamiliar with state-mandated, annual linguistic assessments. In an effort to efficiently share student information of identified ELs to teachers, the District required that a) all educators, including administrators, completed 2.5 hours of PD about the content and structure of linguistic assessments which I designed and delivered and b) all students’ scores were accessible to every educator, via a protected, shared platform. Previously, only the ESL teachers had access to this information, which is critical to lesson planning and differentiation of sheltered strategies.

What You Can Do
Reevaluate identification protocol, ensure appropriate language support program placement, and continue to monitor ELs after they exit program. Disseminate student information directly to teachers, before the academic year begins, when possible. Create markers on your student database to denote EL status as well as English proficiency levels, as indicated by standardized linguistic assessments.

9. How to Partner With Families (3%)

Symbiotic relationships between schools and families are at the core of student success. To effectively support all learners in the schools, the holistic needs of the family must be prioritized.

What They Did
They invited family and caretakers into the classroom as guest readers and partnered with local businesses to create real-world skill-building opportunities and job networking to prepare high school students for life outside the classroom.

What You Can Do
Host English courses for adults at the school during the evening hours. Consider a family resource room within your school as a site for families, students, and educators to come together and plan appreciation events, like Diversity Day. Use images and heuristics to clarify meaning and convey student performance in parent teacher conferences.

A Model for Districts Moving Forward

Educators are well aware of the kind of work that goes into moving an entire district forward in their approach to educating ELs. I find it isn’t about answering the “What needs to be done?” question as much as it is providing a space to protect and preserve this work. As a community of leaders, it is imperative we reconsider the ways we support our teachers to meet the needs of emergent bilingual students. Sheltered strategies take time to plan, to design, and to deliver. Educating the multiple diversities represented in all our students calls for an open-mindedness, a fluidity, and flexibility to embrace opportunity and rethink the ways we prepare, protect, and provide teachers with support.

Ensuring equitable access to rich, meaningful curriculum demands that we problematize the ways in which we come together, unified in our approach to meet every student’s need. Though teachers play pivotal roles in enacting change, leaders are critical components in endorsing policy that supports such change. To recast a word repeated throughout 2020, it’s time to pivot into 2021.


Allen, D. W., & LeBlanc, A. C. (2005). Collaborative peer coaching that improves instruction: The 2+2 performance appraisal model. Corwin Press.

Echevarria, J., & Graves, A. (2014). Sheltered content instruction: Teaching English learners with diverse abilities (5th ed.). Allyn & Bacon.

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Marisa Ferraro is an assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Learning at Southern Connecticut State University. Her research examines school discourses that create highly engaged practices that reimagine learners’ classroom identities for social and cultural participation. She works closely with teachers and administrators to support the education of emergent bilingual students by problematizing the inequities and challenges of educational systems.

Quick Tip: 2 Strategies to Help Content Teachers Embrace the Role of Language Teacher

by Adam V. Agostinelli and Patrick McQuillan

A conversation with Dr. Maria Brisk sheds light on two ways—and several activities—that can help teacher educators show their reticent preservice teacher students that all teachers are language teachers. These strategies help preservice teachers build empathy for multilingual learners and build confidence in their own ability to teach them. 

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.

From the President: The Strength of Community

by Deborah J. Short

TESOL President Deborah J. Short considers the definition of community in several different contexts. What is a community? What is a community of practice? She reflects on how over the past year the TESOL community has engaged, supported, and thrived as all members worked toward common goals. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about community lately. How we have forged a strong TESOL community and pitched in to support one another during this past year of crisis. How our personal and professional lives have expanded with virtual communities and how enriched we are as a result of those connections. I’m reminded of the sixth principle in our The 6 Principles for Exemplary Teaching of English Learners: Engage and collaborate within a community of practice.

What is a community? A community is a group of organisms of the same or diverse species that share a common or overlapping interest and assume different or complementary roles in furthering their mutual goals or objectives.

A community can be a simple symbiotic relationship, as between a cattle egret and water buffalo where each provides a service to the other. The egret keeps the water buffalo free of pests and the buffalo provides a sustained source of food for the bird. Or a community can be a highly specialized society within a single species, as in honey bees, with discrete roles and sophisticated systems of communication. A community can also be a football team with players having varied and flexible positions that allow them to work as a unit to achieve a single objective. What all these types of communities share is having a number of individuals working in different roles for a common goal.

Can you envision yourself in each of these three types, depending on the context? I expect you can. But let’s take this one step further and reflect on a community of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991)—defined for our purposes as a group of educators who engage in a process of collective learning as they practice their profession by sharing knowledge, resources, and experiences, and who build relationships to strengthen their collaborative efforts toward common goals.

We know that in 2020, our common goals were multifaceted:

  • the physical and mental health and safety of our students, colleagues, family, and friends

  • job, food, and housing security for ourselves and others we care for

  • the development of skills to use distance learning platforms and online communication tools effectively

  • the successful delivery of English language instruction during a pandemic

We worked collaboratively in many ways and made progress toward these goals.

What will our common goals be over this next year? How will we organize our English language teaching (ELT) communities of practice?

As most of the world’s population gets vaccinated, we will return to more face-to-face schooling and professional learning events. Yet we won’t cease all virtual opportunities. Within our TESOL communities of practice, we’ll continue our year-round connections with online chats, book clubs, e-groups, and courses. Our upcoming webinar on 6 February, “Oral History, Odyssey, and Identity in English Language Teaching,” honors Black History month in the United States and may give you insights into an unfamiliar linguaculture. Those who attend our upcoming TESOL Virtual Convention on 24–27 March 2021 will join a new global community as well.

As travel opens up and visa bans are lifted, our international students can return to their universities, and our colleagues can take up visiting fellowships and other academic positions. We’ll start to plan and participate in hybrid conferences and blended learning sessions, while our TESOL connections continue to take us around the world.

Mahatma Gandhi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” We all felt somewhat lost in the chaos of 2020, yet we continued to serve. This year, 2021, promises to be better. We will show that we truly are highly specialized, flexible, and competent ELT individuals who will continue to make a difference in our communities of practice, and, consequently, we will achieve our goals.


Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge University Press.

Biography.com. (2014). 15 inspiring Gandhi quotes. https://www.biography.com/news/gandhi-quotes

Deborah J. Short, PhD, is TESOL International Association president (2020–2021). She directs Academic Language Research & Training, LLC and provides professional development on academic literacy, content-based ESL, and sheltered instruction worldwide. She has led numerous research projects related to English learner education, codeveloped the SIOP Model, and served as series editor for several 6 Principles books.

"Arguing to Learn": 4 Activities to Build Complex Arguments

by Susanne Rizzo, Mariah Fairley, and Alissa Nostas
To develop your students' critical thinking skills, writing competency, and concept understanding, try the "Arguing to Learn" framework.

Argumentation is important for improving writing competency and in developing critical thinking skills, deepening concept understanding, and promoting conceptual change (Jonassen & Kim, 2010). “Arguing to learn” is a dialectic approach to argumentation in which students explore, collaborate, discuss, and write, developing an understanding of the complexities and nuances of the issues (Jonassen & Kim, 2010; Kuhn et al., 2016). This approach, which can be taught separately or in conjunction with the more traditional “learning to argue” approach, has been shown to encourage the production of richer, more complex arguments and deeper understanding of content (Chinn & Clark, 2013) as well as the ability to apply argument skills to new contexts (Reznitskaya et al., 2001).

“Arguing to Learn” Framework

A “learning to argue” approach and its primary written output, the traditional argumentative essay, focus on defending a position and winning, while the “arguing to learn” approach emphasizes taking the strongest pieces of evidence from various perspectives and creating a solution. The “arguing to learn” framework that we use in our high-intermediate and advanced level classrooms has students do the following:

  • Explore perspectives about an issue by identifying what researchers are saying about the topic, its main arguments, and how these arguments are supported.

  • Collaborate with each other by listening to differing perspectives.

  • Discuss the perspectives, seeking to understand clearly the various arguments related to the issue.

  • Analyze evidence by examining the various positions and evaluating the strength of each claim.

  • Synthesize the arguments presented.

  • Build consensus and generate solutions.

(adapted from Ellozy, 2016)

This framework acts as a guide, helping us to select possible activities to do in class that will build students’ skills. However, what we choose to focus on is ultimately determined by student need.

Introducing “Arguing to Learn” to Students

As with any approach or framework being introduced to students, it is usually a good idea to explain to students what it is and, most important, why we are using it. We have found that the following ideas are helpful to convey to students about “arguing to learn”—whether elicited from students in some way or through direct explanation.

  • The term argumentation does not mean we are fighting with one another, convincing someone of our opinion, or trying to win an argument.

  • Argumentation is about asking meaningful questions, exploring lines of reasoning, sharing and discussing ideas, gathering and analyzing evidence, and generating new knowledge and understanding. Ultimately, we seek to understand complex issues more deeply, which, in turn, can equip us to solve problems more effectively.

  • It is more helpful to think of argumentation as “collective knowledge building” (Chinn & Clark, 2013) that contributes to an ongoing conversation. We need to recognize the complexity of issues—that issues are nuanced and multifaceted rather than binary “either-or” choices. When we think of issues and argumentation in this way, we are able to learn much more and develop a range of skills that will help us later on in our studies, careers, and life. These skills include teamwork, researching issues, analyzing evidence, actively listening, making connections, synthesizing information, building consensus, and solving problems.


After introducing the “arguing to learn” approach to our students, we move to activities. We have selected the following four activities, each of which targets some of the elements of the framework, and which we have found to be particularly successful with our students. Also included at the end of the article are materials for the Structured Academic Controversy (SAC; Jacobs, 2010), a cooperative learning technique which we have used in our classroom and which helps students to investigate more thoroughly the multiple perspectives of controversial issues and to develop the skills in the “arguing to learn” framework more extensively.

Activity 1: Language for Nuanced Claims

In this activity, students collaborate to explore how hedging language enhances arguments and provides space for dialogue. Have students first look at a prompt with claims written with and without hedging language to identify the difference between them.

For example, with the prompt, Can intercultural marriage succeed?, ask students to look at the two claims and spot the differences in terms of language:

  • Intercultural marriage never works out because the couple will always fight over differences.

  • Intercultural marriage can be successful if the couple develops their communication skills and is willing to make compromises.

Students should notice the difference between the absolute language (never, always) and hedging language (can) and how it affects the argument. More examples can be offered.

The next stage is to provide students with several more examples of claims that use absolute language. Have students discuss the claim and how far they agree or disagree with it and then work in pairs to rewrite the claims using hedging language. Have the pairs then compare the original and rewritten claims in terms of effect on the reader. End with a whole class discussion of what effect absolute and hedging language has on claims being made, leading to an understanding that hedging language promotes dialogue and further inquiry. As an extension to the activity, students could look for their own examples of absolute and hedging language and explain to others the effect.

Activity 2: Argument Analysis

In this activity, students identify and analyze the claims and evidence of arguments. They also examine the language being used.

In groups, have students select an opinion piece (e.g., article, podcast, video clip) on a topic of interest to them and identify the claims being made and evidence provided for those claims. They may choose to highlight these in two separate colors or list them in two columns. Then, have them discuss the following:

  • What is the author trying to say about the issue? What is their position on the issue?

  • What kind of claims are being made?

  • What kind of language is being used to make the claims?

  • How strong is the evidence being provided? (Consider the sources it is based on and the credibility of the evidence.)

  • What kind of language is being used to support the claims?

  • What questions, concerns, doubts, and considerations do you still have about this issue?

End with a whole class discussion to share insights about what students have learned. As an extension to this activity, students can discuss the same set of questions when engaged in peer review discussions of one another’s essays.

Activities 3 and 4: Developing an Informed, Nuanced Position

The following two activities build on one another to help students learn to develop an informed, nuanced position, as well as build consensus and generate solutions.

Activity 3: Role-Play Activity

Divide students into groups and have each group select a character from a film that presents various perspectives. In our class, we have used The Hate U Give (Tillman, 2018). Each group discusses their character in depth in terms of their experience and viewpoints on racism. They then work to prepare a monologue for their character that presents this viewpoint. One person in each group presents the monologue to the class. The audience should take careful notes to prepare for the next stage.

In the next stage, after all monologues have been presented, students get into new groups in which each character is represented. Acting as a committee tasked with improving relations between police and the community, and using their notes to help them, they try to build consensus on a possible approach to improving these relations. Instruct the students that they will need to look carefully at the experiences and concerns of each character and try to articulate the various aspects of the problem as clearly as possible from multiple perspectives, and then brainstorm possible solutions. Once they have come up with an approach they think will work, described in several detailed sentences, they should present it to the class, after which the audience can raise questions and concerns to evaluate and revise the suggested approach.

Activity 4: Writing a Nuanced Position

After the role-play activity, this next activity further aids students in the development of a nuanced position they can use in their own essays. In groups, have students select a complex issue that they are interested in. In their groups, they first discuss why the issue is complex and brainstorm together some possible positions on the issue. After that, students find at least two academic sources relevant to the issue and take notes on the various positions presented, identifying claims and evidence. Then, together, they develop an essay prompt that requires position taking. Have the students share the prompt on a Google Doc or on the board. Based on the two sources, students list possible main points to support and possible limitations/points against.

Each group then leads a discussion with the class about this issue to see if a consensus can be reached. As a class, a nuanced position that takes into account all of the multiple perspectives will hopefully be created. As an extension to this activity, students can follow the same approach as they prepare to write their own essays.

Final Thoughts

When considering implementing the “arguing to learn” framework in the classroom, it is important to keep in mind that students will probably struggle and need more time to understand and complete the activities than they may need for more standard argumentative essays. We are, after all, asking students to shift from the traditional approach to argumentation to one in which they examine multiple perspectives, reach consensus, and generate solutions that are more inclusive. In other words, students are arguing in order to learn.

Explore more activities here:

Additional Resources


Chinn, C. A., & Clark, D. B. (2013). Learning through collaborative argumentation. In C. E. Hmelo-Silver, C. A. Chinn, C. K. K. Chan, & A. M. O’Donnell (Eds.), International handbook of collaborative learning (pp. 314–332). Taylor & Francis.

Ellozy, A. (2016, October 20). Exploring controversial issues in the classroom: The structured academic controversy (SAC) [Professional development workshop]. The Center for Learning and Teaching at The American University in Cairo, New Cairo, Egypt.

Jacobs, G. (2010). Academic controversy: A cooperative way to debate. Intercultural Education, 21(3),291–296. https://doi.org/10.1080/14675981003771033

Jonassen, D. H., & Kim, B. (2010). Arguing to learn and learning to argue: Design justifications and guidelines. Educational Technology Research and Development, 58(4), 439–457. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11423-009-9143-8

Kuhn, D., Hemberger, L., & Khait, V. (2016). Argue with me: Argument as a path to developing students’ thinking and writing. Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315692722

Reznitskya, A., Anderson, R. C., McNurlin, B., Nguyen-Jahiel, K., Archodidou, A., & Kim, S. Y. (2001). Influence of oral discussion on written argumentation. Discourse Processes, 32(2&3), 155–175. https://doi.org/10.1080/0163853X.2001.9651596

Tillman, G., Jr. (Director). (2018).The hate u give [Film].Twentieth Century Fox.

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Susanne Rizzo is a senior English instructor at the American University in Cairo. Her interests include collaborative learning, computer-assisted language learning, and reading and writing in academic settings.

Mariah Fairley is an English instructor at the American University in Cairo. Her interests include teacher identity, student engagement, academic reading and writing, and language teacher education.

Alissa Nostas is a senior global educator at Arizona State University. Her interests include academic reading and writing, teacher education, and technology integration.

Spotlight on the 2021 TESOL Teacher of the Year: Khanh-Duc Kuttig

Interview by Ahu Moser
Meet Ms. Khanh-Duc Kuttig and learn about her teaching and her thoughts on the current challenges and future trends in ELT. 

The 2021 TESOL Teacher of the Year, Khanh-Duc Kuttig, has been teaching EFL since her university days. She has a degree in English, linguistics and philosophy, as well as an MA in TESOL. She has taught in Germany and the United Kingdom. Currently based at the University of Siegen, she is also events coordinator for her local English language teaching association.

Ahu Moser, Director of Academic Programming at Literacy Council of Montgomery County, Maryland, USA, has asked Ms. Kuttig a few questions to help us get to know her.

First and foremost, I would like to congratulate you on being the TESOL Teacher of the Year. How are you feeling?

I was really surprised, as I know the competition is tough. But now that it has sunk in, I am really, really chuffed. I really don’t know how I got here—it’s just awesome.

I read that you had moved to Austria many years ago, and that when you moved, you had some language challenges. Would you mind telling us how those challenges affected you and led you to be an English teacher?

I arrived in Europe in my 20s and one of the first things I did was an intensive German course in Munich, in Bavaria. I moved to Vienna, Austria a few months later only to discover that Austrian German and standard German weren’t quite the same! I used so many words that were unfamiliar to the Austrians and vice versa! I had to learn the language again, and this time I learnt it on the job. I worked with kids, who accepted how I spoke—my foreign accent, the vocabulary unfamiliar to them and my slower responses.

Adults weren’t always so kind. When I moved to Europe, I had never really worked a full-time job, and I discovered that I had to learn all this new work-related lexis that I had never even used in my first language, English. And because I didn’t know all this vocabulary which they thought I should (I was working with special needs children), they thought I was only pretending to be a native speaker of English, and that actually made me embarrassed of my background. I’m not the traditional White, European, native English speaker. I grew up in Singapore with a Vietnamese mother and a German father, and people didn’t know what box to put me in. They found it hard to believe that English was really my mother tongue, my first language. I was made to feel like an imposter!

I discovered, through learning German, trying to qualify as a care worker, and discovering all this new language in my own native language, that language was a lot more complex, and I wanted to do something related to that. Because of where I was working, I wanted to go into speech therapy. Teaching hadn’t come into the equation. That came later. But my experience in Austria showed me that teaching isn’t just about standing in the classroom and talking about grammar and vocabulary. Learning isn’t just about doing language exercises, either. It’s about growing in confidence; it’s about knowing that how you speak is acceptable and that native speakers aren’t encyclopedias of their first language. It definitely taught me that even as a native speaker of English, I still have a lot to learn about my own language and how it is used. I still do quite a bit of reading and preparation for any class I teach!

Can you please tell us your professional background as a teacher?

I got into teaching first as a part-time job to finance my studies. I loved it. I did everything in the early years—I worked for Berlitz, I taught corporate clients in companies, I was director of studies for a very brief period (I think just a month!), and, after I graduated, I was an adjunct lecturer at various universities. I moved to England and that was a career boost for me. I did an MA in TESOL and from there, I just grew from being a lecturer who taught everything to finally finding an area of specialization that I really enjoy. I currently teach English language to BA students at a university in Germany. I teach in two programs—a BA with numerous combinations that include English as a subject and a teaching BA with English as a teaching subject. I teach what we call here, “practical language skills,” so my courses focus on essay writing, grammar skills, pronunciation and fluency, and classroom language skills for preservice teachers.

What do you think are the biggest challenges that novice teachers are facing in the current virtual teaching work in the midst of the pandemic?

Novice teachers appreciate the support and mentoring they receive from their schools or department heads when they start teaching. At present, teachers everywhere are having to cope on their own, learning on the job, being there for their students, and that doesn’t leave them much time to do anything else, much less support novice colleagues. Everyone is simply in survival mode. So, most novice teachers wouldn’t have been introduced to Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Kahoot! and Wordwall, for instance. They’re as unprepared as more senior teachers are, but with the added disadvantage of being in the early stages of their career and needing more support. I think the biggest challenge is having to deal with a lot of new things on their own.

As an adult ESL teacher whose first language is not English in an English-speaking country, I would like to hear about one of the latest projects that you are working on while you are helping refugees who are interested in German schools. Can you please tell us about this project?

This project, supported by the German Academic Exchange Service and the Ministry of Culture and Science of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), is currently running in five universities in NRW. The University of Siegen is one of these. In this project, qualified and practicing teachers who have fled their homeland have the opportunity to embark on a 1-year program to qualify as teachers in state schools in NRW. Many highly qualified migrants often cannot find work in their new home countries because their diplomas are not recognized, and because of their lack of language skills. In this program, the candidates improve their (German) language skills through general language courses in the first phase and then a specialized language course for teachers in the second phase. Depending on their teaching subject, they also take courses in our degree programs. Those with English as a teaching subject will take courses in my department. As they have been previously qualified, they only take courses where the content differs substantially from what they would have covered in their own studies. In some cases, they may not have had the opportunity to take such a course. My Classroom Language Skills course, for instance, is open to them. They also take other teaching-related courses and are mentored in the year they are with us. These courses address cultural issues, or give them an insight into teaching in a culture that may be very different to theirs. They also complete a teaching practicum as part of the program. At the end of the program, if they successfully complete all components, they are qualified to teach in state schools and should have the same job opportunities as our own local graduates. The project is currently in its first year.

What trends in English language teaching are you most excited about for the future?

One trend I see is the move towards digital learning and teaching. I am not referring to apps and tools to be used on their own but in all classrooms, by teachers and students. There are some really good tools out there which can be used both in remote teaching as well as in face-to-face classes. Good tools change the learning experience. I’ve discovered a number of new tools this last year, and I’m always asking how this tool can support teachers and students in the physical classroom, not just online. I think education technology is going to become more and more important and relevant. It’s part of the 21st-century global skill set: information, media and technology literacy, and working collaboratively and creatively.

What advice do you have for novice teachers right now?

It’ll get better. We will return to our classes someday, it’s just a matter of time. For now, test things out, try out something different, learn something new. Take this as an opportunity to develop new skills. But don’t worry if you can’t. Be kind to yourself. No one before you has ever had to work in a situation like this.

Ahu Moser is currently the director of academic programming at Literacy Council of Montgomery County, MD in addition to being a full-time doctorate student. Ahu has had experience in various roles from being an ESL Instructor to being a program administrator in grant-funded adult education programs in MD for the last 17 years. She is the incoming chair for TESOL International APC.

Teaching Humor in ESL Classrooms: What You Need to Know

by Anna O'Neal
Humor is a major part of culture, but it is rarely taught explicitly in English classes. Learn how to define, dissect, and teach humor to your English learners. 

Humor is an area often overlooked in the language classroom. This fact is reinforced by curricula that don’t include it, and we assume that our students serendipitously pick it up on their own. In reality, humor is important for our students, especially those in an English as a second language (ESL) setting.

In American culture, we use humor all the time. Humor accomplishes speech acts, establishes ingroup boundaries, influences others, and builds rapport, among other things. It tells the learner what the culture values, and what its members pay attention to. Additionally, ESL students want to understand and engage in humor to feel they belong in a new culture. Making an error in humor could be damaging to this endeavor. After all, sociolinguistic errors are riskier than formal linguistic ones. This was my experience living internationally, as well. I felt like the picture in Figure 1.

Because humor is so important, my colleagues, Haeyuk (Nicole) Jeong, Dr. Cheri Pierson, and I decided to use Bell’s (2011) excellent summary of humor research and apply it to our adult ESL classroom. In this article, I will first define humor, then provide the steps we took and a few suggestions for your own classroom to become a little funnier.

Figure 1. Missing the joke.
(From http://www.pinterest.com/pin/290693350948535396/)

What Is Humor?

To apply humor research to the classroom, we first needed to understand what humor is. According to the General Theory of Verbal Humor, we create humor by juxtaposing scripts, or the expected direction and characteristics of a conversation (Bell, 2011). We accomplish this by changing topic, meaning, word choice, pronunciation, morphology, syntax, and the like. When we do this, we often provide cues to our co-communicator that we are veering off course. These cues could be changes in our facial expression, intonation, register, formality, or word choice. (One reason irony is complicated for language learners is because it is characterized by an absence of cues, making it much more difficult to detect [Attardo, 2000].) Our guess was that if our ESL students could learn to correctly sense the cues of a changed script, they could then learn to participate more fully in native speaker humor, thus feeling more a part of the English-speaking community.

How Do We Teach It?

We all know that humor isn’t funny if we have to explain it, so in our approach, we sought to provide our students with a few humor principles, then gather their thoughts on a Friends clip. In the clip, Ross offers to take Emma to the playground, and Rachel reacts out of the memory of her own precarious encounter with a swing set (Crane et al., 1994; see Figure 2). Many of our students had children, so this would be relatable content. (See the clip at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UxzcKY7D42I.)

Figure 2. Meme from Friends clip. (From http://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/169729479682015036/)

My colleagues and I stuck with two main humor principles and formed them into objectives for this intermediate lesson. First, we wanted our students to demonstrate a raised awareness of humor cues from the clip. Second, we hoped our students would be able to recognize that humor breaks the rules. Following, I’ve listed several steps you can take in creating a humor lesson, along with our own story for clarification.

Teaching the Nuts and Bolts of Humor

  1. First, choose the appropriate text or clip. This is an art form. The content of the clip must be comprehensible for your students, even if the humor might not be. We provided our students with a script for their own marking and to help with any confusing or fast speech. Generally, clips with exaggerated body language or intonation are helpful in the beginning, as these are easier to detect than small changes in word choice or syntax.

  2. Activate students’ schema of previous sociolinguistic lessons and their own culture’s humor. Prior to our humor lessons, we completed several lessons on small talk in the United States, from appropriate demeanor to common topics. In our first humor lesson, we asked students what they find funny in their own culture, as students have a myriad of examples from their own lives. We then built on our small talk foundation by discussing American culture’s appreciation of humor in small talk. Many students indicated that this differs from their own cultures. We thought this would be the most important aspect of humor to tackle, as students would not likely engage in humor if they viewed it negatively.

  3. Show how humor breaks one rule. In our class, we started by showing that humor breaks the rule of topic (See Chart 1 in the worksheet, Appendix A [.docx]). Our students provided the small talk topics as review, and we gave them the humor topics. We were careful to encourage students not to immediately go out and make jokes about these several taboo topics. We emphasized that, if humor broke topic rules, it might also break others, and they should try others first. The reason we started with topic as a rule is that students would be familiar with jokes in these topics in their own languages, as Driessen (2004) states.

    The topics we included for juxtaposition were: sex/gender, age, language, politics, religion, and ethnicity. These are noticeably different from mundane small talk topics of weather, jobs, sports, entertainment, appearance (compliments), and family/relationships. We encouraged them, if they wanted to try a joke in this area, to stick with jokes about themselves in their own culture. Self-deprecating humor is always a safer bet than jokes about others.

  4. Introduce the other rules that will appear in the clip or text. In the worksheet key (Appendix B [.docx]), you’ll see that we included four rules that humor breaks: topic, expectation, intonation/pronunciation/stress, and body language. The second rule, expectation, was our attempt to communicate with our students that humor breaks the rules of word choice. We used examples of jokes our students had made before. One included a discussion of whether rent cost US$200 per month, during which a student, instead of answering “true” or “false,” answered, “Yeah, I can only rent a door for $200 per month.” She broke the script of an academic response, choosing to give a different answer, using unexpected words. We then covered the rules of pronunciation and body language, as we’d already talked about these in relation to other topics, giving silly examples from the front.

  5. Watch the clip as many times as you have rules. We watched the clip first for a preview, asking general comprehension questions: Who are the characters? What are they talking about? Where does Ross want to take the baby? Next, we watched it once per rule, four times, so students only had to search for one rule per viewing. They wrote their examples from the video in the chart at the bottom of their worksheet, and we discussed them after each rule. This went well, overall, as students found examples we hadn’t thought of.

Tips on Incorporating Humor Pedagogy Into Lessons

Maybe you don’t feel like taking two entire lessons to teach humor. That makes sense! Here are some tips on how you can incorporate humor research and pedagogy into existing lessons or conversations. Remember, the goal is not to create comedy specials, but to raise learners’ awareness of humor cues, so they can navigate humor in their new language.

  1. Capture humor in class. Start by capturing moments of naturally occurring humor in your class. Write them down, assess which rules they break, and revisit them when appropriate. This removes the pressure we can feel to be funny, and seeks to raise awareness of what’s already occurring. The affirmation you give is important for learners’ confidence. Online learning often provides for even more hilarious scenarios than in-person learning, so you’ll probably have a lot to work with.

  2. Make it a cultural discussion. If you have conversation practice, don’t be afraid to approach the topic of humor, asking students who and what they think is funny, or when the last time was that they had a good laugh. They could discuss this in breakout rooms with others who speak their first language, so they can better explain it to the rest of the class in English. This provides students with agency to lead the conversation on humor. You can also provide information about the culture in which you teach (especially in an ESL context).

  3. Start with other, more rule-focused pragmatics lessons. These could be things like giving compliments, expressing gratitude, or taking leave, which are more likely to be in your curriculum. You can provide students with “normal” ways to accomplish these, then one appropriate, funny way according to your cultural context. For example, if I have some students who want to be funny, we can brainstorm silly excuses for needing to leave from a hangout with friends. If they’ve spent a long time there, maybe they could say, “Okay, well I have important things to do like reorganizing my sock drawer, so I’ll see you later.” The fact that they’ve spent a long time with their friend before this helps the friend not take offense. Proper intonation and facial expressions are important for our students to know, as well. This approach can help you introduce rule-breaking while reducing the risk for them.

  4. Choose clips your students recognize. Collect suggestions of what your students are already watching in English to choose clips they might like. We used Friends as a baseline because many had seen some of it before.

  5. Go slowly. Start with one rule at a time and discuss that rule several times before introducing other rules. This way you can incorporate humor pedagogy bit by bit.


Because of extensive preparation, scaffolding, and schema activation, our learners were prepared to analyze a clip according to the rules we’d discussed. Many found the clip funny, or were at least able to follow the laugh track. In hindsight, we would recommend doing this lesson in a college ESL setting like an intensive English program, where students have ample interaction with native speakers outside of class.

In the end, we encouraged our students to find funny things around them and bring examples to class. At the very least, we could have a positive atmosphere, enjoy each other’s company, and increase their sense of agency in participating in American culture. I hope that if you take some of these tips or suggestions to heart, you find that you have a deeper connection with your class and enjoy English language teaching that much more.


Attardo, S. (2000). Irony markers and functions: Towards a goal-oriented theory of irony and its processing. RASK: Internationalt Tidsskrift for Sprog Og Kommunikation, 12, 3–20.

Bell, N. (2011). Humor scholarship and TESOL: Applying findings and establishing a research agenda. TESOL Quarterly, 45(1), 134–159.

Crane, D. (Writer), Kauffman, M. (Writer), & Bright, K. S. (Director). (1994). The one where Rachel finds out [Television series episode]. In K. S. Bright, M. Kauffman, & D. Crane (Producers), Friends. Burbank, CA: Warner Bros. Studios.

Driessen, H. (2004). Jokes and joking. In N. J. B. Smeler & P. B. Baltes (Eds.), International encyclopedia of the social and behavioral sciences, 7992–7995. Elsevier.

Download this article (PDF)
and Appendix A and Appendix B (.docx)

Anna O’Neal is an ESL instructor in Chicago, Illinois, USA. She lived internationally for 5 years, providing useful and painful fodder for her research in humor. She has taught adult ESL at World Relief and in the Intensive English Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She and her colleagues presented their work on humor pedagogy at the 2019 Illinois TESOL conference, and will present online for the TESOL International Association 2021 Virtual Convention.