The Power of Two: Co-Teaching to Support ELLs

Written by Sarah Forbes, K-1 ELL Teacher at John F. Kennedy Elementary in Winooski, Vermont, and NNETESOL President-Elect. 
Sometimes, when I’m co-teaching, I feel like my fellow teachers and I can read each other’s minds. There are times when one of my co-teachers and I actually say the same word or phrase simultaneously. Our students find it amusing. As a team, we provide consistent, yet creative instruction, often offering each other a welcome perspective shift or a different way of approaching a subject that makes it more engaging and accessible to all of our students. We learn from each other, and model what that looks like. We provide a safe space where one of us can address a problem with an individual student, while the other carries on with the instructional goals of the day. We can offer each other reflective insights into students we might not know well, or ask our co-teacher to take over when we feel we’re not able to help a student through a rough moment. This magic takes time and effort to conjure, but it is so worth it!

This past fall, a few of my colleagues and I presented on a panel that shares a title with this post at the 2017 NNETESOL Conference on November 4th.. We were three ELL teachers, Bill Clark, Kristin Van Fossen, and myself, and one classroom teacher, Nancy Johnson, representing the K-12 spectrum. The room was packed and people were so intrigued they were sitting on the floor and pouring out the door. It is clear that other educators are eager to implement co-teaching, probably because they can see the inherent benefit of teamwork in a often challenging career in teaching. While much of the research on co-teaching was born out of the movement for inclusion of special education students in the mainstream classroom, it is apparent from multiple studies that co-taught classrooms provide positive outcomes for all students and teachers involved. Clark shared, “students in co-taught classes have reported they enjoy school more, have increased motivation, learn more, and feel better about themselves and others” (Walsh & Jones, 2004; Walther-Thomas, Bryant, & Land, 1996). Who wouldn’t want this for their students?


Bill Clark, High School ELL, Kristin Van Fossen, 4-5 ELL Teacher, Nancy Johnson, 1st Grade Teacher, and Me, K-1 ELL at the NNETESOL Conference, November 4, 2017.
In Winooski, at the K-1 level, I co-teach math. At other grade levels, ELL teachers co-teach both math, literacy, and other subjects. This pairing allows us to gain content knowledge and instructional skills from a classroom teacher, while sharing our own expertise in language development and academic vocabulary acquisition. We still maintain small group pull-out sessions, outside the general ed classroom, to help ELLs develop language that supports their success in the classroom. This is especially essential for students at the newcomer and beginning stages of proficiency, because it allows them a space to have repeated encounters with scaffolded language and a risk-free zone for testing out their new skills. While I can see the incredible benefits of co-teaching, I do feel there is a lot of value in this small group model when paired with increased opportunities for collaboration between classroom and ELL teachers and curricular overlap.

Nevertheless, for ELLs, there are many advantages to a co-taught classroom including:

  • Access to peer models of language, through turn and talks, whole group discussion and small group work
  • Flexible groupings that allow for heterogeneous groups when appropriate, or homogeneous groups when a specific language or academic concept needs to be pre-taught, revisited, or practiced more extensively
  • More time with their classroom peers to build relationships and community
  • Integration of home languages (e.g. teacher introduction of counting to 10 in a represented language).
  • Elevated status among classroom peers
  • More individual attention
  • More productive observation and reflection by teachers
  • Increased academic access, able to see content through a variety of strategies and viewpoints
  • Differentiated instruction
As stated above, there are numerous benefits for teachers as well. The relief in sharing the responsibility of planning, preparation and classroom instruction can not be overstated. It does take a lot of relationship building and planning to accomplish. For more about shared planning strategies, please see my previous post on Using Google Docs to Upgrade Co-Planning and Co-Teaching. Honigsfeld & Dove use the handy acronym ESCROW to define success features for co-teacher when planning, assessing and implementing instruction (2010):

  • Establish and stick to set meeting times
  • Start by discussing big ideas and setting essential learning goals
  • Concentrate on areas of special difficulty for ELLs: scaffold learning, adapt content, modify assignments, and differentiate tasks
  • Review previous lessons based on student performance data
  • Overcome the need to always be in control
  • Work towards common understanding of ELLs’ needs (Honigsfeld, A. & Dove, M., 2010, p. 61)

As a new teacher coming into my school, the best advice I can offer in terms of building a relationship with the classroom teacher is to listen intently, ask lots of meaningful questions, be helpful (offer to do some of the materials prep, etc.), be consistent with classroom management, take risks at offering up ideas for improvements or changes, don’t be discouraged when you make mistakes, laugh, and don’t be afraid to interact with the class as a whole. If you are lucky, you will work in a district that has built in shared planning time, but oftentimes planning happens before or after school. I join in on whole grade level team meetings when I can, because it allows me to share accommodations for ELLs with the other teachers that they may not have thought of.
It is important to note the differences between traditional push-in models of ELL instruction and effective co-teaching models. As one of my colleagues, Kristin Van Fossen, pointed out in our presentation, the only real overlap is that they both happen in the mainstream classroom. While at times a co-teaching model may have small groups that resemble push-in, the key difference is in the status of the teacher and the students. Van Fossen explained it well when she noted that in a push-in scenario teachers are often “competing” for students’ attention, and an the ELL teacher and students can end up feeling isolated from the general instruction. It might feel like the ELL teacher is more of a support teacher than a general ed teacher. Co-teaching, on the other hand, awards equal status to both teachers and students. Both teachers are responsible for all students, and both contribute to curriculum review, planning and instruction.
The old proverb that two heads are better than one has been proven true again and again in my work as a co-teacher. Seek out someone who wants to try, take the time to make it work, and I feel confident that your teaching career will be more fulfilling and your students better served.


Honigsfeld, A. & Dove, M. (2010). Collaboration and Co-Teaching: Strategies for English Learners.      Corwin.

Ponce, J. (2017) “The Far Reaching Benefits of Co-Teaching for ELLs.” Retrieved from

Walsh, J. M., & Snyder, D. (1993). Cooperative Teaching: An Effective Model for All Students. Case in Point. VIII (2), 20 – 22.

Walsh, J. & Jones, B. (2004). New Models of Collaborative Teaching. Teaching Exceptional Children. Vol. 36, No. 5, 14 -20.

Walther-Thomas, C., Bryant, M., & Land, S. (1996). Planning for Effective Co-Teaching The Key to Successful Inclusion: The Key to Successful Inclusion. Remedial and Special Education, 17(4), 255-264.

Walther-Thomas, C.S. (1997). Co-teaching experiences: The benefits and problems that teachers and principals report over time. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 30(4), 395-407.

Vaughn, S., Gersten, R., & Chard, D. J. (2000). The underlying message in LD intervention research: Findings from research syntheses. Exceptional children, 67(1), 99-114.

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