Enriching Instead of Remediating: A New, Whole-School Alternative to “ESL”

Enriching Instead of Remediating: A New, Whole-School Alternative to “ESL”

I grew up in a small town in Northern Ontario, (Canada) which had very few new immigrants. It was rare to see multicultural people or those who spoke diverse languages. Our population was largely made up of English and French-speakers, along with aboriginal people and some older Europeans who still maintained their languages and cultures.

When I go back to visit now, I see that the situation has changed a great deal. There are now more ethnicities than there were previously, and there are even refugees settling into our community quite successfully. This is a growing trend-provoked by globalization, war and other challenges-now taking place around the world.

While diversity in languages and culture offer a richness to our communities and schools, we need to understand that this also creates a unique challenge for education, particularly for teachers and bilingual and multilingual learners (BMLs) who can often be “sinking or swimming” if no additional resources or training are available.

Even in well-resourced private and international schools, the traditional models of support with one or two ESL teachers is no longer effective, especially if the majority of students in the school are bilingual and multilingual learners.

Research shows that most teachers have never received specific training to work with BMLs (NEA Policy Brief, 2014; Premier & Miller, 2005) and this is problematic because much of the research about these students is in fact, counter-intutitve and goes against natural, teacher-logic. For example, getting students to use their mother-tongue languages to support them in the classroom can actually benefit their English development and learning; and while students appear to be fluent in English after around a year or two, this is misleading. Most can have good conversations in English but they actually require between 5-7 years to be fluent in the academic language that school requires.  So we just can’t expect teachers to try and figure out the best ways of working with BMLs and supporting them, all on their own. They need specific training to know what to do and why they’re doing it. Schools are no longer able to rely on ESL teachers and traditional approaches when they have a majority population of BMLs. Times have changed and we need to change along with it.

Since teachers can and do have a significant impact on their students’ learning and progress, it makes sense to invest in them—to give them access to the latest research, new information and powerful teaching strategies. They need to be empowered with the kind of expertise they can apply in their classrooms each and every day.  Teachers themselves are the new “ESL teachers.”

Once teachers are given the training they need to understand BML issues, their expertise can really have a profound effect on their students and their school. Administrators and teachers are then qualified and able to make more impact by planning whole-school educational programs and initiatives that match the needs of their student body. This kind of “thinking big” creates a new model of support for bilingual and multilingual learners in the school. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, but requires school teams to combine their expertise with what they know about the BMLs in their specific school.

We know that whole-school initiatives like literacy programming, a focus on vocabulary development and mother-tongue maintenance can greatly contribute to students’ learning and progress.  It would makes sense then, to focus heavily on these areas and embed them deliberately within school programs so they enhance all aspects of the teaching and learning. In this way, the enriched educational environment and programme itself serves as the “support” for BMLs. This offers much more value than a remedial model.

This approach also encourages a way of “working smarter, not harder,” since teachers naturally work more cohesively with common goals and apply more consistent teaching approaches across the school. For example, if all the teachers working with students in a particular grade 9 class decided to embed and emphasize the same 25 academic vocabulary words within their classes over 2 months, then students would get greater exposure, repetition and mastery with those words. Similarly, if all teachers were trained to use bilingual approaches with BMLs across the school, then this would have a powerful impact on students’ thinking, learning and overall understanding.

In order to create this kind of high-impact school model to support BMLs, staff training is essential. All teachers and administrators need to be trained in the knowledge-base surrounding BML issues and key teaching strategies. This allows school teams to then design their educational programs and initiatives to create immediate impact. Daily reading and writing, embedded “talk time” within lessons and use of the mother-tongue for thinking, reading or discussion are examples of strategies that can be used by all teachers within their classrooms, on a daily basis. This kind of enrichment, or shall we say, “support,” provides BMLs with a high-quality educational experience, superior to most ESL-type pull-out approaches still used in a large number of schools today.

So would this kind of approach make the ESL Teacher’s role redundant? Absolutely not. These teachers are even more necessary than ever, but their role now requires more expertise and leadership—a co-ordinator within their school.  They work with heads of school/principals, teachers and students. They advise and work with management to thoughtfully design the school timetable around school priorities (keeping in mind research-based approaches).  They may even plan staff training around these priorities. They work with key people to write school policies that align with research and best practices. They support teachers in planning programs and lessons when needed and they run focused interventions with students (e.g. intensive phonics program for high school BMLs, or even a reading and writing booster class for small groups of primary or middle-school students). In this model, the BML Specialist Teacher is seen as an expert who holds a key role in helping design, implement and monitor school-wide programs and initiatives.

This new model is not revolutionary, it’s not aiming too high. It is clear, concrete and do-able. Pareto’s Principle says that 80 percent of your results come from around 20 percent of your efforts, so even if a school applied just a handful of high-impact approaches or strategies with consistent application, they could expect to get positive results. Just imagine the possibilities that exist when a whole school harnesses their common knowledge-base and expertise, all coming together to provide an enriched academic experience for their BMLs.

Our Institute for Educators of BMLs at IngeniousEd. runs global courses for teachers and administrators, helping them get a solid foundation in BML issues to make powerful impact in their schools and with their bilingual and multilingual learners. 



National Education Association (Policy Brief). Professional development for general education teachers and teachers of English language learners.

Premier, J.A. & Miller, J. (2010). Preparing pre-service teachers for multi-cultural classrooms. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 35(2).

Thomas, W. & Collier, V. (1997). School effectiveness for language minority students (NCBE Resource Series No.9). Washington, DC:  National Clearninghouse for Bilingual Education.