National Writing Project

ELL Professional Development Adapts to New Bilingual Education Legislation

By: Gavin Tachibana
Date: July 2007

Summary: A Massachusetts state law bans teaching children in their own language. So Western Massachusetts Writing Project's ELL professionals threw teachers a lifeline—a course full of strategies and insights, based on their years of experience.


With the support of an ELL minigrant, site leaders at the Western Massachusetts Writing Project (WMWP) are retooling programs and expanding leadership to support teachers working under a new law called “English for the Children.”

English for the Children, a ballot initiative passed in 2002, made it illegal to teach children in their native language or, after only one year of a sheltered immersion program, to use materials in the students’ native language.

“It was a 180-degree turn for Massachusetts,” said Bruce Penniman, site director for WMWP. “It was a big disruption in the way we worked with ELL students.”

Suddenly, teachers of sheltered and bilingual classes needed to adapt to radically different programs. And mainstream teachers were in even greater need of ELL-related professional development.

“The change in the law made this issue much more immediate,” said Penniman. “Students who had not mastered English were coming into mainstream classes much sooner.”

To shape new offerings for Massachusetts teachers, WMWP looked to the teachers who had led ELL professional development in the past.

Understanding the Students’ Plight

Long before English for the Children heightened the need for ELL-focused professional development, WMWP teacher-consultants Wilma Ortiz and Karen Sumaryono had been leading professional development that showed Massachusetts teachers how to help ELL students get up to linguistic speed in English while also retaining their native language and cultural heritage.

Much of the professional development conducted by Ortiz and Sumaryono included getting teachers to put themselves in their students’ shoes for a day.

“We have to understand what the students are dealing with on a daily basis,” said Ortiz, an eighth grade teacher at Amherst Middle School.

To that end, much of the professional development conducted by Ortiz and Sumaryono had included getting teachers to put themselves in their students’ shoes for a day. For example, the duo created a “native language lesson,” during which Ortiz delivered a fast-paced science lesson in Spanish, peppering her lecture with questions to make sure her “students” were “keeping up.”

“Please Don’t Call on Me”

Ortiz says that after only 15 minutes, teachers have a new understanding of the experience many of their students endure. “People get headaches. People get so irritated,” said Ortiz, a former ELL biology and chemistry teacher originally from Puerto Rico. “One person said later she was thinking, ‘Please don’t call on me. I want to disappear!’”

“It really makes teachers squirm when she asks questions and they don’t know the answers,” said Sumaryono. “Wilma does it in a humorous way. It’s a good way to start. Teachers can see what their students are going through as the try to learn the language and take in subject matter at the same time. People are having an ‘aha’ moment.”

Sumaryono and Ortiz’s focus on personal and cultural sensitivity was a response to decades of new waves of students arriving in Western Massachusetts, from the large number of Russian Pentecostal refugees who escaped religious persecution in the 1980s, to Ethiopian and Cambodian refugees fleeing war-torn lands, to immigrants from Puerto Rico and Cape Verde.

“They want to feel like they belong, that they’re equal with native English speakers,” said Ortiz.

Investing in New Models

The programs by Ortiz and Sumaryono operated very well in the context of the bilingual education offered in Massachusetts in the days before English for the Children. At the time, Massachusetts law stated that if a county had more than 20 students of a particular language, then that district was mandated to offer bilingual education in that language.

Then “English for the Children” came to Massachusetts, and it won by a landslide.

The WMWP responded to the new law by offering a course, Working with ELLs in the Content Areas, to teachers in Holyoke, a community with an ELL population of about 23 percent. Demand for the course was so great that Ortiz and Sumaryono realized they couldn’t do it all themselves; they needed to prepare other teachers to offer the course as well.

With that goal in mind, the Western Massachusetts Writing Project applied for and received an ELL Network minigrant to develop and implement an ELL leadership advanced institute in summer 2005. The institute brought together teacher-consultants and ELL teachers with the goal of enhancing WMWP’s inservice capacity in the area of ELL and establishing the site as a regional leader in ELL professional development.

The following year the site received another ELL Network minigrant, this time to extend their ELL initiative statewide, reaching teachers at Central Massachusetts and Buzzards Bay Writing Projects.

Teachers Gain Skills, Confidence

The impact of these workshops, courses, and training sessions has been profound. In addition to being able to better empathize with their ELL students, teachers learn a number of classroom strategies:

  • speaking slowly and paraphrasing any material that might be confusing
  • using facial expressions and exaggerating enunciation
  • having groups draw pictures to illustrate definitions of new vocabulary words
  • having students highlight important information and use graphic organizers
  • giving students time to process information
  • writing neatly
  • encouraging often
  • using the “jigsaw” strategy in relation to concepts in a story.

Typical of teacher testimonials Ortiz and Sumaryono receive after the workshops include statements like this: “Since learning strategies to assist these (ELL) children, I have new confidence while working with these kids, and I am no longer feeling helpless and frustrated.”

Regardless of how the policy winds may change, WMWP is pleased to be providing programs that help ever more teachers work well with English language learners in any classroom.

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