Collaborate for EL Excellence – Part II

This is part II of a coffee chat with Andrea Honigsfeld, Maria G. Dove and Tonya Ward Singer on how to collaborate for EL achievement. Read part I here. 

ANDREA: What would you want every single classroom teacher K to 12 to know about English Learners? How would you summarize your life’s work?

TONYA: I advocate for a shift from adopting nouns as the solution to focusing on our verbs. Nouns are silver bullets. Nouns include strategies, books, curriculum, consultants, trainings. We like these, of course! Nouns are good tools, yes.  And, our verbs make or break whether the nouns work.


I frame my work with six essential verbs that make or break our impact. These are on this graphic inside the cover of EL Excellence Every Day.

Using all six verbs in synthesis is the key to impactful teaching with ELs, and all students.

One the outside of the circle, you have mindsets:

  • Expect excellence from every English Learner. To do that requires confronting biases about race, culture and language hierarchies that we may not even be aware we have.
  • Value EL assets. It’s a gift to be multilingual. It’s not, “Oh, I’m sorry that you speak another language. Let me give you a special class.” Being multilingual is an asset. When designing instruction always ask, how do we tap into student’s strengths?

The verbs in middle of the circle are our actions to be continuous inquiry about impact.  We. . .

  • Engage students actively.
  • Observe to identify strengths and needs.
  • Support based on what we observe, and then
  • Reflect to refine teaching.


TONYA: This focus on verbs is very different than when a district has a top-down focus on silver-bullets. In a silver-bullet scenario, strategies are adopted as the solution. Leaders walk through classrooms to see that teachers are doing the strategies. They measure success based on “implementation,” not impact.

By contrast, effective learning leaders and teachers watch students with humble inquiry about the impact of our approaches on students. We watch students to understand. . .

  • Who is and is not participating? What trends in participation (e.g. by race, by gender, by language group) exist?
  • What are students doing? Are students actively engaged in conversations, reading, writing, and problem-solving?
  • Are the tasks high-level and aligned to grade-level expectations?

If students are not actively engaged in high-level learning, then we collaborate to raise expectations and increase active and equitable engagement. If students aren’t yet at our learning goals, we courageously ask, “what will we change in our approaches to get a different result?”


ANDREA: Definitely, that’s another strong connection between your work and our work. We all are committed to an asset-based philosophy. We focus on what the children can do and what the teachers can do. We even transfer that asset-based approach to working with teachers and educators.

TONYA: Another theme is you talk about the complexity of collaboration. The complexity really calls for our humility. Working from a humble place is essential when we collaborate for to disrupt inequitable outcomes for kids.

MARIA: We often say, “In order to do this you have to leave your egos at the door.” Because it’s not about what I think or what you think. It’s about what we want for our students. What is our best way to go about advocating for them?


TONYA: What is one way that you help someone who’s in a teacher leader position or a teacher specialist position have an impact on core teaching? If I am a teacher leader, what do you recommend in terms of my mindset for how I approach collaborating with others?

ANDREA: That’s a very good question. One approach is starting with, what do I bring to the table? Often, teachers feel very uncomfortable, and we tell them literally, “We’re going to give you bragging rights. You have to be able to share and actively promote your expertise what you’re bringing to the classroom so that your colleague could recognize that you’re not just a helper. You’re not just an add on. You have a fully credentialed, highly educated colleague with whom you’re going to collaborate with.

So the idea of seeing each other’s value is very, very important and being able to articulate that. All the expertise I have, what can I do to support you with as a colleague?

MARIA: And I think because it’s so complex having some type of a framework in which to collaborate within is really very helpful. A very simple one that we often talk about is the S.W.I.R.L. which stands for:





Listening in every lesson, every lesson, every day.

So if you focus on that type of a framework when you’re planning, then when you’re executing your lessons that is the goal. We look for simplicity. I know that some districts that have used S.I.O.P. as a framework for their conversations and their lesson planning and their execution and that has worked well too. So not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. So if district personnel had been trained in SIOP or whatever type of framework, they’re already using, literacy, math, etc., we should use that framework to help to provide some continuity within their conversations.


TONYA: I really appreciate S.W.I.R.L. as that connects so much to how I approach instructional change. A good entry point for shifting instruction is to focus on active engagement and academic conversations across the curriculum. Conversations are not just for the sake of talking. We use academic conversations to deepen equitable engagement and learning before, during, and after close reading and then to engage students in collaborating to write with evidence.

MARIA: That stood out for me so much Tonya when I started to read your book. Right off the bat you’re talking about conversations. You’re talking about how to structure conversations for students as well as accountable conversations. I think sometimes teachers are a little fearful, especially in secondary to release their students to have these accountable conversations but they’re so vital to the acquisition of the English language. How can students actually acquire the language if they’re not speaking it?


ANDREA: And we have your book, of course, tabbed up. On top of the tabs that you have, we have our own stickers tabbing up. And one place where I just removed a tab, but we have found a direct connection to our work is distinguishing between receptive skills and productive language skills. And we use exactly the same language. Look at the language demand and the content demand as you collaborate, how each teacher will bring their expertise to the table as we talk about different kinds of cognitive or linguistic demands in the curriculum.

TONYA: Absolutely. And I don’t think that’s a coincidence because we’re building from the standards and the research about what’s most effective.


TONYA: Let’s each close with a word. What’s one word that comes to mind that you want to share as we close this conversation?

ANDREA: I think advocacy would be one word that I’d like to throw out there. That it’s amplifying the voice of those who might not have been heard. They have a voice. We’re not giving them a voice. But enhancing and amplifying the voice of our students and their families so that they could be successful too.

MARIA: And I think my word is going to be integration. Of integrating our conversations as teachers, our students as learners, and our actually mindsets so that our English Learners are included when we talk about students.

TONYA: I will end with the word of community. The importance of community in our schools, including involving parents, involving all teachers, all stakeholders, working in service of our kids. But I also mean community of the consultants and the writers in the world and community of the people on social media who are reading this conversation, commenting and engaging online. It really does take community collaboration to create equitable schools.  

So thank you so much for being part of this conversation today.

MARIA: This was fabulous. Thank you.

I am a keynote speaker, author and educational leader helping educators teach and lead for equitable schools. My books include EL Excellence Every Day, Breaking Down the Wall & Opening Doors to Equity. I'm a descendant of colonizers and enslavers deeply committed to transforming my family legacy for healing.


  • Alice H Franco

    May 19, 2019, 8:31 am

    Hello, I teach in a district where our native English speakers are highly challenged (sometimes overwhelmed) by the difficulty, breadth, speed of delivery & amount expected of them academically. Every year, we have a student or two who enter at 4th or 5th grade with very low English literacy skills. I have found it very difficult to work with these students without pulling them out for instruction as their basic skill needs are 3-4 years behind their peers. Are there some resources you can suggest?

    • Tonya Singer

      June 21, 2019, 5:12 pm

      I recommend using assessments and observation and interviews to learn about students’ strengths. Can the ELS who are low in basic skills in English read and write or do the academic tasks in a primary language? If yes, build on that asset to accelerate. When primary literacy is needed to fill in gaps sometimes small group intervention is powerful combined with inclusive, interactive, strategically-scaffolded core learning. Do you check out my book EL Excellence Every Day for more on this type of instruction. Also, Boosting Achievement by Carol Salva for more on teaching students with interrupted formal education in relevant and engaging ways. All of Andrea Honigsfeld and Maria G. Dove’s books offer recommendations for pedagogy and ways to collaborate beyond the pull out model.

  • laura Grapski

    July 15, 2020, 11:33 am

    I am fascinated with your distinctions and what are the most powerful 6 verbs? That really got me thinking about what said about “nouns” and that our “verbs” make or break whether the noun works! You have also had me reflect on the need to plan more intentionally for language, content language, and ELD’S needs.
    We do used leveled readers for ELL that has the same content as the on level readers! I will use them more intentionally!

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