How ELL Educators Can Collaborate and Co-Teach During COVID-19

Teacher holding up a book for her students

Dr. Andrea Honigsfeld and Dr. Maria Dove offer practical tips for ELL educators around collaborating, co-teaching, and managing complicated schedules during this challenging school year.

Dr. Andrea Honigsfeld and Dr. Maria Dove are renowned experts on the topics of collaborating and co-teaching on behalf of English language learners (ELLs).

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, they have been working with numerous schools and districts; we wanted to find out what's working and what advice they have to offer their colleagues in the ELL field who are juggling so many complex challenges, responsibilities, and schedules this year.

Special thanks to Dr. Honigsfeld and Dr. Dove for taking time to share their insights and all of the educators who have shared their questions about these important topics!

Q&A with Dr. Andrea Honigsfeld & Dr. Maria Dove

Why are collaboration and co-teaching so critical right now?

The pandemic created a new-found urgency to collaborate and seek, as well as offer, support to each other. Generally speaking, navigating the fundamentals of quality in-class and remote learning has generated a considerable group of teachers who feel more like novices than experienced professionals.

Meanwhile, the pressures and expectations for successful instructional delivery are coming from all sides — administrators, parents, students, and most certainly, our own selves, too. It is no wonder why collaboration is essential at this time to not only incorporate the knowledge that we have already developed, but also to have opportunities to problem-solve issues that arise and have yet to be determined.

What might some goals of collaboration and co-teaching on behalf of ELLs look like currently?

Setting ridiculously small goals

Someone very recently shared with us the idea of starting with ridiculously small goals in any endeavor to greatly increase the likelihood that something positive will be accomplished. Considering the laundry list of possible goals that need to be negotiated for collaboration and co-teaching to take place — co-planning time, identifying content and language learning targets, instructional materials and strategies, developing appropriate assessments, grouping students for instruction, and so on — collaboration and co-teaching might seem like daunting tasks when you also consider the various levels of anxiety that our new normal has placed us all in.

In order to alleviate some of the worry and tension, we ask you to consider the strategy of ridiculously small goals and think about the following question: What possible objectives for collaboration and co-teaching might be set that can be readily accomplished? As you consider what goals might be met, we suggest you start with that one or two burning questions such as:

  • What technology can we try with remote learning?
  • How might we experiment with teaching multiple groups of students in a remote setting?
  • How can we incorporate Google Forms to gather assessment data?
  • What evidence-based, best practices can we transfer into the online or hybrid environment?

Targeting one specific topic is a good place to begin. In the above examples, the questions and topics to be explored are clear-cut and the solutions are achievable. We propose that you keep it simple this academic year, taking small steps at first, and build your collaborative conversations as questions naturally evolve, remembering to select only those burning questions that truly need to be addressed so that you don't become even more overwhelmed.

What are the benefits of master/flexible schedules this year?

Teachers and parents alike have been sharing their apprehension with us about class schedules for this academic year. Entire school communities seem to have one concern or another about schedules for in-class attendance and online learning. Some schools have devised a hybrid schedule of instruction consisting of a combination of online learning and face-to-face instruction for all students. Other districts are either opening schools for in-person, daily instruction or have chosen to present all learning online. Yet some schools only open their doors to the most vulnerable learners, with multilingual learners and students with disabilities among them.

Parents are further concerned that some remote learning schedules require students to sit for hours on end in front of some online device while others are worried that their children do not have access to the needed technology. To alleviate some of the anxiety, flexible schedules coupled with appropriate teaching and communication routines allows students ways to adapt their learning situations to meet with better remote-learning success.

Here are some ideas for establishing flexible schedules:

  • Consider how much time should be spent for students to receive full-class, direct instruction and how to arrange for flexible groupings for small groups of students based on their needs.
  • Examine the reason for all students to attend live class sessions or if recorded sessions and assigned tasks might work best for others.
  • Utilize technology such as Flipgrid that provides students a way to post videos of themselves responding to questions or prompts asynchronously.
  • Invite students, via Zoom or other similar platform, to some downtime sessions in which they are able to communicate freely with one another.
  • Consider screen-free activities, the use of print-resources, and authentic learning opportunities. (These offline learning ideas for ELLs are helpful both for students with and without access to technology.)
  • Identify regular contact times when teachers can be reached by phone, FaceTime, or Zoom meetings.
  • Learn more about how some teachers are navigating hybrid and in-person teaching at the same time.

What are some examples of what flexible scheduling could look like in the following models?

Here are some examples of what flexible scheduling could look like for ELL instruction:


Online / Virtual Learning

Hybrid Models

Co-teaching ELLs

Designate Mondays-Wednesdays and Fridays as synchronous co-teaching times in support of your ELLs at the entering through developing levels.

Co-plan/co-develop integrated tasks that support content and language development via asynchronous learning for Tuesday and Thursday.

For a more advanced group, reverse the schedule: co-teach synchronously on Tuesdays and Thursdays and set up asynchronous tasks for 3 days.

On your face-to-face days, use two key approaches (whole group, vs. small group instruction).

During the at-home learning days, set up individual conferencing times and/or independent tasks for asynchronous learning

Collaboration on behalf of ELLsRegardless of the medium of instruction, make every effort and advocate for two common planning periods per week; this may seem out of reach right now, but it's something to strive for. One collaboration time could be devoted to reviewing the upcoming core content that ELLs need support with; the second planning period will allow for discussing individual students and instructional strategies you will be using.
Individual check-ins with ELLsUtilize the days/times when students are scheduled to work asynchronously for individual check-in.Utilize the days when students are scheduled to learn from home for individual check-in.

What are some small steps individual teachers of ELLs can take towards:

Co-teaching ELLs
  1. Start small — co-teach with 1 or 2 colleagues at first and focus on building trusting, supportive professional relationships.
  2. Establish a predictable weekly routine by deciding whether you are going to have (a) all students in one group or (b) use flexible groupings strategies.
Collaboration on behalf of ELLs
  1. Meet with your colleagues once or twice a week to establish priorities, attainable goals, and clarity around what ELLs can do.
  2. Share! Share your lesson ideas and resources, stories and background information about your ELLs, your trials and tribulations, and so on!
Advocating for more collaboration time
  1. Emphasize the importance of collaborative teacher expertise and collective teacher efficacy (two concepts highly regarded by John Hattie and many others).
  2. Examine the new master schedule that came out as a result of the COVID-19 conditions and look for new opportunities for collaboration.
Advocacy for flexible schedules
  1. Put students first by creating learner portraits and student clusters indicating which ELLs might have similar needs.
  2. Develop a schedule that identifies which students will benefit from more synchronous (or face-to-face time) with you and which students may be able to work more independently, asynchronously or using non-technology-based tools with success.
Helping colleagues/administrators understand their expertise
  1. Create a (simple) weekly digital newsletter with a "Tip of the Week" and offer a virtual "open house" or "office hours" inviting colleagues and admins to stop by and chat with you.
  2. Showcase what works for you and what your students can do. Share their success stories by shining the spotlight on them. And don't forget to share successful stories of collaboration and co-teaching as well!

What are some strategies ELL educators can use to manage and organize their schedules in this environment?

As we enter the 2020-21 school year, many districts are utilizing the multi-phase reopening plan. Some districts are starting the new school year fully online, and incrementally phasing in face-to-face learning for their students. Others prioritize in-school learning for some of the most vulnerable students, including ELLs. Regardless of your context, this is the school year we all need a lot more flexibility than ever before.

Teachers of ELLs (both elementary classroom teachers and secondary core content teachers as well as designated ELD/ELL specialists) will need to create digitally accessible, shared documents, routines and structures including, but not limited to, the following:

  1. Co-develop student portraits that allow all teachers to get to know their ELLs better and to document their progress. You can see these WIDA posts for suggestions on how to develop a Can Do portrait and this sample portrait.
  2. Work with week-at-a-glance or unit-at-a-glance planning templates that indicate the learning targets for both content and language or literacy development as well as the success criteria.
  3. Make sure you indicate the supports and scaffolds that will be in place for ELLs on various language proficiency level to meet the targets successfully.
  4. Create learning choice boards for each unit of the study that embody multi-lingual, multi-cultural, multi-level, multi-sensory, multi-modal learning opportunities.
  5. Align digital tasks and tools to ensure students SWIRL (speak, write, interact, read and write). Set up small group projects or station rotations.
  6. Consider the benefits of flipped learning and adapt this approach to your unique context. See more here at FLIP Learning.
  7. Have ELLs contribute select work samples (both written work and oral recordings) to digital student portfolios that allows them to set goals, monitor their own progress, reflect on their learning, and engage in periodic self-assessment.

How can ELL educators use social media to network online?

There are various forms of teacher collaboration, yet one of the simplest ways to work with other educators and get answers to burning questions is, believe it or not, through the use of social media. Facebook and Twitter both serve as virtual platforms where teachers knowledgeable in the area of working with ELLs seek out and offer direct, positive, and authentic advice. These social media groups are an outstanding resource for dealing with the most current issues with remote and in-class learning that is happening in real time.

For example, on Facebook, there are a few groups we subscribe to where educators engage in discussions and share ideas and resources for the benefit of teachers working with ELLs. These are forums where co-teaching, one of our recommended methods of instruction to ensure ELLs maintain their connection to core curricula while developing their English language skills, is also examined and discussed as teachers most often try to negotiate how this practice is delivered remotely. You may also be able to find (or start!) groups for educators in your school, district, region, or state.

Some of the largest ELL Facebook groups include:

On Twitter, you can follow:

We also post a number of resources related to collaboration and co-teaching for ELLs on Twitter at @AndreaHonigsfel and @MariaGDove.

Do you have any closing thoughts?

Remember "ridiculously small steps!" We earnestly hope that you resist the temptation to do it all, and you find every way possible to be as kind and understanding to each other and to yourselves as we continue the process of figuring out how to support our ELLs in the best way possible during this challenging year.

Dr. Honigsfeld, Dr. Dove, and a number of their colleagues have been hard at work creating new resources during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are some of those resources for further exploration!


Podcast episodes: Empowering ELLs with Tan Huynh

Webinars: Collaboration & co-teaching during COVID-19 (External links)


Many books by Dr. Honigsfeld and Dr. Dove are featured on our Collaboration and ELLs booklist.

For additional books and materials on collaboration and using technology in ELL instruction, see Dr. Honigsfeld's website.



For any reprint requests, please contact the author or publisher listed.

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