ESL Team-teaching in the Science classroom

Team teaching can have a highly positive impact on student learning outcomes, largely due to the increased opportunity for student participation that team teaching provides. The presence of more than one instructor in the classroom increases the occasions for student-teacher interaction. More importantly, a collaborative teaching environment invites students to take a more active role in the learning process. Because team teaching encourages a variety of perspectives on a topic, students are more likely to feel they can make valuable contributions to class discussions.

I began my career in a large south-western Sydney High School, population 1600. Ninety-five per cent of students had a language background other than English. Attached to the school was an Intensive Language Unit. Its role was to prepare its mainly refugee students for entry into the mainstream high school. Many had no formal schooling at all. After four terms, these students were placed into the caring hands of the mainstream high school.

My classes were often loaded with Cambodian refugees who were illiterate in their own language. This environment was a watershed for me. The pedagogies I was exposed to as a student in South Coast high school were meaningless. Learning science for its own sake was a lost abstraction for these students. Language became the highest priority in my classroom. This was a time before ESL Scales and the seminal genre based DET Met East programs: Language and Social Power and, Write it Right and the Met West Literacy and Learning Program gave structure to my understanding of language. So while language became a high priority I was far from an expert in the field.

About this time I was introduced to team teaching with ESL teachers for the first time. I am not sure that what was happening in my classroom was team-teaching. I was the lead teacher and the ESL teacher whom I saw two periods a week appeared at the door along with the students. As I presented my lesson I could hear an echo of the ESL teacher translating to a student what I had just said. There was no planning, little cooperation, just the sensory dislocation of an echo in my classroom.

I got better at team-teaching. Here are some ideas that I found that improve the quality of learning in a classroom with an ESL teacher:

Firstly, you need to establish a relationship with your ESL teacher. When the two of you have a comfortable relationship and rapport with each other, the children feel more comfortable in the classroom.

With your discussions with the ESL teacher consider the following items:

  • Scheduling

  • Expected classroom behaviours

  • Consequences of not following rules and procedures

  • Classroom procedures, such as class work and homework policies, turning in work

  • Marking

  • Communication between home and school

Importantly, you must consider how can you utilise each other’s strengths and weaknesses? Generally, a science teacher’s weakness will be language. Many do not recognise the language of the science classroom is different from the English classroom or other social setting. That is, they do not recognise the distinctive way Science constructs meaning through its own specialised language. It’s more than just the words. Herein lay the basis of a beautiful relationship. The ESL teacher’s strength will be language. Nevertheless many ESL teachers are bowled over by the range of multi-modal delivery of content in a science classroom. These modes include: written English, schematic diagrams, equations, mathematical modelling, graphics and computer modelling. How can these inherent strengths of each of the teachers be utilised to assist students to take a more active role in the learning process?

The word cloud represents the words used in the NSW Science 7-10 Syllabus. The larger the word, the more frequently it is found in the document.

When I started teaching in 1980, more often than not, the hapless ESL student found themselves in the bottom grade class. The thinking of the time was that the teacher would progress slowly so the ESL students could follow what was going on. On the contrary, one particularly successful strategy I found in an Inner West Sydney Boys School. It involved the placement of 15 ESL students into the top Science classroom and 15 ESL students into the top English classroom. The students were then grouped into fours that included two ESL and two non-ESL students. The aim was to increase the interaction and communication between the two groups.

Being English deficient does not equal unintelligent .The chart below is from data extracted from the results of the Year 8 online science exam (ESSAonline) in NSW. In 2012, 60 000 students sat the exam. It consists of three written tasks and 82 mainly multiple choice short responses. It shows student performance for science overall and the components that make it up. ESL students clearly outperform their non-ESL counterparts in all aspects assessed. These data would suggest that ESL students are as able to cope with complex scientific ideas as the broader student cohort.

  • LBOTE If enrolment data indicates the student, parent 1, or parent 2 has a main language other than English, the student is classified as LBOTE.

  • ESL Phase 3 Students who have LBOTE status and who require English as a second language (ESL) support for Phase 3 learners.

Data source: SMART

Nevertheless, teachers should be mindful that all students vary in their natural abilities and that making assumptions based on their language backgrounds is fraught with difficulties. For instance, all Asians are clever and work hard. There still is a need for flexibility with rate/pace and level of scientific instruction with respect to both English and Science needs to account for individual differences.

Here are some models that are used when co-teaching ESL students:

  • Teach and write. One teacher teaches the lesson while the other records the important points on an overhead or chalkboard. Students benefit from this because information is being presented to them through different modalities.

  • Station teaching. Students rotate through predetermined stations or activities. Each teacher works with all the students as they come through the station.

  • Parallel teaching. The class is divided into two groups and each teacher delivers the content information to their group simultaneously. This allows teachers with distinctly different styles to work together.

  • Alternative teaching. Teachers divide responsibility for planning. The majority of the students work in a large group setting, but some students are pulled into ta smaller group for pre-teaching or other types of individualised instruction. The same students should not be pulled into the small group each time.

  • Team Teaching. Teachers co-teach each lesson. This requires a great deal of planning and cooperation. Both teachers are responsible for all of the students.

  • Lead and support. The lead teacher instructs the class while the supporting teacher provides assistance as she roams around the room. The supporting teacher may elaborate the important points or retell parts of the lesson. Ideally, classroom and ESL teachers should alternate roles so that one is not always the lead teacher. This type of instruction is often the lazy option. The ESL teacher may find herself in a subordinate role.

Considering the amount of resources that are quite rightly devoted to ESL students, and the significant benefits of planned team teaching, it should be contingent upon schools to have a policy regarding how ESL teachers and classroom teachers work together.

Bottom line, of course, is that mainstream students also benefit from the language focus designed for ESL students.

Further reading:

Basil Tonks, ESL Team Teaching in the Japanese Context: Possibilities, Pitfalls and Strategies for Success (

ESL FundameNTals: Learning How To Learn (

Team Teaching: Benefits and Challenges (

English as a second language: Guidelines (

ESL Scales (


  • Wadkins, Theresa, Richard L. Miller, and William Wozniak. “Team Teaching: Student Satisfaction and Performance.” Teaching of Psychology 22, no. 2, (2006): 118-20.

  • Judie Haynes, Essential Teacher, Volume 4, Issue 3,September 2007, Alexandria, VA: Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL)

#Teamteaching #ESL #Science

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