EL Shadowing as a Tool for School Improvement

What is EL Shadowing?   

English Learner (EL) Shadowing is an inquiry-focused professional learning strategy used to examine the experience of school through the eyes of an English learner.  In its basic form, educators follow an English learner throughout all or part of the school day like a shadow.  In other words, you simply observe.  You do not interact or interfere.

EL Shadowing supports a teacher, leader, or team’s desire to improve the educational experience of English learners.  Educators are able to see what students experience within the school both instructionally and culturally.  EL Shadowing can provide valuable data that standardized tests and common assessments cannot.  It helps educators gain a better understanding of the interactions students have with peers and staff and can show how race, class, culture, and language ability may affect a student’s experience.

EL Shadowing is powerful because it connects the dots between students, curriculum, instruction, school climate, and environment.  Educators are able to collect data about the nature of problems faced by English learners.  Shadowing fosters empathy and gives educators insight on how instructional and cultural practices can be improved in order to give this diverse student group a better chance to excel.  Many educators who have done EL Shadowing express that it has helped them gain new perspectives on what occurs in a classroom and how to better help students with focus and motivation.

What Is the Process for EL Shadowing?


Before shadowing students, you want to determine whether you will observe English learners as a whole or pinpoint a specific group of English learners, such as students at a particular proficiency level.  Either way the goal is to collect data to better understand and serve a student group.  Once you determine the group of students who will be shadowed, you will want to pinpoint individual students so that you can collect specific, thorough data.

Then, you must decide on a shadowing protocol.  This is crucial when multiple educators are shadowing so that there is a consistent way to record, report, and compare data.  You can use a formal protocol tool that may focus on a specific language domain, such as observing a student’s verbal output. Alternatively, you can utilize a simple two-column approach where the left-hand column is used for observations and the right-hand column for the observer’s questions, commentary, or reflection.

Teachers should be notified in advance of when the classroom observations of English learners will be occurring, and it is helpful to reassure them that the focus will be on the student and not the teacher.  In order to ensure your observations are authentic and the data collected is valid, you will not want to tell teachers or students who you are observing. Finally, if focusing on a specific language domain, you’ll want to ensure that participants all have a common understanding of the evidence you will collect for that domain. You may want to provide some professional development prior to observations to norm on your observation protocol.  On the day of the observations, you will want to provide student profiles of the selected students to the observers and review the shadowing protocol together.


Remember that the goal of EL Shadowing is to capture a clear picture of “a day in the life” of your selected ELs, not to judge or place blame on any part of the system.  Therefore, while observing, participants should strive to record objective statements such as “student was not called on during the 55-minute class period” rather than “the teacher mostly called on English speakers” or “the teacher avoided calling on language learners.”  The second and third statements move into interpretation and judgment, and away from the goal of capturing evidence about a student’s experience.

During the observations, participants should try to record as much data as possible, as they are trying to triangulate achievement data with classroom observations. While in the classroom, participants should avoid sitting too close to the English learner being shadowed as to avoid tipping off the teacher or student and affecting observable behavior.  Observation notes that contain specific evaluative statements of class or students should not be shared with teachers in order to reinforce that the observation was on a student and not the teacher or classroom, and student names should not be included in the observation notes to protect student identity.


Prior to debriefing, each individual should reflect on the process and information collected.  Participants should compile and analyze their own data to identify any trends or patterns. Once individuals have had an opportunity to reflect upon their own notes, the team should meet together and all participants should have an opportunity to share their observations. It is helpful to use a protocol to share and chart data for the team to review together. A simple protocol ensures equitable participation, with each participant taking a turn around a circle. First, participants can share bright spots and bright trends, and next, participants share wonderings and areas of opportunity.

After debriefing the data, the team should discuss and create actionable next steps to help address the needs of the English learner group that was observed.  You should discuss what professional development would equip teachers with skills to address the needs observed, considering both academic and cultural needs.  The group should also think about how the data will be presented to the rest of the staff and schedule any follow-up observations for progress monitoring.

Why Should We Shadow English Learners?

  • English learners are the most rapidly growing student group in the nation.
  • English learners are at risk of being given watered down curriculum which causes them to be underprepared for secondary and post-secondary studies.
  • The experience provides a sense of urgency to address the needs of English learners.
  • The procedure cultivates empathy for English learners.
  • The practice helps educators gain fuller understanding of interactions between students and teachers (or among students) and how they affect a student’s experiences.
  • The process allows us to monitor if any of the language domains (reading, listening, speaking, writing) are being underdeveloped and if academic language is being addressed.
  • The method brings to light factors that testing and benchmark data cannot including how race, class, and culture impact learning.
  • Experiences and stories move people to action much more than data and numbers.

Rocío Figueroa is the Director of Equity for English Learners at Ensemble Learning. Continue the conversation about EL Shadowing by emailing Rocío at rfigueroa@ensemblelearning.org. To learn more about partnering with Ensemble Learning to improve professional learning and outcomes for English learners at your school or district, contact Ensemble CEO Elise Darwish at edarwish@ensemblelearning.org


For further learning on EL Shadowing:





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