img4It’s a professional development tool that stems from the concept of taking a walk in someone else’s—in this case a student’s—shoes. And in one California school, it has reportedly helped close the achievement gap for English-language learners.

The technique, which second-language acquisition expert Ivannia Soto began using in 2003, is called ELL shadowing. A teacher or administrator follows an English-language learner to several classes. Neither the student nor his or her teachers know the real reason the observer in the back of the room is there, which is to look specifically at the student’s use of academic language. The observer takes notes at five-minute intervals on the student’s actions regarding listening and speaking. Soto, an associate professor of education at Whittier College in California, claims the process is “enlightening.”

What educators tend to notice first and foremost is that many ELLs sit silently through their classes. These students are given very few opportunities to develop their academic oral language—broadly defined as the language of textbooks and testing, though Soto uses it to refer to proper “vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and register.” In fact, English-language learners spend less than 2 percent of the school day improving their academic oral language, she says, even though it’s a critical foundation of literacy.

Overall, Soto adds, ELLs are missing out in one of two ways: “We’ve either dummied down the curriculum so it’s too easy and students stay at the basic levels of social language, or we keep the rigor but don’t provide appropriate scaffolding so students can access the content.”