Preparing New ESL Teachers for the Advocacy Role: Suggestions and Considerations

Author: Heather Linville, University of Wisconsin, La Crossesummer 2016 image 3


Teaser: In this article, a teacher educator outlines a step-by-step process to prepare ESL teacher candidates to advocate for ELLs. Including a useful definition of advocacy and suggestions for advocacy actions, the author herself advocates for addressing both the disposition to advocate and the skills of advocacy in pre-service teacher education programs.

As a teacher educator of new English as a second language (ESL) teachers in the United States, advocacy for English language learners (ELLs) is an essential consideration and a main goal of my teaching. While many think of advocacy as political action, such as writing a letter to a newspaper or lobbying public officials (for example, what happens at TESOL’s Advocacy Day these actions are often beyond the scope of the average teacher (see Linville, 2016, for a discussion of advocacy versus activism). The way we conceive of advocacy for ESL teachers, on the other hand, can be defined as noticing challenges to ELLs’ educational success and taking action, for example, by speaking up, sharing information, or providing resources, for ELLs and/or their families, with other potential co-advocates at the classroom, school, community, state, or national level, in order to improve ELLs’ treatment and access to educational resources with the larger goal of improving their life chances. (Linville, 2014, p.220)

This definition encompasses both what teachers do in their own classroom and schools, as well as those actions beyond the school, making advocacy much more accessible and possible for all ESL teachers.

Based on my research, most ESL teacher candidates develop or refine their disposition for advocacy in their teacher education programs. However, they tend to learn about the importance of advocacy and how to advocate on the job (Linville, 2014). This means that learning to advocate depends upon the teaching context; for example, whether or not they encounter a mentor colleague to help guide them in their advocacy actions in their first years of teaching. In contrast, I recommend teaching advocacy skills in the teacher education program. In this article, I outline some ways I do this.

First, I teach the ESL teacher candidates the rights of ELLs and the responsibilities of schools in educating these students, both those historically won in court cases (for a good overview, see Ovando and Combs, 2012, Chapter 2) and the current legal requirements (as outlined in the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education’s “Dear Colleague” letter. By teaching future ESL teachers about the legal rights of ELLs and responsibilities of schools, they are prepared to notice when, in their classrooms and schools, these rights are being violated or when schools are not providing what by law they must – an essential first step in advocating.

Next, I engage the teacher candidates in a discussion about the risks involved in advocating. In particular, other researchers have found that risks [in advocating for ELLs] increased as teachers moved outside their classrooms to concerns about offending family members, colleagues and staff when disagreeing about students’ needs, and potential job loss if one emerged as a constant controversial voice… [T]eachers need conviction to act and the courage to confront other educators as needed, and a realization that even when things don’t go well during confrontations, there is a need to be in the public sphere of school, voicing on behalf of students in need and for changes in practices and policies. (Athanases and de Oliveira, 2007, p. 133)

By recognizing and naming the risks involved in advocacy, I hope to build teacher candidates’ ability to face such risks. I reassure them that feeling anxious or nervous is normal and that, while it is possible to take no action when noticing ELLs’ rights being violated, the importance of advocating should overcome their hesitance.

The next step is to present the teacher candidates with the notion of speaking up, a common way of conceptualizing advocacy (de Oliveira and Athanases, 2007; Forhan and Scheraga, 2000). I give the teacher candidates various scenarios in which advocacy for ELLs is needed, and then they plan what they would say and role play how they would speak up. I purposefully vary the situations to involve several types of stakeholders to whom the candidates must advocate for ELLs: ELL families, other ESL teachers or general education teachers, and administrators. By giving the teacher candidates an opportunity to practice what they would say in certain situations, I hope to develop their skills and increase their confidence for speaking up once they are in their own classrooms.

Finally, other potential advocacy actions are discussed, from providing resources to ELL families to teaching ELL families and ELLs to advocate for themselves. At this point, the teacher candidates create an advocacy plan. They identify potential challenges that ELLs may face in their future teaching context, based on what they have learned in the class and observations, and identify three advocacy actions they could take in response to those anticipated challenges. They are encouraged to consider potential “road blocks” they may face in advocating and how they would overcome these. The final part of the advocacy plan asks the teacher candidates to describe the vision they have for ELLs in their future teaching context and how the advocacy plan can help them achieve that vision in order to also focus the future ESL teachers on greater opportunities for ELLs beyond schooling.

My goal for the teacher candidates I work with is that they leave their teacher education program aware of the potential challenges to the rights of the ELLs they will encounter in their classrooms, schools, and communities, and that they are prepared both with the disposition and the skills to advocate for their future ELL students. ESL teachers tend to believe that advocacy is a part of their role (Linville, 2015) and training them to advocate once they are on the job is one option (for an excellent professional development resource, see Staehr Fenner, 2013). However, by providing preparation in how to advocate in teacher education programs, we can increase ESL teachers’ ability to successfully carry out this vitally important part of their role.


Athanases, S.Z. & de Oliviera, L.C. (2007). Conviction, confrontation, and risk in new teachers’ advocating for equity. Teaching Education 18 (2), 123-136.

de Oliveira, L.C. & Athanases, S.Z. (2007). Graduates’ reports of advocating for English language learners. Journal of Teacher Education 58 (3), 202-215.

Forhan, L.E. & Scheraga, M. (2000). Becoming sociopolitically active. In Hall, J.K. and Eggington, W.G. (Eds.). The sociopolitics of English language teaching. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters Ltd.

Linville, H.A. (2014). A mixed-methods investigation of ESOL teacher advocacy: “It’s not going in and just teaching English” (Doctoral dissertation). Proquest. (3624381)

Linville, H. (2016a). ESOL teachers as advocates: An important role? TESOL Journal 7 (1), 98-131.

Available at

Linville, H. (2016b). Advocacy or activism: What do we expect from ESOL teachers? TEIS News: The Newsletter of the Teacher Education Interest Section 30 (1). Available at

Linville, H. (forthcoming). Developing advocacy skills in ESOL teachers

Ovando, C. J. and Combs, M.C. (2012). Bilingual and ESL classrooms: Teaching in multicultural contexts, 5th edition. New York: McGraw Hill.

Staehr Fenner, D. (2013). Advocacy for English Learners. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Heather Linville, Assistant Professor/Director of TESOL at University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, holds a PhD in Language, Literacy and Culture. She also serves on and is a reviewer for the TESOL/CAEP standards team. Heather’s research interests include language teacher education, critical language awareness, and advocacy for English language learners.