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WIDA's Featured Educator is a monthly interview with a classroom, district, or state-level educator on how he or she is making a difference for language learners. You can honor an exceptional colleague by emailing with "Featured Educator Nomination" in the subject line.

Briefly tell us why you think he or she is doing an amazing job. Please include the person's name, what they do, and contact information we can use to set up an interview. Thank you for helping us feature amazing educators of language learners.

Maryann MacDougall: Featured Educator

March 2017

WIDA “Featured Educator” March: Maryann MacDougall is a speech-language pathologist in Watertown, MA.  Maryann demonstrates the power of collaboration with ESL and other educators in supporting dual language learners.

photo of Maryann MacDougalle
Maryann MacDougall

Where do you teach? What ages(s)/grade(s)? How long have you been a teacher and how long have you been at your current school or program?

MM: I am a speech-language pathologist (SLP) in the Watertown, MA school district. I have worked in this district for over 25 years. Prior to that I worked as an SLP in clinics and hospitals. Until this year I was also the Evaluation Team Chair for IEP meetings and SLP for Early Steps Integrated Preschool. The role of the team chair enabled me to be involved with student referrals from start to finish. This year brought a change in my life and my new part-time position as an SLP is split between our middle school and the preschool.

What is your program like?

MM: The Early Steps Integrated Preschool is a program that recognizes the strengths and needs of 3-4 year old children, including those with identified special needs.  The program centers on the premise that children learn best in a child-centered environment that provides developmentally appropriate learning experiences. For this reason, we take a team approach to address each child’s diverse and changing needs. Families are also an integral part of the educational process and are encouraged to be active participants through our teachers and Parent Outreach Coordinator.

Can you tell me a little about its location, size and about the composition of the student body? 

MM: Watertown is a community of approximately 33,000 located six miles northwest of Boston. We have a student body of about 2,554. Based upon the most recent data from the Department of Education, there are 32 different language spoken; 9.8% are ELL students and 33.4% are First Language is not English (FLNE) students. The special education rate is currently 20.4%.  The community has strong cultural ties to the wide variety of residents. 

Why are you an educator?

MM: Raising a family helped me decide to switch from a clinical SLP to education. Initially, I thought learning more about education and having a school work schedule would be good while my children were growing, and that I would return to the medical field as they got older. But as you can see, I never left. I found that no matter how much I learned, there was still so much more to explore. Expanding my knowledge outside of my original field allowed me to grow in ways I couldn’t have predicted.

What do you love about your job?

MM: I am constantly amazed at the passion of so many general and special education teachers, and related services providers. Their desire to help children reach their potential is inspirational. Additionally, working with children and their families brings me immense joy as new skills are learned and children exceed expectations.

What frustrates you?

MM: I get frustrated times when people fail to collaborate or when a teacher questions the benefits of bilingualism due to a disability. It is critical that those of us armed with knowledge and research continue to convey the message that bilingualism can be beneficial for all children! We continue to hear stories of outside agencies, pediatricians, and those working with children who perpetuate myths about bilingualism. Misinformation was the driving force for a collaborative effort between the ESL and Special Education Departments for a town-wide Bilingualism is a Gift campaign.

What is your approach in your classroom towards DLLs?  

MM: As an SLP I do not have my own classroom, so it is critical that any suggestions by me and/or the ESL teacher be implemented across the school day.  At the preschool level, training and input from our ESL teacher helped us make approaches consistent across classrooms. It also helped us give teachers and their assistants the confidence and tools needed to support children and families. Consultation and review of progress helps support teachers as well. Family stories are always interesting and relevant to a child's experience in school. Teamwork is essential.

What techniques/strategies have you found to be most effective in teaching DLLs?

MM: We know that strategies and accommodations typically used for children with special needs, are good teaching practices that benefit all children. Successful practices include using language appropriate to the level of the child, using visuals to help children understand the schedule and expectation, providing books/songs in other languages or about other cultures, understanding the progression of dual language learners, and parent outreach. It also helps for teachers to understand the nature of language development for typical children, as well as DLLs to help them differentiate what might be DLL behavior.

How do you determine/decide what language to focus on in a lesson?

MM: With so many different languages spoken within any given classroom, the curriculum is conducted in English. The program uses a curriculum that is followed by classroom staff with specific vocabulary related to literacy, science, math, etc. This vocabulary is embedded and expanded upon throughout the preschool day via structured activities, books, songs and play. This allows children to experience the language across settings throughout the day. Teachers are sensitive that not all children have the same experiences and adjust accordingly. The speech-language pathologists working directly with children identified with special needs often reinforce the language during the child's treatment sessions.  The SLP may also provide feedback to the teacher on how to further accommodate a DLL child.

Describe your planning process to address the needs of DLLs, if possible.

MM: Speech-language pathologists and the ESL teacher in our program may observe and consult on DLLs if teachers have questions around a child’s development. A child that is not making effective progress may be provided with a Tier 2 6-8 week targeted intervention plan with the SLP. This may be done prior to making a referral to gather data and determine if additional accommodations benefit the child. Encouraging teachers to obtain some background information is also important as a planning tool. There may be social-emotional factors that are unknown to staff or which families did not realize was important to share.

For children referred due to concerns of a disability, the planning process begins with parent consent and an assessment. For many young children this assessment may be through observation, language samples, home language samples (that are translated if taken in another language), normative data, or historical, medical and developmental information. The ESL teacher may do an observation of the child, or a parent interview, and use WIDA E-ELD Performance Definitions to assist in determining a difference vs. disorder.

How do you encourage DLLs to learn?

MM: It is imperative that all adults working with our students understand and support dual language development. We encourage DLLs to learn by meeting children at their current level of ability, giving them time to adapt to the setting (which may be longer than typical expected), and encouraging children to explore and play. Staff strive to understand the cultural and behavioral values of families and adjust expectations accordingly. Snack/lunch times provide wonderful opportunities to talk about family life, food, customs, etc.

How do you assess your students’ language learning?

MM: With regards to an Initial Evaluation, there is a toolkit of resources to use and it is a team effort. This may include play based observation of child alone, in a child care setting, at home, with other children in a classroom; language samples (in one more languages); video recordings (from parents); and formal tests. It should include normative data and a detailed history. As noted above, we include the WIDA E-ELD Performance Definitions. All of this information, combined with data from the General Education GOLD assessment, helps determine next steps for the child and what reasonable expectations might look like. To assess progress, we again collect data, language samples, and behavioral observations after a period of time. The WIDA E-ELD Performance Definitions can again be used to note if the child has demonstrated growth.

How has WIDA helped you achieve your goals as an educator?

MM: Having the guidelines and specific language behaviors for DLLs helps SLPs differentiate difference vs. disorder for a dual language learner. The WIDA E-ELD Standards and Promising Practice book provides teachers with concrete information. We all can see where our strengths lie and what areas can be improved. Our hope is for continued growth and education between ESL/Speech-Language and Special Education.