Preparing to Pass the ESL Supplemental (154) in Texas
Updated: Jan 23
Five tips for preparing for the Texas ESL Supplemental (154) plus links to a bunch of free resources to help you get started.
With over a million K-12 learners qualifying for ESL services annually in the state of Texas, the need for ESL-endorsed practitioners has never been higher. While it's not clear whether districts will ultimately make this endorsement a requirement for employment, it is certainly in teachers' best interests to pursue this additional certification. Not to mention it's also in students' best interests for their teachers to know how best to work with ELs!
Below are five things to keep in mind as you prepare for this test, with links to free must-use resources to help you get started.
#1 - You'll need to brush up on your knowledge of grammar and linguistics.
As a linguist, this first point warms my heart but strikes fear for most test takers. Phonemes, syntax, pragmatics . . . oh my! You not only need to know what these terms mean, but also how to recognize when ELs need support in each area.
One of the best quick-but-thorough reviews of grammar and linguistics is a set of YouTube videos produced by Katy ISD's Karen Lewis. In just a little over ten minutes, she'll review all the major linguistics concepts you need. Then, in the second video of similar length, she'll give an overview of need-to-know grammar topics, particularly verb tenses and types of nouns.
If you need a more in-depth review, my colleague Dr. Marco Shappeck and I wrote a book called Linguistics for Pre-Service Educators. It's written in a very chatty and informal style, with bite-sized sections for easy reading and exercises with an answer key. It's currently available for around five bucks on amazon.com. This book is the only non-free resource mentioned in this post, but we priced it at-cost so it can be accessible to all learners.
I also created a jeopardy powerpoint that has some review questions pertaining to linguistics and grammar. It's available as a free download, so grab a buddy or play by yourself and see how much you already know!
#2 - It's best to have a working knowledge of how ESL is structured in Texas, how students are identified, and how an LPAC works.
The Language Proficiency Assessment Committee (LPAC) is a critical part of how ELs are identified and serviced in Texas schools. You can't take the ESL Supplemental without understanding the basics of this committee, including its purpose and its requirements.
One of the best resources I've found for this is available through the Texas Education Agency LPAC website, which has a great infographic designed for parents of ELs that explains the process from start to finish. Be sure to note the two types of ESL programs listed (pull-out vs. sheltered). I recommend you read and remember the whole thing, including the small print at the end where it talks about how ELs are monitored for two years after they exit the program.
This same website also offers some videos that role play an LPAC meeting. A little cheesy, yes, but they give you a good sense of what the committee does.
#3 - Familiarity with the ELPS and the language acquisition theorists whose work shaped them is a MUST.
The English Language Proficiency Standards (ELPS) are the guiding document that ESL-certified teachers use to teach ELs in Texas. While the TEKS are the content standards, the ELPS are the set of language objectives that every lesson should teach and assess. They are divided by proficiency levels (beginning, intermediate, advanced, and advanced high — which you MUST know the difference between for the exam) and by the four domains of English language development: speaking, writing, reading, and listening. You should definitely read the ELPS and if you need help interpreting them, read this cheat sheet version written from the instructional perspective.
Although the names Stephen Krashen and Jim Cummins are not mentioned in these documents, these second language acquisition theorists' ideas permeate the pages. The key to doing well on the ESL Supplemental lies in not only knowing the basic tenets of each person's theory, but also in understanding the theoretical perspective adopted by the state of Texas.
Specifically, this means that you need to know the concepts of comprehensible input and affective filter put forth by Krashen and also the three contrasts highlighted in Cummins' work: BICS vs. CALP, additive vs. subtractive bilingualism, and context-embedded vs. context-reduced language. A review of these terms is available here and here.
But, you also need to know that while Krashen's idea of comprehensible input is considered best practice for instruction of ELs in Texas, the state is not as fond of his input-only stance on language acquisition. Instead, the first few paragraphs of the ELPS specifically state that "Effective instruction in second language acquisition involves giving ELLs opportunities to listen, speak, read, and write at their current levels of English development while gradually increasing the linguistic complexity of the English they read and hear, and are expected to speak and write." This means that the state believes in an integrated approach to teaching ELs that incorporates all four domains and does not prioritize any one domain over the other. Sometimes you'll hear this integration of domains referred to as SWiRLing which is an acronym that stands for speaking (S), writing (W), reading (R), and listening (L). (A full explanation of SWiRLing is available in this previous blog post.)
Probably the most important thing for you to know to pass the exam is that the theoretical perspective adopted by the state of Texas is represented by that little "i" in the middle of SWiRL. It stands for interaction and is a nod to the sociocultural lens through which you should answer each question on the exam. Many questions on the ESL Supplemental have multiple answers that seem like they could be good things to do with ELs. But, the BEST answer is almost always the one that utilizes cooperative learning, authentic and meaningful communication, and/or negotiation of meaning — all tenets of the sociocultural perspective.
This also means that answers that emphasize more behaviorist ideas, such as memorized dialogues, looking up translations in a dictionary, or adopting a negative view of the students' home language, are not likely to be correct. Know the theory and you'll be able to discriminate between the good answers and the right answers.
#4 - You can prepare well using only the free resources provided by the Texas Education Administration (TEA).
While you can certainly purchase a review book to study for the exam or take a prep class at the regional service center in your area, TEA actually provides high-quality materials free of charge. Before spending the big bucks on a review book, I recommend you download this TEXES ESL Supplemental (154) guide, which has test-taking tips as well as a practice exam with detailed answer explanations.
If you want to review these same practice questions in a more jazzed up way, feel free to download this copy of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? game that I created from the TEA guide. If you've ever watched this game show before, you know that contestants talk through the answer choices and ultimately lock in on a "final answer", using lifelines throughout if needed. While you can play by yourself and just use the internet as your friend to "phone" when you need help, it's way more fun if you can play with a couple of fellow test preppers. Talking through your thought process of each question and using the 50-50 lifeline will not only help you eliminate wrong answer choices, it will also help your audience think through what the best answer could be.
5) Passing the exam is just the beginning to being able to effectively work with ELs.
If you use the resources given above to guide your test preparation, you will be well-positioned to pass the ESL supplemental. And that's a great thing! But, a word of caution:
When I graduated with my Ph.D., I remember being told that the diploma was just the beginning of my educational journey, not the end. This was literally the last thing I wanted to hear after spending 23 long years in school! But, they were right. I have learned more about linguistics in the time since I received my degree than in all my graduate school years combined. And, it will be the same for you.
Passing the ESL exam means that you are now equipped to work with English learners in the state of Texas. And while you've studied hard and know your stuff, answering exam questions correctly is not in and of itself enough to make you effective with ELs. That comes through on the job experience and also through continued professional development.
One of the best things about becoming an ESL-certified teacher is that you join a community of educators who are passionate about making content accessible to ALL learners, regardless of linguistic ability. Just hop on twitter and you'll find a treasure trove of ideas, information, and gurus who can help you navigate any issues that you face. So, take advantage of your new status as a teacher of ELs. Join in on a virtual book club such as #ellchat_bkclub or attend the next TexTESOL state or local conference.
When it's all said and done, you'll find that your ESL certification has not only strengthened your resume and increased your impact in the classroom, but — if you let it — it will also connect you to some of the best, most inspiring, and most affirming educators whose influence will help ensure that, even after the exam is a distant memory in your mind, you continue serving ELs in the best possible way.
In case you're in a hurry and didn't have time for the whole blog post, here's the redux version of resources you should download to study for the ESL Supplemental (154) Exam:
And here are some of the slides that I use in my ESL Supplemental training sessions: