Every Teacher a Language Teacher

By Leslie Nabors Oláh

In the 1974 Lau v. Nichols decision, the Supreme Court affirmed that all students, regardless of native language, are entitled to "a meaningful opportunity to participate in the educational program." This unanimous decision effectively added English Language Learners (ELLs) to the growing list of U.S. citizens to benefit from the civil rights movement.

These legal protections have evolved into policies that govern how districts, schools, and teachers educate ELLs, so it makes sense to ask ourselves how we're doing in ELL education. Are we providing ELL students meaningful opportunities to learn from the same curricula as their native-English-speaking peers?

Understanding the Challenge

Today, there is no more pressing issue facing K-12 public schools than the education of ELLs. Currently, one in ten students in the U.S. is new to the English language, a number that has been increasing steadily for the past decade.1 ELLs have traditionally matriculated into relatively few schools located in a few clusters of districts across the U.S., and, therefore, they have been seen as the responsibility of a cadre of specialists-English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers. Also, the most common approaches to teaching ELLs view these children as a discrete group of students who can enter the general education population once they have reached a certain level of English language proficiency.

The facts indicate, however, that educating ELLs has become a widespread challenge that demands a more extensive approach than we have seen thus far, and I argue below that the current ubiquity of ELLs means that we can no longer afford to approach their education in conventional ways. Our current instructional approaches (designed to redress injustices in the 1970s) need to be rethought in response to changing U.S. demographics as well as newer ways of envisioning content-area knowledge. 

Few understand the totality of the ELL phenomenon. While the media have traditionally focused on the policies and politics of the border regions, the highest growth in ELLs is in areas that many may find surprising. Although California, Texas, Illinois, Florida, and New York remain the states with the largest numbers of immigrants, the states with the highest growth in ELL populations (more than 200 percent from 1995 to 2005) include Wyoming, Nebraska, Indiana, Kentucky, and Alabama2. Initially, this means that small groups of ELL students will be welcomed into schools and classrooms that are unprepared for their arrival. With time, some students may benefit from this immersion setting while other districts and schools may soon become overwhelmed trying to meet the needs of this new population.

While the data focus our collective attention on migration rates of children who do not speak English, it's important to note that language isn't the only issue facing schools in the education of immigrant children. Often, what separates ELLs from their native-English-speaking peers -- both in academic achievement as well as social adjustment -- is not language per se, but rather the quantity and quality of  formal school experiences that have been available to them. Recently arrived immigrants from refugee camps may not have had previous access to formal schooling, but neither have children whose labor was necessary for their family's economic survival. Similarly, children whose parents are migrant farm workers may have spent time in classrooms, but perhaps never in the same school two years in a row.

Compounding this problem, the annual assessments that states administer to comply with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) are probably inadequate for assessing this population of learners. I say "probably," because, six years after the passage of NCLB, we still don't know that much about them. For example, states have not routinely checked to see that student performance on the English Language Proficiency exams (required of ELL students) correlates with performance on the reading portion of the state-wide exam given to the general student population. This seemingly straightforward way of judging the ability of the ELP exam to measure language proficiency needed for school achievement is rarely done.

We are also beginning to get a clearer picture of biases that may exist in NCLB assessments. While it is true that ELLs generally score lower than non-ELL students because they are less familiar with academic content or language, it is also the case that portions of some assessments may penalize ELL students unfairly. For example, Maria Martiniello, a researcher at the Educational Testing Service, identified test questions on the 2003 Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) fourth-grade exam in mathematics3 that contained linguistic and visual features particularly confusing to ELLs (such as contextualizing word problems with typically "American" situations like a spelling-bee championship). What makes this a particularly important finding is that the linguistic features she identified are independent of the mathematics content being assessed, suggesting that we could do a better job of designing fair assessments without sacrificing rigor.

Succinctly put, then, the challenge is to educate a changing student population with various educational needs, knowing that currently mandated assessments may not be giving us the most accurate information on their aptitude or achievement.

Current Approaches Are Insufficient

Approaches to educating ELL students can be divided into two broad groups: those that focus on English-language proficiency and those that offer bilingual education. The most common programs of the first type are sheltered language instruction (in which ELLs are taught English and content subjects as a separate class) and ESL pull-out (in which individual students or groups of students receive English language instruction, usually while the other students in their class have Language Arts). Popular programs that aim to develop dual language proficiency include Two Way Immersion programs (in which native and non-native speakers of both languages learn language and content in one class) and Transitional Bilingual Programs (in which students temporarily receive content instruction in their native language with the goal of moving to 100 percent instruction in the English language). Across the U.S., educators provide a wide variety of programs to ELLs, essentially by choosing the most effective program from the above list.

Given the linguistic, socialization, and assessment challenges involved in educating ELL students, however, it's clear that these traditional approaches are not sufficient to meet our goals for English language proficiency. According to the most recent report issued by the U.S. Department of Education, only half of the states in the U.S. met their annual goals for either making gains in or attaining English proficiency4. Even states that have made progress in this area have had to pay a price for emphasizing ESL instruction. Arizona, for example, enacted a law calling for ELL students to receive four hours of language instruction per day. At least one district in the state plans to defy this law, arguing that such a focus on language instruction prohibits students from acquiring enough content area course credits to graduate.5

Focusing on ESL pull-out has additional drawbacks. Even when students receive high-quality ESL instruction as part of a pull-out program, they still spend the vast majority of their day with teachers not trained in instructing ELLs. Also, the fact that many of these students do not have experience in formal school settings calls for an approach that is supportive of students' language learning in the context of classroom integration.

As for districts and schools in "high-ELL growth" regions, bilingual and sheltered language programs may not be the best choices. Successful bilingual education requires bilingual teachers and bilingual curricula, and these new high-growth areas are less likely to have teachers trained in bilingual or sheltered- language instruction or have developed curricula around dual-language instruction. In addition, one very important prerequisite for bilingual education is a bilingual student population. While many regions, districts, or neighborhoods may have a critical mass of speakers of one language (other than English), in many other cases a mosaic of languages is spoken by students within one area.

What Should Be Done?

It's time for us to recognize that every teacher is a language teacher. All teachers of all levels, subjects, and student populations teach language every day. Adopting this view means that we need to bring all teachers to the table when designing curricula, assessments, and instruction for ELLs.

I would very much like to take credit for this idea, but I can't -- it's something we've known for some time. In 1988, Courtney Cazden found that classroom language, and particularly "nonconscious aspects of language use," plays a critical role in the social life of the classroom as well as teachers' assessments of student achievement. Teachers' unexamined expectations and values around language use often created difficulties for students who did not share these norms. For example, students who use overlapping speech to communicate approval of their friends' message may be perceived as rudely interrupting by teachers who do not share this practice. Likewise, students who come from cultures where volunteering to answer a teacher's questions is boastful behavior may be perceived as knowing little by many teachers in U.S. classrooms6. But even though this perspective is accepted in academic circles and communities of practice, we still treat language learning as separate from acquiring discipline-based knowledge, both for native Englishlanguage speakers and their ELL peers.

To continue to create policy and enact instruction as if language learning is not relevant to all parts of our lives is to accept a future of middling academic performance from our ELL population (currently, less than 20 percent of the states have ELLs meeting content area achievement targets (tested in grades 3-8 and once in high school). There literally aren't enough hours in the day to teach English language and discipline-based knowledge unless we radically change our approach to language instruction. By envisioning an integrated approach to instruction, we will benefit many other students as well. In fact, explicitly attending to the linguistic features of content-area instruction has the potential to benefit any student whose "home language," or dialect is markedly different from standard academic English.

So, what does integration of language and content instruction look like? In short, teachers -- all teachers -- need to know how phonology, lexicon, syntax, and discourse features affect understanding of content. Teachers at every level and of every content area need to learn how the way we talk (and write) impacts student learning of subject-area knowledge.

The most obvious area in which language and content overlap is content-based vocabulary. While all students must grapple with the difference between a "polygon" and a "polyhedron," the challenge is greater for students who come to the classroom weak in the English language, weak in mathematics, or both. Most teachers, of course, are already aware that acquisition of new vocabulary may be particularly difficult for ELL students, but what they might not be aware of is the extent to which the level of difficulty depends on the students' first language. To continue with the geometry example, students who speak Spanish as a first language are more likely to already be familiar with these terms than are students who speak, say, Russian, since western European languages tend to use Greek terms for these objects whereas languages spoken in eastern Europe do not. 

Explicit attention to vocabulary and comprehension can benefit most students in a classroom. Elementary school teachers are already accustomed to instructing schools need to begin efforts in this area. In a recently published longitudinal study of low-income children's academic pathways from first grade to high school, Catherine Snow and her colleagues found that even (native English-speaking) children who were good initial readers in elementary schools had a need for "rich and explicit comprehension instruction in the middle and secondary grades."7

While ELL students have to acquire thousands of new words before becoming proficient in the English language, they must also learn a new syntax or grammar. In our recent study on teachers' use of interim assessments, teachers of ELL student often protest that mathematics assessments too often test "reading" and not "just" mathematics. What is most troubling, however, is that when teachers are asked about their students' troubles with reading mathematics, it is difficult for the teachers to identify specific difficulties. In part, this is because the U.S. does not require its teachers to learn the grammar of their own language, but it is also true that ESL specialists are rarely consulted during the construction of assessments, which often include reduced syntax or simplified grammar in an attempt to make items appear more colloquial to students. But without important grammatical key words, ELLs may misinterpret these types of questions.

Finally, we can do a better job of alerting teachers to the effects that discourse, or larger, contextualized communication, has on student learning. In my training to become an ESL teacher, I was cautioned to carefully consider the language I used when giving students feedback on written work. For example, the phrase "much better" that is often written beside or at the end of student work is incredibly obtuse. Does it mean that the student has out-performed her peers? Does it mean that she needs to do better? Or did the teacher mean to indicate progress? Teachers often assume that students will understand them when they communicate in the way that teachers communicate. ELLs, as well as students who are unaccustomed to the language rituals of U.S. classrooms, need teachers who are aware of potential pitfalls in language use.

Because we need all teachers to become aware that they are language teachers, we cannot delegate this work to the "ESL people." Because we need all teachers to act in the awareness that they are language teachers, we need to reframe both preservice and in-service teacher professional development. At the pre-service stage, for example, future teachers need to learn about the ways in which language diversity affects subject area learning, while part of in-service learning should be educating new teachers on the specificities of their particular student population.

One such initiative is Penn GSE's "Spanish for Teachers" summer workshops, which are designed to teach regular education teachers from a local high-ELL growth area about communicative routines that establish better rapport with Spanish-speaking students and their parents. GSE faculty and doctoral students have been working with these teachers on how to use Spanish to welcome parents to the parent-teacher conferences and also educating teachers on the typical day in the life of an ELL student. The district teachers have been surprised, for example, at how many responsibilities the ELL students have outside of school (e.g., caring for younger siblings) compared with the non-ELL students.

Other small-scale initiatives like ours are appearing across the U.S., but given the rapidly changing demographics and the generally weak academic performance of ELLs, it is well time to adopt solutions like these on a much broader scale and to test their efficacy. No less is required if we are serious about developing meaningful
opportunities to learn for ELLs.

Leslie Nabors Oláh is a research assistant professor at Penn GSE and a researcher at the Consortium for Policy Research in Education.


  1. National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition (NCELA), 2006.  return to article
  2. Batalova, J. "Immigrant and ELL Education: A Demographic Overview." Presentation at ETS-NCLR Symposium The Language Acquisition and Educational Achievement of English-Language Learners. Educational Testing Service, Princeton, NJ, January 15-16, 2008.   return to article
  3. Martiniello, M. (2008). Language and the performance of English-language learners in math word problems. Harvard Educational Review, 78, 333-368.  return to article
  4. Office of English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement, and Academic Achievement for Limited English Proficient Students. Biennial Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Title III State Formula Grant Program, School Years 2004-06. Washington, DC, 2008.  return to article
  5. Arizona District Plans to Defy State Law on English Instruction" Education Week, 27, p. 5. June 4, 2008.  return to article
  6. Cazden, C. (2001). Classroom Discourse: The Language of Teaching and Learning, 2nd ed. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.  return to article
  7. Snow, C.E., Porche, M.V., Tabors, P.O., & Harris, S.R. (2007). Is literacy enough? Pathways to academic success for adolescents. Baltimore, MD: Brookes.  return to article