• Kristin Grayson, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • January 2016 •

Upon request, the IDRA South Central Collaborative for Equity recently returned to southern Arkansas to assess rural districts’ needs in response to the growing numbers of English learners (ELs) in public schools.

At about the same time, the U.S. Department of Education released a new English Learner Toolkit September 2015). As IDRA met with directors of English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) programs from various school districts, we used the toolkit to shape the discussion about how to better serve EL students. For example, the first two chapters have lists of questions that participants used as an outline for describing their district’s current EL programming and professional development needs for content and grade level teachers. Participants also had access to IDRA’s Good Schools and Classrooms for Children Learning English: A Guide, a resource that districts can use to plan a quality, equity-based program for ELs (Robledo Montecel, et al., 2002).

The group discussed the sources of legal guidance that should form the basis of EL programs that must be provided in public schools. Central to the discussion were the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Lau v. Nichols Supreme Court decision that followed. The ruling states, “Where inability to speak and understand the English language excludes national origin-minority group children from effective participation in the educational program offered by a school district, the district must take affirmative steps to rectify the language deficiency in order to open its instructional program to these students.”

A strong and viable foundation of quality English learners’ programs is based on the Six Goals of Educational Equity developed by IDRA and the legal guidance provided in the aforementioned toolkit and a January 2015 Office for Civil Rights guidance letter (U.S. Department of Education, January 2015). Once districts have a program in place, they must continually assess whether the program, teachers, and students are achieving progress. The 1981 Casteñeda v. Pickard ruling gives districts three-prong guidance on how to plan and evaluate their programs (Office for Civil Rights, 2000):

  • Is the program based on educational research recognized by experts in the field or as a legitimate experimental strategy?
  • Are the practices and programs, as well as personnel and resources, reasonable for implementing this educational theory?
  • Does the district regularly evaluate its programs and make the needed adjustments to ensure that language barriers are actually being overcome?

In the discussion forum in rural Arkansas, ESOL directors articulated a need for assistance knowing they cannot work in isolation through “pull-out” programs to meet the educational and linguistic needs of their English learners. Multiple researchers have shown that pull-out programs are the least effective method of ESL instruction, especially when such programs are not supplemented by the students’ regular teachers. In other words, regular classroom teachers need to add specific ESL techniques to their teaching repertoire to address the needs of English learners.

All instruction must be comprehensible or understandable to the student and have an intentional focus on increasing that student’s language proficiency to the next level. Students need to be immersed in language-rich environments and be structured and focused ESL instruction throughout the day.

Some ways that teachers can make language comprehensible for ELs include integrating into daily lesson plans the development of academic language from the various core content areas, ensuring that ELs participate in classroom environments rich in vocabulary building opportunities. Just like other students, English learners need to know what they are expected to learn and how, language-wise, that will be accomplished.

These objectives need to be clearly stated at the beginning of the lesson, posted in the classroom, and then restated by students. At the end of the lesson, teachers should return to these objectives, and EL students and teachers together should determine if they have met all the objectives for that time period. By having these specific beginnings and endings to instructional time, students can clarify and remember what they have learned, not just what they have done.

Good Schools and Classrooms for Children Learning English – A Guide

The focus on integrating language objectives throughout the instructional day needs to be tailored and differentiated to the language proficiency levels of each English learner in the classroom and the language domain (listening, speaking, reading, or writing) of the instructional task. Teachers must understand the rationale for integrating language development throughout the day. The rationale comes to life when teachers have the opportunity to observe model teachers as they integrate language in actual classroom situations without compromising content instruction.

Because English learner students are learning a new language, they need multiple oral and written exposures to the different language forms presented through the language objectives. This also means that ELs need plenty of practice speaking and using English frequently throughout the day. Some practitioners recommend that students interact with other students at least two out of every 10 minutes during the school day.

A focus on developing academic and language objectives helps lessons become more comprehensible or understandable for students. Lessons also should be accompanied by the continuous use of visuals, drawings, body movements, gestures, and facial expressions to add meaning to the spoken word of the teacher. (See “Three Teaching Strategies…”)

Ways to provide opportunity for student and teacher interactions include interactive notebooks and essays (teachers comment on student writing) and student pass-arounds (students write something, then pass to the next student who adds to the writing, with an eventual conversation after several rounds). During gallery walks, students move in small groups, commenting on visuals posted at given stations with appropriate oral prompts. A “parking lot” is a place that students can place post-it notes with thoughts or questions that come to their mind during teacher direct instruction.

IDRA promotes a language-rich environment, rigorous content instruction, and an accountability system from the classroom to central office administrators that holds the school responsible for the academic success of EL students. This means that there are many anchor charts, visuals, posters, word walls, and plenty of other legible print around the classroom. This language-rich environment can reinforce learning, while students are gazing around the room during instruction. Be sure to periodically change this environmental print.

The conversation about educating English learners is in full swing in rural Arkansas. The IDRA SCCE is ready to support school administrators’ strong leadership to promote the type of changes needed so that equitable instruction ensures the academic success of all language diverse students. The common goal is to celebrate the language that students know and give structure and opportunity for them to  develop their native language, whenever possible,  and most definitely become proficient in English and strong contributors of a future we will share.


Office for Civil Rights. Programs for English Language Learners Resource Materials for Planning and Self-Assessments (Washington, D.C., U.S. Department of Education, November 30, 1999; rev March 28, 2000).

U.S. Department of Education. English Learner Toolkit for State and Local Education Agencies (SEAs and LEAs) (Washington, D.C., U.S. Department of Education, September 2015).

U.S. Departments of Education and Justice. “Dear Colleague Letter” (Washington, D.C., U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Justice, January 7, 2015).

Kristin Grayson, Ph.D., is an IDRA education associate. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at kristin.grayson@idra.org. 

[©2016, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the January 2016 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Every effort has been made to maintain the content in its original form. However, accompanying charts and graphs may not be provided here. To receive a copy of the original article by mail or fax, please fill out our information request and feedback form. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]