by Kristin Grayson, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • October 2016

Simultaneously learning English and academic content can be challenging for any student. The same is true for teachers who are providing this simultaneous instruction. At the secondary level (grades 7–12), language and content are especially challenging because the academic language includes complex grammar (such as the passive voice) and a high number of vocabulary items, including low frequency words (Teach Away, 2012). Effective teachers consider the many variables, such as the age of the learner, prior schooling, previous experiences, and their native language when planning and delivering instruction.

The What Works Clearinghouse has identified strategies, with low to moderate evidence of success, that are associated with quality instruction of English learners (Baker, et al., 2014). Clearly, the research is insufficient, and more is needed to accurately inform policy and instructional practices that lead to improved student outcomes (Callahan & Shifrer, 2016). Additionally, research is needed to clarify how to help teachers further develop their complex understandings of how language works, how it varies under different circumstances, and what this means for teacher instructional practice and preparation (Kibler & Valdés, 2016).

This article reviews some of the latest research on secondary English learners and then focuses on programs, professional development and instructional practices that are being used in successful schools with English learners. It also discusses Office for Civil Rights requirements for effective instruction for English learners.


The need for research is especially pressing for “long-term” English learners, those students who have been in U.S. schools and ESL programs for more than seven years without reaching language proficiency (Kim & García, 2014). In a 2016 study of 16,380 students nationwide, Callahan & Shifrer conclude that, despite many legislative and policy mandates, secondary English learners’ trajectory into college-preparatory high school courses can be correlated to their status in an ESL program. They describe this as an equity gap for students in ESL programs by not having the same access to rigorous academic coursework and activities. Only 51 percent of native English speakers, 44 percent of language-minority students not in ESL, and 19 percent of students enrolled in ESL were enrolled in college preparatory classes.

Callaghan & Humphries (2015) also examine immigrant youth while stating that research indicates an advantage for first and second generation immigrants who are more likely to go to college are native born language-minority (ESL) students. The researchers focus only on immigrant youth and places them into three discrete groups: (1) native English speakers; (2) English learners not in ESL programs; and (3) English learners in ESL programs.

They conclude that the potential achievement of immigrant youth is correlated to their linguistic status. The authors promote more professional development for educators that builds understanding about the strengths English learners bring to the classroom, such as their native language skills and knowledge and previous experiences. Additionally, the authors promote more rigorous content instruction for all English learners.

In June 2015, IDRA released the proceedings report of the IDRA José A. Cárdenas School Finance Fellows Program symposium and research focusing on education of English learners. The study found no secondary schools in Texas that are consistently exceeding academic benchmarks with ELs. The schools with highest EL achievement expend significantly more general funds than other schools.

English learners make up the fastest growing segment of the student population but they are one of the lowest academically performing groups of students, and the achievement gap widens as students progress through school. The report also provides a set of recommendations useful for policymakers, educators, community and business leaders and parents.

Together, these studies signal that administrators and educators of secondary English learners need to examine their campus and district data to ensure that quality instruction and the necessary supports are put into place so that all students have equitable opportunities to learn, to succeed academically, and to be college and career ready.

See IDRA José A. Cárdenas School Finance Fellows Program Symposium Proceedings

Program Guidance

Programmatically, the Every Student Succeeds Act continues the focus on using evidence-based effective language programs to provide an equitable education. This is critical to ensure the civil rights of English learners as detailed in the 2015 Office for Civil Rights and U.S. Department of Justice joint Dear Colleague letter. The letter emphasizes schools’ responsibilities to ensure meaningful participation in all educational programs and services for English learners (Grayson, 2015).

This letter was followed by the release of the ELL Toolkit by the Office of English Language Acquisition that provides many examples of ways to implement effective ESL programs (2015). These are good resources for school administrators to use as a review of their English language programs.

Family engagement also must be a part of a language program. World Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA), in 2015, published a guide for family engagement stressing that all parents should to have a voice in their child’s education. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Education continues to develop new models of parent and school partnerships for U.S. diverse schools.

IDRA has successfully implemented a new model of family leadership in education that is fully exemplified in IDRA’s Comunitarios in the Rio Grande Valley. This model has been recognized by the National PTA, and is featured in a recent article, “Liderazgo Familiar Intergeneracional: Intergenerational Family Leadership as a New Paradigm of Family Engagement,” by Aurelio Montemayor, M.Ed., and Dr. Nancy Chafkin that was published by Brown University and the Annenberg Institute for School Reform.

Professional Development

Professional development needs to begin with helping teachers understand the demands of the language needed in schools (academic language) and how this is acquired. Dr. Jim Cummins coined the notion of (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) as compared to Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) in 2000. Academic language (both content-specific and complex grammar) is the language learned within the social context of school and is different from conversational language used in everyday interactions. This type of language cannot be directly taught as discrete skills (such as used in traditional reading instruction) but must be used by teachers and students within content-specific contexts so that language is acquired.

Dr. Stephen Krashen explains, “Acquisition requires meaningful interaction in the target language – natural communication – in which speakers are concerned not with the form of their utterances but with the messages they convey” (2014). Academic language, especially at the secondary level, is complex because of the amount of vocabulary, the complexity of grammar, and the prior knowledge required to understand implicit messages in textbooks and teacher presentations.


At the instructional level, one useful resource is the 2014 What Works Clearinghouse publication, Teaching Academic Content and Literacy to English Learners in Elementary and Middle School, which details four specific recommendations to use with English learners in different content areas to develop academic language: “(1) Teach a set of academic vocabulary words intensively across several days using a variety of instructional activities; (2) Integrate oral and written English language instruction into content-area teaching; (3) Provide regular, structured opportunities to develop written language skills; and (4) Provide small-group instructional intervention to students struggling in areas of literacy and English language development.” Although the practice guide is not validated for grades 9-12, it certainly can be used as a starting point in those grades as new research is developed.

In conclusion, more research is needed to further support education of secondary English learners. However, there are steps that educators and administrators can take to help ELs in their schools today. This includes an examination of school and district data for equity issues mentioned in this article. IDRA has developed a rubric specifically for this purpose, Successful Secondary Schools Serving English Learners. Additionally, the IDRA Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program provides a way to implement many of the recommendations for instructional practices. And IDRA’s guide, Science Instructional Strategies for English Learners – A Guide for Elementary and Secondary Grades, is a research-based tool for the classroom. These are only a few of the things that can be done to improve student learning and teacher knowledge while new research and models are being developed for secondary English learners.



Baker, S., & N. Lesaux, M. Jayanthi, J. Dimino, C.P. Proctor, J. Morris, R. Gersten, K. Haymond, M.J. Kieffer, S. Linan-Thompson, R. Newman-Gonchar. (2014). Teaching Academic Content and Literacy to English Learners in Elementary and Middle School (NCEE 2014-4012) (Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education).

Callahan, R.M. & D. Shifrer. (August 2016). “Equitable Access for Secondary English Learner Students: Course Taking as Evidence of EL Program Effectiveness,” Educational Administration.

Callahan, R.M., & M. Humphries. (2016). “Undermatched: School-Based Linguistic Status, College-Going, and the Immigrant Advantage,” American Educational Research Journal.

Cummins, J. (2000). Language, Power and Pedagogy: Bilingual Children in the Crossfire (Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters).

Grayson, K. (March 31, 2015). “Civil Rights Update for English Learners,” IDRA Classnotes Podcast (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association).

Kibler, A.K., & G. Valdés. (2016). “Conceptualizing Language Learners: Socioinstitutional Mechanisms and their Consequences,” The Modern Language Journal.

Kim, W.G., & S. García. (2014). “Long-Term English Language Learners’ Perceptions of Their Language and Academic Learning Experiences,”Remedial and Special Education.

Krashen, S. (2014). Stephen Krashen’s Theory of Second Language Acquisition, website.

Lhamon, C., & V. Gupta. (January 7, 2015). “English Learner Students and Limited English Proficient Parents,” Letter to Dear Colleague. (Washington, D.C: U.S. Department of Justice & U.S. Department of Education).

Montemayor, A.M., & N. Chavkin. (2016). “Liderazgo Familiar Intergeneracional: Intergenerational Family Leadership as a New Paradigm of Family Engagement,” VUE Voices in Urban Education.

Teach Away, Inc. (December 21, 2012). Dr. Jim Cummins Explains the Differences Between BICS and CALP, video (Ontario: University of Toronto TEFL Online).

U.S. Department of Education. (no date). Promoting Equity through Family-School Partnerships, website (Washington, D.C., U.S. Department of Education).

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

WIDA Consortium. (September 2015). WIDA Focus on Family Engagement (Madison, Wisc.: University of Wisconsin-Madison, Wisconsin Center for Education Research).

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

[©2016, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the October 2016 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. 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.]