• Kristin Grayson, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • March 2018 •

Kristin Grayson, M.A.English learners in our schools are a vastly diverse group, from the languages they speak to the to the age they began learning English to how they entered the school system. By instilling policies and practices that value their language, multiculturalism, and families and that provide them the tools necessary to succeed, we can help prepare these students for flourish in the global economy.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, most English learners were born in this country and are U.S. citizens, comprising 85 percent of English learners in elementary schools and 62 percent at the secondary level (Sanchez, 2017). This article focuses on the other portion of English learners who are recent immigrant, migrant and refugee students, who may require more intensive, comprehensive services.

The federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) defines immigrant students as those who were born outside the United States and have not been enrolled in U.S. schools for more than three school years. ESEA’s Title III section outlines specific funding for assisting immigrant students.

Migrant students are those who, because of their parents’ jobs, such as in agriculture and/or fishing, move from place to place frequently. Schools must provide assistance in the continuity in their education and specific record-keeping. Funding for schools to support migrant students is provided through Migrant Education Program under Title I: Part C of ESEA.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Newcomer Toolkit provides definitions for other categories of students who are born outside of the United States, including refugees, asylees and unaccompanied youth (NCELA, 2017). Regardless of these categories, it is the responsibility of U.S. schools to provide a free and equitable education to all children. (See IDRA’s notice on Page 7.)

Not all, but many immigrant, migrant and refugee students are English learners. The U.S. Department of Education recently published a new interactive resource showing numbers and percentages of English learners by state (2017). Data show that there are more than 400 different languages spoken at homes of English learners, Spanish being the most prevalent.

The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Lau v. Nichols stated that schools must provide English language support for students in order to give them an equitable access to education as is provided in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Wright, 2010).

Schools may include a variety of program models, including newcomer, bilingual, dual language, and sheltered academic content instruction, to take into account the varying needs of English learners. With the great variation of need for different supports for learning English, programs for learning English need to be based on the three criteria named in the 1981 Casteñeda v. Pickard court decision (Wright, 2010). The program should (1) be based on sound educational theory, (2) be appropriately implemented to have the intended results, and (3) be evaluated and adjusted in order to be effective so that students learn English and succeed academically.

The Every Student Succeeds Act creates a broader focus of accountability for the progress of English learners by requiring states and districts to include English learners in more specific ways to assure that their educational needs are noted and addressed (NASEM, 2017).

The National Academy Press of 2016 released a comprehensive literature review describing how to put policy into practice at the classroom level. The report outlines promising classroom practices to use to help English learners at different grade levels (Gandara, 2016).

Promising classroom practices for English learners at the pre-kindergarten level through fifth grade, as identified in the report include:

  • using explicit instruction during literacy instruction;
  • building academic language across the content areas;
  • using visual and verbal cues to make content comprehensible;
  • developing peer-assisted learning opportunities;
  • drawing on students’ home language, culture, and knowledge;
  • being aware of challenges and obstacles to learning; and
  • providing small group learning opportunities for extra support.

The development of a student’s home language and engagement in literacy (reading and writing) remain critical at these early ages.

Recommended promising practices for middle school English learners (grades 6 to 8) are similar. These practices include:

  • making grade level content accessible;
  • supporting writing and comprehension in core content;
  • building on students’ home language, culture, and experiences; and
  • using collaborative and peer-learning group activities.

During the middle school grades it is also important to keep in mind the influence of social and emotional impacts on learning. The classroom, school and curricular requirements must all be examined and designed to appropriately support and move English learners toward academic success (NASEM, 2017).

Practices for supporting high school English learners (grades 9-12) include:

  • developing English in all core content classes;
  • integrating oral and written skill development across content areas;
  • structuring opportunities for writing;
  • developing reading and writing through systematic text-based approaches;
  • providing direct comprehension instruction;
  • extending discussions about text and interpretations;
  • fostering engagement in literacy;
  • providing peer-assisted learning opportunities; and
  • offering small group explicit instruction.

IDRA has rigorously and methodically studied exemplary programs and guidance for serving English learners in schools across the nation. A number of tools are available, including the following.

Framework for Effective Instruction of Secondary English Language Learners – IDRA’s research-based framework provides guidance for design, implementation and evaluation of an effective EL program.

Good Schools and Classrooms for Children Learning English ~ A Guide – a rubric for evaluating five dimensions that are necessary for success: school indicators, leadership, student outcomes, support, and programmatic and instructional practices.

Science Instructional Strategies for English Learners – A Guide for Elementary and Secondary Grades – a practical resource for teachers focusing on teaching learning premises (theoretical underpinnings for each strategy); research support; essential teacher competencies (pedagogical skills necessary for effective implementation of each strategy); steps for strategy implementation – along with a matrix of techniques for implementation.

Semillitas de Aprendizaje Teacher Guide (Manual de Maestro) – a guide with 10 units to support early childhood bilingual literacy development. Each unit has a set of classroom activities that include a morning song, storytelling, literacy connection with STEM explorations, center activities, phonemic awareness, writing and alphabet knowledge, English transition, family connections and informal assessment. Also includes planning tools connected to knowledge, skill and concept objectives along with suggestions for using technology in early childhood.

In addition, the IDRA EAC-South is one of four federally-funded centers that provide technical assistance and training at the request of school districts and other responsible governmental agencies to build capacity of local educators to ensure a more equitable learning environment for all students. We have many years of experience helping districts and schools plan and implement language programs and is ready to help schools in the U.S. South.


Gándara, P. (2016, November 30). “Educating Immigrant Students and Emergent Bilinguals in an Anti-Immigrant Era,” video. American Educational Research Association Centennial Lecture Series (Washington, D.C.: AERA).

Grayson, K. (June-July 2017). “Data to Measure an Effective Instructional Context for Secondary Level Newcomers and English Learners,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association).

Grayson, K. (October 2016). “Instruction for Secondary English Learners – Major Challenges, Solutions and Possibilities,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association).

Lhamon, C.E., & Gupta, V. (January 2015). English Learners Dear Colleague Letter (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Education).

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. (2017). Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures (Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press).

National Center for English Language Acquisition. (September 2017). Newcomer Toolkit (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education).

Sanchez, C. (February 23, 2017). “English Language Learners: How Your State Is Doing,” NPR Ed.

U.S. Department of Education. (2017). Our Nation’s English Learners: What are their Characteristics?, 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).

Wright, W.E. (2010). Landmark Court Rulings Regarding English Language Learners, webpage (Arlington, Va.: Colorín Colorado).

Kristin Grayson, Ph.D., has served as an IDRA education associate. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at contact@idra.org

[©2018, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the March 2018 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.]