Feature

Keeping Pace in Suburbia and Rural America

Teaching English language learners is a novel challenge to school districts in some unlikely places by Rebecca Freeman Field

When I ask administrators in rural and suburban districts how much time their English language learners spend with teachers who are qualified to teach them, most say “30 to 45 minutes a day” or “our beginners usually spend an hour or two a day in ESL.” Someone generally says, “We don’t have the funds for an ESL teacher at our school,” and a few others might respond, “I don’t really know.”

I next ask, “How much time do your ELLs spend with teachers who aren’t qualified to teach them?” and many respond, rather sheepishly, “the rest of the day” or “most of the time.”

Most mainstream teachers and administrators have not been trained in teaching English to speakers of other languages. Many do not realize it takes five to seven years on average for English language learners to acquire the academic English they need to achieve at school. Districts with small but increasing ELL populations, underprepared educators and limited funding face real challenges.

Committed, knowledgeable school leaders in rural and suburban districts across the country are moving to keep pace with their rapidly growing ELL populations. In the last five years, I’ve worked with mainstream administrators and teachers from across rural and suburban Nebraska, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Colorado, California, Texas, Florida, Michigan and Illinois in school districts that until recently had not even considered offering professional development in teaching English as a second language for their mainstream staff. Now we’re beginning to see mandates from above (see related story, page 28).

When district and school-based teams take responsibility for ensuring that everyone who works with ELLs develops the requisite knowledge and skills, we see real improvement in instruction and achievement of ELLs.

Rapid Growth
English language learners are the fastest growing segment of the K-12 student population in the United States, and they are settling in areas that have never before seen such diversity. Today there are 5.1 million ELLs in elementary and secondary schools across the country, accounting for just over 10 percent of the total student population, according to the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition. Approximately 80 percent of these students speak Spanish, and the other 20 percent speak at least one of 400 or so other languages. In general, education achievement is lower and dropout rates are higher for English language learners than English speakers, especially those living in poverty and in rural areas.


Educating ELLs used to be considered an urban issue. However, rural and suburban school districts across the United States today are likely to see native-born, immigrant and refugee students entering at all grades with varying levels of English language proficiency, prior education and literacy.

ELLs are largely concentrated in six states (Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, New York and Texas), and they have moved beyond the urban centers. Seven other states (Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky, Nebraska, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee) have seen more than 300 percent growth in the past decade and 16 others have experienced 100 to 300 percent growth over that period.

Using a Committee When the ELL Numbers Are Few by TAMARA A. MARRAH


A school district in a small town in eastern Illinois has been educating Amish children side by side with children whose parents and grandparents emigrated from Mexico. A second district in a rural area of southwestern Illinois serves two young boys, recently adopted from an orphanage in Eastern Europe.

read more

Although nearly half of the nation’s ELL population lives in rural communities, the actual numbers of English language learners in any given district or school may vary tremendously. Some districts or schools may have only a few ELLs, while others may suddenly find their numbers are growing exponentially in response to new jobs in meatpacking, poultry processing and construction.

These demographic changes often are accompanied by controversy and conflict in the school and local community, which influence attitudes toward ELL students. Many educators see linguistic and cultural diversity as problems to overcome rather than as resources to develop. This remedial orientation influences school policies, programs and practices in ways that are detrimental to the achievement of ELLs.

Effective Instruction
First, what are the legal requirements? The Equal Educational Opportunity Act of 1974 mandates that schools take steps to overcome language barriers. Then in response to Castañeda v. Pickard (1981), a federal appeals court established a three-pronged standard that has guided Office for Civil Rights enforcement activities. Programs for ELLs must be pedagogically sound, well-implemented and capable of delivering results.

Now No Child Left Behind requires ELLs to demonstrate proficiency on state-mandated academic achievement and English language proficiency tests. In general, ELLs should move up one English language proficiency level each year until they are redesignated as fully English proficient. Once ELLs meet all exit criteria, they are monitored for one to two years to ensure they are achieving in the academic mainstream.

While there is no one-size-fits-all model that is appropriate for all schools, there are three essential components of effective programs. English language learners need (1) comprehensible, standards-driven, grade-level content instruction (in the students’ home language or in English); (2) standards-based ESL instruction that emphasizes academic language proficiency; and (3) primary language support, an important foundation for literacy development in English and a powerful resource for learning complex concepts in a second language. ELLs also need a positive learning environment characterized by an enrichment orientation toward linguistic and cultural diversity that is reflected in school policies, programs and practices.

Districts with large numbers of ELLs often implement bilingual or sheltered English immersion programs. The latter are taught by trained ESL teachers who ensure the English-medium, content-area instruction is comprehensible to ELLs at different English language proficiency levels. Some rural districts with numbers that have grown dramatically now are implementing bilingual and sheltered instruction programs.

In most rural and suburban school districts today, however, small numbers of ELLs and insufficient resources do not permit the development of separate programs that exclusively target ELLs. Although Title III compliance requires daily ESL instruction, many districts do not even have a full-time ESL teacher. In fact, ESL teachers often travel great distances between assigned schools to meet their students for brief periods of instruction. In these cases, mainstream teachers who have English language learners in their classes are beginning to share responsibility for educating these students.

Mainstream Preparation
Many English language learners spend the majority of their school day in mainstream classes taught by content teachers who have not been trained in second language acquisition, cross-cultural communication or sheltered instruction strategies. In most cases, the mainstream teacher does not know important information about students, including their English language proficiency level, which tells what students can do with reading, writing, listening and speaking; whether they can read or write in their native language, which is a strong foundation for literacy in English; or their prior education experiences, which suggest what students may know about a given content area. Without this information, mainstream teachers are hard-pressed to differentiate instruction for the ELLs in their classes.

Although the English as a second language teacher generally knows this information, few opportunities exist during the school day for ESL and mainstream teachers to share information or make appropriate instructional plans for ELLs. As the number grows, underprepared mainstream teachers and administrators generally put more pressure on the ESL teacher or program to fix the problem in isolation. ESL teachers really struggle to meet the needs of increasing numbers of students who are pulled out of more and more mainstream classes.

A North Carolina District Responds to ELL Growth by Rebecca Freeman Field


Like many rural communities across the country, Chatham County, N.C., has a relatively new but rapidly growing population of English language learners. Today 12 percent of the 60,050 residents are Latino, a 21 percent increase since 2000 largely due to jobs in poultry processing.

read more

Many districts are beginning to offer professional development for mainstream teachers in sheltered instruction so they can learn to differentiate instruction for the ELLs in their classes. Making Content Comprehensible for English Learners: The SIOP Model by Jana Echevarria, Mary Ellen Vogt and Deborah Short is a great resource for this training. I’ve found it useful to integrate professional development for sheltered instruction into other training initiatives that target mainstream and ESL teachers together.

Greg Naudascher, the former director of curriculum and instruction in the East Stroudsburg, Pa., schools, required every K-12 teacher in the district to participate in a Penn Literacy Network-ESL workshop series. Over three years, I taught about 150 teachers how to teach reading and writing across the curriculum to all students, including ELLs. We grounded the training in the units and lessons that teachers were actually teaching, and ESL and mainstream teachers together identified and implemented concrete sheltered instruction strategies for learners in their classes.

Sometimes administrators from rural and suburban districts say that since they have so few ELLs, it’s not realistic to provide professional development in sheltered instruction to all of their teachers. In this case, administrators can cluster ELLs strategically in fewer classes (but not in remedial or special education classes), provide training to targeted content teachers, and schedule collaboration opportunities for ESL teachers and the content teachers.This approach works best when targeted teachers have high expectations for ELL achievement and a positive attitude toward linguistic and cultural diversity, and they are willing to be trained in sheltered instruction and subsequently train other mainstream content teachers in their school or district. In rural southern New Jersey, small districts organize into consortiums and pool their resources for this kind of professional development.

The East Stroudsburg teachers with whom I worked over time observed that as they learned how to shelter instruction and collaborate with the ESL teachers, the ESL teachers’ role necessarily changed. Rather than simply pulling out English language learners to supposedly fix the problem in isolation, the ESL teacher works with the mainstream content teacher, sharing important background information, modeling or coaching effective sheltered instruction strategies, team teaching and using evidence of ELLs’ content learning and English language acquisition to inform instruction.

When mainstream teachers know how to work effectively with ELLs, superintendents and principals can walk into any classroom and clearly see how the teacher differentiates instruction for these learners. Teachers also can provide classroom-based evidence of ELL growth and achievement over time.

Authentic Assessment
Critics of No Child Left Behind’s narrow accountability requirements advocate for a growth model based on multiple measures, including both summative and formative assessment data. Margo Gottlieb, director of assessment and evaluation at the Illinois Resource Center, and Diep Nguyen, assistant superintendent for instructional services in Des Plaines, Ill., School District 62, developed what they call the BASIC model (Balanced Assessment and accountability System that is Inclusive and Comprehensive), which responds to this call. This system is appropriate for any district with ELLs.

Their book Assessment and Accountability in Language Education Programs: A Guide for Administrators and Teachers presents a step-by-step process that educators can use to collect the right balance of summative and formative evidence of ELLs’ content learning and second language acquisition over time. The book also models how teachers can use this evidence to inform instruction and guide program and professional development.

ESL teachers and literacy coaches I’ve worked with in Hazleton, Pa., appreciate the teacher-friendly approach outlined in this book. First, the teachers developed a plan for assessing the students’ language and literacy development districtwide. Based on their analysis of ELL performance data, teachers focused on academic writing. Now they are beginning to use evidence of the students’ narrative, expository and persuasive writing to guide their instruction and inform their collaborations with mainstream teachers.

An Integrated Approach
The authentic assessment and accountability plan the Hazleton Area School District has developed is part of a larger systemic and strategic approach. Deb Carr, the director of curriculum and instruction, has led the district’s efforts to improve the achievement of all students through focused, sustained professional development of mainstream and ESL teachers, literacy coaches, and administrators.

Hazleton is participating in the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s three-year High School Coaching Initiative, in collaboration with Penn Literacy Network and the Philadelphia Foundation, to improve reading and writing across the curriculum. Hazleton’s ELL population grew from about six students in the early 1990s to 1,098 students last year, which is 10 percent of the total student population.

Carr sees ELL issues as an integral part of the coaching initiative. The literacy coaches have been trained in sheltered instruction
strategies, and they provide one-on-one modeling and mentoring of effective ESL/literacy strategies for mainstream teachers. Hazleton also offers mainstream educators opportunities to take these courses for credit as well as to enroll in more informal study groups that focus on ELL issues.

Carr says, “The challenge from an administrators’ standpoint is that you know this change takes three to five or more years, but you need it to happen yesterday. You focus on the teachers who can carry the initiative forward and support what you can. You also have to collect the right data to move it all along and provide evidence of your success.”

Rebecca Freeman Field is director of the language education division of Caslon Consulting and Publishing. E-mail: rdfield@casloninc.com