Each new school year, countless new administrators move into school leadership positions. There are many, many topics, skills and procedures that need to be learned, relearned or determined as the new school year starts.

At times, leaders follow similar policies and procedures put into place previously. Others change policies and procedures to meet their own unique vision.

When it comes to the education of English learners, there are many policies, procedures and topics in which all administrators, new and experienced, should be well versed. This article, while not exhaustive in the topics that impact the education of English learners, shares a few of the important topics that administrators and school leaders should be familiar with as they embark on a new school year.

Perhaps the first key point to consider is the term itself: English language learner. Depending on the people with whom you are talking, the words used to discuss these students in particular may vary.

Federal documents still, at times, use the acronym LEP (limited English proficient), while others say ESL (English as a second language) students, and others using terms such as English as an additional language, emergent bilinguals and other terms. While I currently prefer the term English learner, the term may be a misnomer as all students in school are learning academic English.

Whatever term is being used, clarify with the staff and community the term you will use and why it is a preferred term for you and your school.

Although seemingly obvious, it is also important to point out that the discussion of these students can be problematic as we attempt to discuss a diverse group of students as though they are a homogenous group. English learners, of course, come from a variety of linguistic backgrounds, cultures, families from various socioeconomic backgrounds, and with values and opinions as varied as any other group of students.

While at times we use the term to describe students in general terms, we must also keep in mind that English learners are each unique students with particular needs, just as every student in our school is.

Federal laws

Numerous laws have been written over the years regarding English learners. Several court cases have also helped shape the roles and responsibilities of school districts to appropriately serve and teach this group of students. The following three are just a small sampling of those laws and rulings:

Lau v. Nichols: In 1974, the United States Supreme Court ruled that non-English-speaking students are entitled to a meaningful public education. The ruling requires schools to provide a meaningful education to English learners by helping those children learn English and comprehend what is being taught.

Plyler v. Doe: In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court found that states, districts and schools cannot limit the right of education to children based on the children's immigration status.

Castaneda v. Pickard: In 1981, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that programs for English learners must be based on sound educational theory, implemented effectively with appropriate resources in terms of personnel, materials and space, and the program must be effective in helping students overcome language barriers.


In order to determine which entering students are English learners, all students should be given a home language survey (HLS). While the forms used in different states and by different districts vary, the HLS should ask respondents to identify if another language is used in the home.

Questions such as the following are often used on the HLS:

  • Do you speak a language other than English?
  • Is English your primary language? If not, which language is spoken at home?
  • What is your preferred language of communication?

If the respondents mark "yes" or indicate that another language is spoken at home, this would trigger additional investigation to determine if the student in question should be identified as an English learner.

Once this initial identifier has been triggered, potential English learners should be tested to determine if the influence of a language other than English has impacted their English proficiency level. Different states and districts use different measures to determine the English proficiency level of students. Contact the district Title III director or person in charge of federal funding to determine which test is used in your district or school.

If the student is determined to have a proficiency level that indicates the need for additional instructional support, the parents of the student should be notified, and the student should receive appropriate services. Once parents are notified, they have the right to refuse additional instructional services and may opt out of English language development or sheltered instruction (see the section on Instruction below for a description of these terms).

Identification and assessment of English learners has been discussed in more depth in recent years as it has become apparent that states use different measures, and different criteria, to determine English proficiency. It has been found, therefore, that a student could be identified as an English learner in one state, but found to be proficient in another.

At some point, universal identification criteria may be suggested or put into place, as there are financial and political ramifications to having different criteria between districts or states.


Numerous program models are available to serve English learners. Research is pointing to two clear needs: English language development (ELD) and sheltered instruction (SI). Each of these can be provided through various program models, including dual language or two-way immersion, co-teaching models, content-based ELD or pull-out services.

It is important to note, however, these models have differing levels of effectiveness in terms of helping students gain English proficiency, with pull-out instruction being the least effective, and dual language or two-way bilingual immersion programs showing the most gains for students as they learn English and content. Research done by Thomas and Collier, among others, explains the results of various program models in much more depth.

While providing a language assistance program is a requirement based on Title III, specific programmatic decisions will need to be made at the local level.

English language development (ELD) is specifically designed to help students increase their English language proficiency. English learners should receive specific instruction designed to increase their English proficiency.

This may be done by the classroom teacher that has licensure in teaching English learners, or by an ELD specialist. Many schools across the country are implementing content-based ELD as well as integrated co-teaching models where specialists and classroom teachers collaborate to teach English learners content and content.

Sheltered instruction (SI) is another important instructional component. SI provides English learners access to grade-level academic content while students develop academic English skills. All teachers who serve English learners, in every classroom, as well as administrators, should have training in the basic tenets of SI, as well as the strategies that help make content accessible and comprehensible to English learners.

Many teachers consider SI to be a best practice in education, as it allows teachers to support students who need to develop academic language as well as differentiate for students at all levels.

Staffing, then, should be carefully considered when English learners are represented among the student population. There should be adequate staffing in place to provide students with an language assistance program that is sound and has been proven to be successful. These teachers, and all staff, should get ongoing professional development in order to help these students be successful.


Once students have reached proficiency in English as determined by the state or district criteria, former English learners should be transitioned, or redesignated, as fluent English-proficient students. These students will no longer be required to receive ELD and may or may not need sheltered instruction. Once redesignated, former English learners should receive the same high-quality, differentiated instruction that all students receive.

In addition, students who have exited services specifically designed for English learners or who have been redesignated need to be monitored for two years to ensure they are successful and English proficiency is no longer causing academic difficulty.

Districts and schools should carefully consider how students will exit services. While in many places a specific score on an annual language proficiency assessment is used as the main criteria for exiting, other criteria should be carefully considered as well.

For example, schools might have a team of specialists familiar with the needs of English learners look at a writing sample, grades or a performance portfolio of some kind. While not a legal requirement, a deeper look at the students' level of performance may help to avoid having a student re-enter the program due to academic failure.

Parent involvement

All districts, administrators, teachers and staff know the importance of parental involvement. Parents are the cornerstone of a successful school and are our allies in providing quality instruction to students.

All schools work to involve parents in the educational programs and to keep parents abreast of what is happening in the classroom and on the school. When working with parents of English learners, however, some additional considerations should be made.

Depending on the cultural background of the parents of students, differing attitudes and practices in terms of parental involvement may be in place. In some cultures, teachers and education professionals are highly regarded, and a parent may consider it unnecessary or even rude to go into a school to volunteer or help in some way. Even with encouragement and requests, parents may feel that it is inappropriate for them to be involved in certain ways.

This, however, is not the case for all cultures. It is important to understand the cultural backgrounds of the community so administrators and teachers are aware of how families may interact with school professionals. Even with this information, though, individual differences and attitudes will play a role.

In addition to cultural considerations, administrators should make every effort to get materials, including newsletters and other communications, translated into the language(s) that parents speak. There are numerous translation services available commercially, but administrators should consult with the district on policies and procedures.

At times, a staff member may be able to translate documents for the school. However, do not assume the ability to speak another language automatically qualifies a person to translate. Also, translation is hard work, and professionals who are asked to translate for the school or district should have assigned time to work on it or be compensated appropriately.

Being a skillful leader who is knowledgeable about the many issues schools face is difficult and challenging work. Leaders are expected to have knowledge of all of the student populations at the school, as well as laws, policies and procedures, and more.

While this is a daunting and at times seemingly impossible task, skillful leaders will continue to reflect upon what they know, and learn about what they have not yet learned. Through this brief introduction on some of the issues that impact schools that serve English learners, educational leaders are on their way to gaining the knowledge to serve each child in their school or district.