Equity for English Learners - supporting our ELs in the classroom

Posted by Amy Proulx & Elizabeth Wall-Macht

Equity for English Learners - supporting our ELs in the classroom


On January 21, 1974, in the case of Lau v. Nichols, the United States Supreme Court unanimously decided that the lack of supplemental language instruction in public schools for students with limited English proficiency violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Today, English learners (ELs) represent 10 percent of the total K-12 population in the United States, a 4.8 million number that continues to increase in both size and diversity. To meet the growing demographics of ELs, many of the challenges confronting school districts today aim at ensuring equity and excellence for this special population.  

English Language Learners, Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students, Emergent Bilinguals, Multilingual Learners - these are terms that we may use to describe learners who speak a language other than English at home. Our ELs are a diverse group of students, with varying linguistic, academic, and social-emotional needs. While Spanish is the most widely spoken language (77.1 percent), there is a wide variety of native languages among ELs.

Consider the data shown below:

Student first language (L1) by state


Percent of ELs




Spanish, Chinese Vietnamese, Tagalog, Arabic



Spanish, Navajo, Nias, Zuni



Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Haitian-Creole



Spanish, Arabic, Vietnamese, Navajo, Somali



Spanish, Arabic, Bengali, Albanian, Chinese


Our ELs may have been born in their home country or in the United States. They may have had little formal schooling or have experienced an interrupted education. Some ELs will have limited knowledge of English, while others will have high levels of social language skills in English and appear native-like in conversations. All ELs, regardless of their proficiency with conversational English, require a rigorous, integrated curriculum with targeted language instruction. In order to promptly advance their English language development and obtain academic growth and achievement, ELs need exposure to grade-level content and advanced placements that focus on academic language instruction in all four language domains: speaking, writing, reading, and listening.  

Often as educators we have limited control over our schools’ demographics and our classroom rosters, but there are simple, yet powerful ways we can immediately support our ELs in the classroom. Guiding our work are the Five Essentials of School Improvement (Bryk et al., 2012):

1. Coherent Instructional Guidance Systems

All staff know instructional expectations and school-wide uniformity for student success criteria. Staff see themselves as members of an instructional team. Educators plan as grade level teams and across grade levels to determine what students must learn and how to deliver best instruction to support and challenge all students to demonstrate progress in learning.   

2. Ongoing Development of the Professional Capacity of Staff

To ensure that the skill set of teachers align to the needs of learners, all staff receive continuous, cycled, and differentiated learning opportunities. Additionally, to receive specialized support, educators partner with districts to attend external sessions and engage in inquiry within a professional learning community.

3. Parent-School-Community Partnership

Parent and community involvement directly impacts student achievement. Schools partner with families to provide ongoing support and to build knowledge about the school’s curriculum and approaches. Parents and community members are invited to participate in curriculum events, cultural experiences, and to join in leadership.

4. Student Centered Learning Environment

Schools teach purposefully and provide varied instructional formats and incorporate student choice to empower students to drive their own learning. Further, schools understand what motivates and engages their learners as well as the challenges students and their families experience.

5. Shared Leadership to Drive Change.

Schools embody a school-wide culture where all educators take ownership over student learning. All staff share in leadership and determined school-wide priorities in order to make immediate change and ensure a lasting impact on student growth and achievement.

These essentials inform the work of districts and schools. They serve as a road map for creating schools that demonstrate value for all students by ensuring that teachers and staff are prepared to educate their learners through challenging and focused learning opportunities supported with language instruction in a parent-school-community partnership. By fostering relationships and valuing students and communities through our own self-reflection and the language we choose, we can build an inclusive and joyful learning environment. Over the years, teachers, school leaders, colleagues, and even individuals outside of education have posed questions around how to best support ELs. If you, too, are curious, you are in good company.

If you would like to hear more from our Equity and English Language experts, join Amy, Elizabeth and Pedro Noguera on our latest webinar:

Closing the achievement gap for ELL – getting it right from the start.



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