Whose Student Is She?

No Child Left Behind is plunging many English language learners into the educational mainstream — and sometimes getting them in over their heads.
Illustration by James Gulliver Hancock

Olivia Contreras remembers being afraid.

As an eighth-grade student at Jackson Middle School in Nashville, Tennessee, Olivia had arrived in the United States from her native Nicaragua the previous year. All of her academic experiences in the seventh grade had been in an English language learner (ELL) program. There, the teacher taught at a level slightly above that which was easily comprehensible to students, using demonstrations, pictures, diagrams, graphic organizers and hands-on materials to help students understand.

Illustration of student looking at preamble written in Spanish and English

But Olivia learned English so quickly that she was placed in mainstream content classes the following year. Texts and materials in these classes were at grade level, and the expectations and requirements were the same for all learners.

“Science was the most difficult for me,” recalls Olivia. “I usually understood the information from labs, but I had difficulty reading the book and I couldn’t explain what I did understand because I didn’t know how to say it or write it in English. I was afraid that the teacher would think I just didn’t get the concepts.”

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 created a lot of stories like Olivia’s — stories that include big steps forward and big steps back. NCLB placed a new focus and accountability on the achievement levels of English learners by requiring that they develop English proficiency and meet the same academic standards that all children are expected to meet by the year 2014.

Administrators and teachers have responded by taking a good look at the ways English learners might progress more quickly toward proficiency on state tests, both in English language skills and in other content areas. In some cases this means students have moved out of ELL programs after one or two years. Sometimes, it means incoming English language learners will bypass ELL programs altogether, entering classes alongside native English speakers, usually with some type of ELL teacher assistance.

For ELL students who might otherwise get stuck on a separate academic track from their English-dominant peers, this sort of mainstreaming can be a good thing. Supporters of mainstreaming note that it can help students learn faster because they have English-proficient peers as models. And clearly, being included in all aspects of the school — rather than segregated into a separate classroom — can only help their sense of belonging.

What’s more, NCLB allows students to get credit toward graduation only for classes taught by “highly qualified” teachers endorsed in their subject areas. By moving students toward grade-level classes, teachers are helping them stay on track to graduate.

Still, this very distinction has effectively reduced or eliminated many transitional subject-area classes taught by ELL-endorsed teachers. The effects of this trend can now be seen in middle and elementary schools, where students are often placed in grade-level classes with ELL teacher assistance but with little or no opportunities for students to be pulled out into their own classes for specialized instruction.

And rapid mainstreaming seems to ignore what the research tells us: It takes five to seven or more years for students to pick up the academic language needed to survive in grade-level classes.

No matter how we feel about the trend toward mainstreaming, it is happening. If English learners are to be mainstreamed into grade-level classrooms, we must look at the ways in which grade-level teachers can be taught basic second language acquisition theory and research. We must give teachers the tools to incorporate effective and essential strategies and techniques into lessons so that English learners are not simply sitting alongside native English-speaking peers, but learning alongside them as well.

In this way, we all take “ownership” of students, and everyone can become a language teacher.


An Effective Tool

At Claremont Immersion Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia, where one-third of the students are English learners, I am responsible for the professional development of a staff of 50 grade-level teachers, specialists and special education teachers in grades Pre-K through 5.

Our professional development is centered on the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol, or SIOP, which has been proven to be an effective tool for improving ELL student learning.

SIOP organizes 30 features of good lessons for English learners into eight overarching components. In the training, teachers learn how to incorporate those features into their lessons and units of instruction from practical examples.

Some of the ideas in SIOP ( may seem obvious. Some may take you by surprise. All the lesson features suggested in SIOP are backed by research and arranged in a framework that helps teachers stay focused on what works. The strategies identified in SIOP are crucial for English learners and may prove to be beneficial other learners as well.

SIOP uses a peer coaching approach. Teachers are encouraged to pair up with a colleague and use a checklist of the 30 features to evaluate each other’s instruction in a systematic and non-threatening way. As someone who has been a classroom teacher, a program administrator and assistant professor in a master’s degree program for ELL teachers, I find that I am always excited to implement SIOP and work alongside teachers — because I always learn something I didn’t know.

The term “sheltered” refers to the means for making academic content comprehensible to English learners while they develop English proficiency. Classrooms with sheltered instruction teaching methods may be used in self-contained ELL classes or in grade-level classes that contain both English speakers and English learners. SIOP is currently being implemented in schools and school systems throughout the United States, including Kansas City, Missouri, where every teacher in this Midwestern urban district of 27,000 students and 4,000 teachers is trained in the SIOP model.

In preparing to write this article, I surveyed grade-level teachers, special education teachers, reading specialists and ELL teachers in both elementary and secondary schools. I asked them what they believe are the most important considerations for instruction of English learners, particularly given the trend that these students be placed in grade-level classes soon after achieving basic levels of English language acquisition.

Most teachers agreed that primary instructional issues are covered by the SIOP model. But they also identified a few additional issues that educators should be thinking about. These issues include:



In order for students to work together and learn from each other, we have to create unity in a school and classroom.

“Integrating your community is not as simple as putting your kids together in a class. What is it to truly build community in your classroom?” asks Joseph Provisor, a former ELL teacher with the Los Angeles Unified School District and director of the Council Project, which teaches students and teachers to tell their stories in the classroom.

“Teachers and students need tools to make the classroom a beneficial learning place for all,” Provisor says. “When you have kids from Vietnam, from El Salvador and from Azerbaijan, you have an extraordinary opportunity to expand your world view by truly integrating these folks in the community. What makes America? That’s a challenge.”



Pacing guides, state tests and the pressure to make adequate yearly progress all force teachers to push through curriculum at a pace that is not appropriate for English learners who are learning the language as well as the content.

One grade-level middle school science teacher I spoke with said, “When I teach science, I cruise. I always get through all of the curriculum by the end of the school year.” But at what cost? When the pace is accelerated so that students are taught the declarative knowledge that is commonly required for success on state tests, they miss out on opportunities to probe deeply into concepts and explore higher-order thinking. This is especially unfortunate for English learners who need opportunities to use the new language and concepts in a variety of ways over time.


Differentiating Instruction:

Teachers need to know how to differentiate instruction within a classroom. As budget cuts further increase class sizes, some teachers are faced with teaching 25 to 30 or more students per classroom and five to six preparations a day. Teachers benefit from training and specific guidelines as to how to plan and teach for different ability levels within one class.



Putting two teachers together does not necessarily mean that they will function as a team. Team-teaching between ELL teachers and grade-level classroom teachers can work well, but teachers need to have mutual respect for each other, clearly defined roles and opportunities for shared planning.

Susan Connors, a 30-year veteran ELL teacher at Taylor Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia, uses what she calls a “tag team” approach with her grade-level teachers. Susan and the grade-level teacher take turns leading instruction within a lesson. Susan’s focus is on extension activities that promote language development that work with all children in the room. “If we expect our grade-level teachers to be English language teachers, then we have to be grade-level teachers as well. It’s reciprocal.”

When I asked my principal, Cintia Johnson, why she believed in a mainstreaming approach to teaching English learners, she responded, “In my view, by including students in grade-level classes with English-speaking peers, we capitalize on the strengths and abilities these students bring to the learning experience. We raise the bar by having high expectations for all learners. My desire is for us to recognize the true abilities on the high end of what a child can do and not focus on their weaknesses. Training all of the staff in strategies to understand the needs of these children and know how to teach them is the key.”

Maybe then, students like Olivia Contreras won’t have to feel afraid of school.

Assessing Language Proficiency

In some school districts, educators differentiate between two levels of language acquisition:

BICS: Basic Interpersonal Conversational Skills
Vocabulary: Tangible objects, nouns and verbs, such as, "Open your red math book."

Years to acquire: 1 to 3

Characteristics: Student is able to speak English very well on a conversational level.

What's missing: Student is unable to understand academic terms, has difficulty reading and writing and has not yet developed the cognitive skills necessary to succeed in the regular classroom.

CALP: Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency
Vocabulary: Intangible concepts, abstract vocabulary, language/jargon of academic subjects, such as, "How does pollution harm the environment?"

Years to acquire: 5 to 7

Characteristics: Student is able to read, write and perform academically on a level with peers.

Because many students at the BICS stage sound as if they totally understand English, accurate assessment is more difficult than it is at the CALP level. See our site for information about a pre-referral process that helps address this issue.

— Adapted from Colorado Springs School District 11's ESL Inquiry Kit, unit on Special Education.

Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP)

1. Lesson Preparation

  • Clearly define content objectives
  • Clearly define language objectives
  • Select content concepts that are appropriate to learners’ age and educational background
  • Use a variety of supplementary materials to make the lesson clear and meaningful (computer programs, graphs, models, visuals)
  • Adapt the content to all proficiency levels
  • Use authentic and meaningful activities and integrate them into lesson concepts

2. Building Background

  • Explicitly link concepts to students’ background experiences
  • Explicitly link past learning to new content
  • Emphasize key vocabulary

3. Comprehensible Input

  • Use speech that is appropriate for students’ proficiency level
  • Clearly explain academic tasks 
  • Use a variety of techniques to make content clear (model, use visuals, demonstrations and hands-on activities)

4. Learning Strategies

  • Provide ample opportunities for students to use strategies
  • Consistently use scaffolding techniques throughout the lesson 
  • Include a variety of question types that promote higher-order thinking skills

5. Interaction

  • Provide students with frequent opportunities for interaction and discussion between teacher and student and among students and encourage extended student discourse about the lesson concepts
  • Carefully configure the grouping of students to support language and content of the lesson
  • Consistently provide sufficient wait time for student responses
  • Provide ample opportunities for students to clarify key concepts in their native language

6. Practice and Application

  • Provide hands-on materials and/or manipulatives for students to practice using new content knowledge
  • Provide activities for students to apply content and language knowledge in the classroom
  • Use activities that integrate all language skills (reading, writing, listening and speaking)

7. Lesson Delivery

  • Clearly support the content objectives in lesson delivery
  • Clearly support the language objectives in lesson delivery
  • Engage students 90 percent to 100 percent of the time
  • Pace the lesson appropriately to students’ ability level

8. Review and Assessment

  • Include a comprehensive review of key vocabulary
  • Include a comprehensive review of key content concepts
  • Provide regular feedback to students on their output
  • Conduct assessments of student comprehension and learning of all lesson objectives throughout the lesson


Teaching Tolerance collage of images

Welcome to Learning for Justice—Formerly Teaching Tolerance!

Our work has evolved in the last 30 years, from reducing prejudice to tackling systemic injustice. So we’ve chosen a new name that better reflects that evolution: Learning for Justice.

Learn More