Public School Teachers of ELs: A Look at the Legal Requirements

I’d like to introduce you to guest blogger Sandy Nahmias. I met Sandy through NJTESOL/NJBE where we are both on the Executive Board. She is an experienced ESL/bilingual teacher who has also been active on projects for WIDA and has consulted with the N.J. Department of Education on numerous projects. Here is Sandy’s blog.

There was recently a query on the NJTESOL/NJBE discussion list in which a participant asked, “Are mainstream teachers with ELLs in their classrooms legally required to modify lessons for them?” I answered the question on the discussion list and would like to elaborate in this blog.

A good place to start would be the “Dear Colleague” letter of 7 January 2015  that was issued jointly by the The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the USDOE and the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). These agencies share authority for enforcing Title VI in the education context. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Educational Opportunities Act (EEOA) confirmed that public schools and state educational agencies (SEAs) must act to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation by students in their instructional programs. The Departments issued the joint guidance in the “Dear Colleague” letter “in order to assist SEAs, school districts, and all public schools in meeting their legal obligations to ensure that EL students can participate meaningfully and equally in educational programs and services.” The bottom line is that a school district’s programs must enable EL students to acquire both English and content knowledge, and there are several ways a district may choose to go about providing the equality of instruction that is required by law throughout the United States.

What Could Have Prompted the Question?

I asked myself what could have prompted this question and took a look at the research. Between 1980 and 2009, the number of school-age children in the United States who spoke another language in the home increased from 4.7 million to 11.2 million. ELs are found throughout the United States in growing numbers. They are represented in every socioeconomic level and speak more than 470 different languages, although Spanish is the home language for at least 75% of these students (Linan-Thompson, & Vaughn, 2007). In “Teachers’ Dispositions and Beliefs about Cultural and Linguistic Diversity,” Vázquez-Montilla, Just, and Triscari (2014)  cite that ELs “represent the fastest growing student population in the U.S.; of the estimated 5 million ELLs currently in American classrooms, approximately two-thirds (66%) are in at least one course taught by mainstream teachers” (p. 577).

Attitudes of Teachers Toward ELs

In a blog by and about mainstream teacher attitudes towards ELs, A. Athas reviews an article entitled “‘Not in My Classroom’: Teacher Attitudes Towards English Language Learners in the Mainstream Classroom.” He cites a study where 422 K–12 teachers and 6 EL teachers were surveyed about attitudes concerning ELs in mainstream classrooms. The authors of the study, Walker, Shafer, and Liam (2004), found considerable negative to neutral attitudes held by mainstream teachers toward ELs. They broke down these attitudes into five categories. Here are the factors that the authors cited:

  1. Time and teacher burden. The authors report that many teachers feel overwhelmed with already existing demands placed upon them and view the taking on of demands concerning ELs an additional burden.
  2. Lack of training. Although the vast majority of K–12 teachers nationwide have no training in ESL, leading to feelings of failure and frustration on the part of these mainstream teachers when working with ELs, these same teachers welcome ELs in their classrooms and the diversity they bring with them, and want to accommodate these students’ needs in their classes.
  3. The influence of negative administrator attitudes. Administrators’ negative attitudes carry a great deal of weight; malignant misnomers effect EL education.
  4. The belief in various myths about effective EL education. The ever-present myth that preserving ELs’ heritage language causes confusion between that language and their learning English, and therefore “English-only” should be the language acquisition methodology of choice; the longstanding belief that ELs should attain fluency in English after a year of ESL instruction.
  5. The ideology of common sense. The oft heard statement that specialized training is not required to instruct ELs and that common sense and good intentions suffice, when in fact a broad range of knowledge about second language acquisition, linguistics, pedagogy tailored toward ELs, and a multicultural prospective are of paramount importance.

Clearly the rapid escalation of linguistic and cultural diversity in the United States over the past 30 years poses challenges for schools, districts, and school systems. However, these challenges are not insurmountable. Professional development on making content accessible for ELs; resources including websites, blogs, and texts; and collaborative efforts between mainstream teachers and teachers of ELs are several of the many ways to effect a positive change in attitudes.

I will end here in the hope that this will help in the future to continue the conversation about working with ELs in mainstream classrooms. Please write a comment below if you have additional ideas about this topic.


Linan-Thompson, S., & Vaughn, S. (2007). Research-based methods of reading instruction for English learners, grades K-4. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Vazquez-Montilla, E., Just, M., & Triscari, R. (2014). Teachers’ dispositions and beliefs about cultural and linguistic diversity. Universal Journal of Educational Research, 2(8), 577–587.

Walker, A., Shafer, J., & Liam, M. (2004). “Not in my classroom”: Teacher attitudes towards English language learners in the mainstream classroom. Wheaton, MD: NJRP.

Sandra Nahmias is a bilingual/ESL teacher in Linden, New Jersey, and has been an educator of ELs for 19 years. She is the Bilingual Elementary SIG Representative to the NJTESOL/NJBE Executive Board and a World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA) Certified Trainer. Sandra has consulted for the NJDOE on a number of projects involving the CCSS and WIDA’s English Language Development standards.

About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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