Linking Language Policy to Practice
for English Language Learners
Legal Rationale:Implications for Rural Schools|
Crafting a Plan
Language and educational policies for children new to English in the United States continue almost spontaneously. This appears to be influenced by immediate social, political, and economic factors. Data obtained from the 2000 Census
have revealed that the number of children between the ages of 5 and 17 who speak
a language other than English has increased by over 54% from the previous 1990
Census. This information is derived from self-reported language use and proficiency, and interpretation of the data by language and education policymakers is just beginning
to emerge. Policymakers will likely use these data to formulate, alter, and
institute language and educational policies affecting children for whom English is a new language. Such policies will ultimately
affect classroom practice and the ways in which English language learners (ELLs)
throughout the United States are educated.
Since 1990, the ELL student population in the U.S. has increased by 95%, while the school-age population in general has grown only 12% (Northeast and Islands, 2003). Although the United States does not have an official national language
policy delineating specific language policies and practices for schools, many states have
passed language policy legislation that ensures the status of English over other languages. Currently, 26 states in the United States have declared English as
their official language (see http://www.us-english.org).
Spanish speakers account for approximately 60% of the total number of ELLs in the United States.
This Web site is devoted to exploring current language and educational policies with emphasis on how these policies can be put into practice. We have highlighted the following areas:
- A legal rationale for establishing and implementing policy protective of English language learners
- The demographic relevance of ELL policy development for rural schools
- Guidelines for crafting a plan that includes indicators for school/district readiness, ELL identification, assessment, support systems, exit criteria, and the measurement of policy impact.
The foundation for providing ELLs equitable access to learning began with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Supreme Court opinions, case law precedent, and congressional actions following passage of this law have strengthened the legal rationale for assuring that ELLs receive an equitable education appropriate to their linguistic and academic needs. With these protections, there is ongoing, improved clarification about the implementation of instructional practices that ensure equitable access for all ELLs in publicly supported programs and practices (Berube, 2000). Schools are bound by legal provisions that support English language learners.
The educational rights of school-age English language learners have been safeguarded through a series of legislative acts and court decisions (see Legal Provisions) that have occurred since the 19th century. The following information from the Mid-Atlantic Equity Center is a basic timeline for legal milestones:
United States Constitution - Fourteenth Amendment:
No person is denied the protection of the laws of the
Civil Rights Act - Title VI: "No person shall, on the grounds of race, color or national origin, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal Financial assistance."
Equal Educational Opportunities Act (EEOA): This act states that schools need to take appropriate measures to overcome language barriers that impede students' participation in programs.
Supreme Court Case -- Lau v. Nichols: The court
ruled that giving all students the same desks, books, teachers,
and lessons does not mean that they have equal opportunity,
especially if there are students who do not speak English.
Federal Court Case -- Serna v. Portales: The
court ascertained that Spanish surnamed individuals
did not reach the same achievement levels as non-Spanish
surnamed peers. The court ordered the Portales Municipal
School District to design and implement a bilingual and bicultural
Federal Court Case -- Castaneda v. Pickard: The
Fifth Circuit Court established a three-part test to determine if school districts are complying
with the EEOA of 1974. The requirements include:
- Theory - The school must implement a program
based on sound educational theory or, at a minimum,
a legitimate experimental program design.
- Practice - The school district must put into
practice the educational program they have designed.
They must allocate the necessary personnel and practices
to transfer theory to practice.
- Results - The school must stop programs that
fail to produce results.
Supreme Court Case - Plyler v. Doe: The court
ruled that schools cannot deny students access simply
because they are undocumented (illegal) aliens. In other
words, the schools are not agencies or agents for enforcing
Federal Court Case - Gomez v. Illinois: The
court ruled that the State Educational Agencies must
also comply with the three-point test established in Castaneda
No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001 - This act makes federal funding for states dependent on student progress. According to the act: "States that do not meet their performance objectives for LEP students could lose up to ten percent of the administrative portion of their funding for all ESEA state administered formula grant programs."
Why should a school district have a policy in place specifically for its English language learners? School districts must implement policies for equal access of students for whom English is a second or new language. Those policies are set at the level of the local school board, but they may never supersede federal or state law. These policies may be referred to as a Lau Plan or an Equal Access Plan and may supplement a more comprehensive plan protective of the rights of all students. The important point is that school districts must develop policy, and practice must reflect that policy. It may be helpful to view some examples of common misunderstandings that may arise regarding the need for an Equal Access Plan.
Of course, educational policies created at the national level are negotiated at the state and local school district levels as supports are provided to schools, teachers, and their students. In this way, federal policies affect classroom practice in the micro-interactions that occur between teachers and students (Cummins, 2001). Faced with the task of providing consistent and quality
instruction within the current socio-cultural climate, content area and English-as-a-second-language teachers, as well as building administrators, are often left to
navigate policy complexities and even contradictions with no support beyond their borders. Their tasks are uniquely daunting, given the complexity and interaction of the
varied social, political, legal, and economic contexts needed to support the nation's 5 million English language learners, 40% of whom are enrolled in rural schools.
How effective is your school's equity policy? Take this quiz to determine your school's Equity Policy Quotient (EPQ).
Legal Rationale: Implications for Rural Schools
What is the definition of a rural community? Low numbers of English language learners (ELL) are characteristic of most schools situated in rural communities. Berube (2000) notes in Managing ESL Programs in Rural and Small Urban Schools that rural schools typically enroll as few as one to as many as 500 ELL students in district-wide programs of ESL instruction. How does one know that a given community is indeed rural? The answer is: it depends.
- The U.S. Department of Agriculture says:
Rural communities are in small country towns, defined by geographic isolation from other communities, absence of large metropolitan centers, low-density settlement patterns, historic dependence on agriculture, and continual population loss, out-migration, and economic upheaval or economic distress.
- Title VI under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 says:
The local education agency is rural if the total number of students in average daily attendance at all its schools is fewer than 600, or each county served by that school has a total population density of fewer than ten persons per square mile, and all of its schools meet the definition of rural as described by the National Center for Education Statistics.
- The National Center for Education Statistics says:
A small town is not within a metropolitan statistical area (MSA) and has a population of less than 25,000 and greater than or equal to 2,500 people. A rural town exists inside or outside an MSA if its population is less than 2,500 people and coded rural by the MSA.
Most schools in rural communities enroll very few students for whom English is a second or new language. Sometimes, interventions in small schools are dealt with as they occur without formal procedures. The issue of developing a comprehensive plan or policy for ESL in a small school may seem out of place.
The following facts illustrate the dramatic need for quality interventions for ELL students in rural schools:
- 44% of America's ELL students live in rural communities.
- Only 30% of the states have fewer than 5000 ELL students statewide.
- 33% of America's towns enroll ELL students.
- Enrollments are too low to establish a bilingual education program.
- ELL student enrollment growth across the USA is greater in rural than in urban schools.
- Rural schools are more Caucasian than urban schools are.
- Rural schools lack credentialed ELL teachers; they tend to hire tutors or classroom aides instead of teachers.
- Rural schools tend to be distant from universities.
- There are no national models for ELL rural programs and policies, affecting the knowledge base of best practices.
- Rural teaching does not reflect the diversity of most of America.
- Urban ELL students transferring to rural schools are not likely to experience the kind of program that may have been available to them in an urban school.
- Rural schools lack the political power base that urban schools have.
- Rural schools have nearly no access to federal discretionary grants for ELL. What access they have yields few resources.
- Rural schools often have no access to state funds designated for ELLs because their ELL enrollments are too low.
- Teachers in rural schools tend to know little about ELL methodology, multiculturalism, ELL curriculum development, ELL assessment, and second language acquisition theory.
- Administrators in rural schools, though perhaps well intentioned, do not tend to place ELL policy, budget, and other support mechanisms, very high among the school's priorities.
Ensuring that ELL students are not marginalized requires a special effort in rural schools, because the rights of English language learners and their access to appropriate instructional programs are not limited by the number of students in a school. For more information on the challenges of respect, recognition, and responsibility in rural schools, see Berube's (2002) "Three R's for ESL Instruction in Rural Schools: A Test of Commitment" at http://www.tesol.org/pubs/articles/2002/tm12-4-03.html.
Crafting a Plan
What is a Lau Plan? A Lau plan, named after the landmark Lau vs. Nichols U.S. Supreme Court Decision of 1974, is one equal access plan that protects ELLs. The plan describes what a school district will do:
- to identify its ELLs,
- to design an effective program reflective of their needs,
- to employ appropriate English-as-a-second-language or bilingual personnel (or both),
- to align the instruction of ELLs to state and local content standards, and
- to provide ongoing authentic assessments to ascertain their growth in English language proficiency and in the comprehension of academic content.
Because the plan requires school board or school committee approval, no administrator or other staff member of the school district may veto, alter, or affect implementation that is contrary to the Lau plan. They may, however, submit revisions and updates for subsequent board action as frequently as necessary. A Lau plan is a "working document" that should be revisited frequently.
Essential components of a Lau Plan include the legal foundation, student assessments, an instructional plan, parental involvement, qualified personnel, a coordination plan, a budget, adjunct services, and other possible considerations.
Steps for Creating a Lau Plan
- Present a rationale for the plan. Cite the legal foundation for the Lau Plan as established in law. The most common citations are listed on this site under Legal Provisions. Add citations specific to your state, if they exist.
- Create a committee to implement the plan. A language assessment committee (LAC) is created at either the building or district level. The committee is established to advise on identifying, serving, assessing, and eventually exiting an English language learner from a language support system. It also serves to notify parents about upcoming testing. The committee meets on a regular basis to monitor the language and academic progress of ELL students, including those who may have exited the program. The committee may also meet with the entire school staff to inform them of their observations and recommendations for meeting the ELL needs.
The committee recommends revisions to the Lau Plan as needed; these revisions are eventually re-submitted to the school committee for approval. The committee may consist of an administrator, a guidance counselor, academic content teachers, the ESL teacher, and tutor or translator, if there is one. Some members may be temporary, rotating, or ongoing.
- Create an assessment system to identify English language learners. Assessments for entry into a language support system should be based on several criteria rather than a single test. More detailed information is available in questions on student assessment and in the Initial Assessment section of this Web site. In general, the following considerations should apply:
- Establish the presence of a student's non-English language background. This may be done through the use of a home language survey.
- Conduct an assessment of the language background of the ELL student by using a language proficiency instrument. A listing of publishers of the most common and reliable English language assessment tools is available at
- Review multiple sources to assure authentic assessment information; sources may include student writing samples, portfolios, exhibitions, demonstrations, oral interviews, and other assessment formats solicited from teachers and colleagues.
- Create a service delivery plan for English language learners. An appropriate program and comprehensible academic studies are developed to accommodate the student's English proficiency level needs. Such a program is aligned to state and local standards as required by statute.
A description of an ESL program would include a schedule of ESL instruction developed with the student's ESL and regular content teacher, integrative materials used to support that instruction, extracurricular activities, a line item budget dedicated to supporting the ESL program, and ancillary services (e.g., interpreter services, speech pathology, computer literacy, special needs, gifted/talented) as appropriate.
- Establish criteria for reclassification, transfer, and exit from the support system. Document the results of all authentic assessments used to determine student exit from the ESL program. Formative multiple measures are needed that include language proficiency tests, psychometric tests, portfolios, and a comprehensive review of all aspects of ELL student performance (just as in Step 3). This determination is made by a language assessment committee -- not a single individual.
- Engage qualified personnel. As with other instructional personnel, ESL staff must be qualified with academic preparation in English-as-a-second-language, as stipulated in the 1991 Office of Civil Rights Memorandum. Such credentials are often part of a state teacher licensure system. Typically, ESL support services that do not supplant the standard curriculum may be provided by an education aide who is supervised by an ESL teacher in collaboration with the student's regular classroom teacher(s). More specifics are available in questions on personnel support.
- Set guidelines for monitoring reclassified, exited students. When transferring an ELL student to another program or reclassifying him/her as English fluent, multiple assessments (such as those described in Steps 3 and 5) must occur. Teachers in the student's new setting (with coordinated support of the ESL teacher) will assess the English-fluent student's academic performance with a view to observing English mastery (reading, writing, speaking, and listening) in formal and informal venues. Mastery of course objectives may require the use of criterion reference testing and other tools to determine how the student compares with his/her English-only peers. Language assessment committee members should follow up on the placement's impact within two weeks of the transfer and continue periodic monitoring for three years after the exit from ESL. Sometimes, it becomes necessary for an ELL to return to a partial ESL intervention.
- Submit the plan to the school superintendent for review. The team that wrote or revised the Lau plan presents its draft to the superintendent or an administrative team for their review. Once the plan is set to be presented as part of the school board or committee's public agenda, those closest to the plan should appear before the school board and superintendent to respond to questions or comments they may have about the plan.
- Superintendent seeks school board approval of the plan. Once the school board approves the superintendent's plan, the Lau plan becomes the official policy of the school district regarding equal access to students of limited English proficiency. It must be strictly adhered to until or unless it is revised and re-submitted to the school board.
Sample Plans: The State of Maine Department of Education presents several examples of Lau Plans that may be viewed at http://www.state.me.us/education/esl/lauplans.htm
[return] Berube, B. (2000). Managing ESL programs in rural and small urban schools. Arlington, VA: TESOL, Inc.
[return] Berube, B. (2002, September/October/November). The three R's for ESL instruction in U.S. rural schools: A test of commitment. TESOL Matters, 12(4). Available: http://www.tesol.org/pubs/articles/2002/tm12-4-03.html
[return] Cummins, J. (2001). Language, power and pedagogy: Bilingual children in the crossfire. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.
[return] Northeast and Islands Regional Educational Laboratory. (2003). Claiming opportunities: A handbook for improving education for English language learners through comprehensive school reform. Providence, RI: Brown University.