We are thrilled to celebrate MinneTESOL Journal’s 40th anniversary with the publication of volume 37, issue 2. This excellent collection of articles highlights the latest innovation in the field of English language teaching and learning. 

We welcome our first youth author, Sumia Sabrie, senior at Mankato East High School and PSEO student at South Central College. In her article, “The Academic Struggles of Somali Families,” she addresses the public schools’ historical lack of cultural and linguistic responsiveness to Somali families and how hiring teachers of color and cultural mediators have helped bridge the divide. Also focused on areas for improvement in the K-12 context, Michelle Benegas, Trish Morita-Mullaney, Jenna Cushing-Leubner, Amy Stolpestad, and Michelle Greene share findings from a tri-state study that examined the experiences of ESL teachers at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Systemic Infrastructure for Multilingual Success: ESL Teacher Responses to Emergency Remote Teaching and Learning at the Onset of the COVID-19 Pandemic” also shares recommendations for systemic infrastructure for multilingual success in K-12 schools. From the college sector, in “10 Years of a Lab School: Preparing MA-TESOL Students to Teach Adult Learners,” Susan Olmstead-Wang, Josephine Prado, and Susan Spezzini reflect on the impact of the Community English Program at the University of Alabama-Birmingham and offer strategies for ongoing improvement. 

In “Perceptions of Multilingualism in the Classroom,” Sophie Breen examines the perceptions that teachers, administrators and students have about multilingualism in the K-12 classroom. Also focusing on the linguistic assets that K-12 learners bring to the classroom, Dayna Hillcrest makes a compelling case to change the monoglossic ideology in schools where it is prevalent by encouraging multiple language use in the classroom in “The Academic Benefits of Translanguaging.” Also committed to excellence in English language (EL) education, WIDA’s content-driven language learning framework has provided needed structure for EL instruction. Lynn Shafer Willner, Fernanda Marinho Kray, and Margo Gottlieb provide a comprehensive overview of the WIDA standards in “What’s the Same and What’s Been Updated in the 2020 Edition of the WIDA English Language Development Standards Framework?

Please read, enjoy, and share the research and practice ideas in this issue of MinneTESOL Journal! We look forward to 40 more years of learning together. Stay connected to our MinneTESOL Journal community by following the journal on Facebook and on Twitter (@MnTESOLjournal).



Public schools’ lack of cultural and linguistic responsiveness to Somali families is leading many of them to change schools, move to charter schools, relocate to a different area of the United States, or return to Somalia. To mitigate this growing problem, schools have been using cultural mediators to help create a bridge of communication and hiring teachers of color for a better representation of diversity in schools.
Keywords: Somali culture, education, academic barriers

When I was in middle school, I had a hard time getting to know my classmates, especially my Somali peers. The average person might attribute this to my quiet demeanor; however, the real reason had nothing to do with being introverted. In fact, I was very isolated because I was often the only non-White student in my classes. Occasionally, other Somali-American students would appear, but then many of them would soon transfer to a different school or even move back to Somalia in some cases. This made it difficult for me to form relationships with them before they left. Ultimately, being the only Somali-American in the school affected my engagement in learning.

My experience of cultural and linguistic isolation in schools is the reality for many Somali students in U.S. public schools (Koch, 2007). Schools often do not address Somali students’ isolation, nor do they actively support their language and culture (Birman et al., 2001, as cited in Koch, 2007). Due to reasons such as these, many Somali parents move their children to different schools in hopes of finding the right fit. The constant relocation of Somali families could be one of the reasons it is difficult for Somali youth to complete their high school education. In Minnesota, 34% of Somali-Americans aged 25-64 do not have a high school diploma, compared to only 3% of the White population in Minnesota (Johnson, 2018). When Somali students come to a U.S. public school after emigrating from Somalia, they need relevant education that does not conflict with their language, culture, and religion. As a Somali-American high school student myself, I would like to share my perspectives on why many Somali families are not content with their children’s education and how public schools can better support their students’ educational journey.

Somali parents’ expectations and motivations for their children’s education

To fully understand Somali students’ struggle for quality education, it is important to understand why Somali families have resettled in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. Obtaining a quality education in Somalia itself has been very difficult in the aftermath of the Somali Civil War. Nonetheless, before the start of the war, most Somalis lived in rural areas and adhered to the teachings of Islam. The society was mainly democratic and there were various clans that made up the country’s population. Both men and women had roles in the community that had equal importance. However, the civil war affected daily life in many aspects, including Somali public education. For the promise of safety and opportunity, many families emigrated from Somalia and looked for better lives free of conflict (Putman & Noor, 1993, as cited in Koch, 2007, p. 2). Furthermore, in the 1980s (pre-civil war), Islamic religious schools were the only type of schooling available to the public in Mogadishu (Iftin & Alexander, 2018). The civil war continues today and has lowered the opportunities for education available to the Somali public. Of course, it is important to note that many refugees do manage to obtain excellent educations in some private schools in Somalia, as well as in surrounding countries such as Kenya, Ethiopia, and Djibouti.

Along with these historical reasons, until immigration to the U.S., Somali parents are also used to schools in Somalia and neighboring countries reflecting their culture, including Islamic holidays, studies, and values, along with academic subjects. Because most Somalis share a similar culture and religion, numerous Somali families are surprised by the Christian-centered community dynamic in their new homes. In my experience, school culture in the U.S. unconsciously adopts Christian values, customs, and holidays. The new ideas and different curriculum in these American and European areas make Somali parents feel hesitant and unqualified to get involved with their children’s education. In order to maintain their cultural identity, Somali families move to areas with a high Somali population and, if all else fails, relocate to Somalia or to the Middle East.

Choices of Somali families

The results of cultural assimilation

Non-Somali people often criticize and discriminate against Somalis due to factors such as their culture, religion, language, and race (Koch, 2007). Thus, in an attempt to fit in, some Somalis try to use Black culture and hip-hop as a source of comfort (Bigelow, 2008). It is apparent that Somalis are working hard to adapt to their social surroundings and are putting in numerous efforts to build relationships with their peers.

However, in the process of cultural assimilation, Somalis can lose a part of their cultural identity as well. Moreover, this aspect of coping can be seen in a negative light by the public. They, along with their Black classmates, experience discrimination within the schooling system due to assumptions made about their race, culture, ethnicity, and immigration status. These students feel that they have fewer opportunities to gain jobs and attend college due to the blatant prejudice that exists (Bigelow, 2008). Ignorant assumptions are a major shadow over their academic achievements and progress (Maira & Soep, 2013). The false ideas created about Somalis are then reflected onto the entire Somali population. In turn, it should be noted that Somalis have also found ways to use Black culture in a positive light. While Somali parents still disapprove, Somali youth draw on Black vernacular and music as ways to build their identities (Maira & Soep, 2013). Through this process, Somalis are better able to express themselves linguistically and can communicate with their teachers and peers on another level (Maira & Soep, 2013). Therefore, Somalis can learn more about the English language by looking toward Black culture and becoming confident in their linguistic skills. They use aspects of this culture to bring a sense of belonging, advocate for their future through verbal speech, relieve stress by listening to Black music, and make friends within the Black community.

Charter schools

Undoubtedly, Somalis have the power to make a variety of decisions to overcome any obstacles that might form in their path. If moving away and adopting local culture does not allow Somali children to overcome their educational hardships, many Somali parents transfer their students from public schools to charter schools. From what I have witnessed, public schools tend to make Somali students feel restricted in their cultural and religious practices, and the traditional system makes it hard for Somali parents to advocate for their child’s education. Without a firm grasp on English, Somali families struggle to communicate what kind of support their child needs academically. Even though public schools have more college preparation and educational resources, I do not believe that public schools have the proper cultural and linguistic support to meet the needs of Somali students. On the other hand, I have found that charter schools are more creative and unconventional in their school structure. Somali families feel a greater sense of community and feel that they can practice their culture more freely. In fact, when deciding what educational institution to send their children to, “one out of three Somali families choose Charter” (Johnson, 2018, p. 20). In addition, there are charter school groups that are trying to help minority students get into the best colleges despite their difficult circumstances. Factors such as parents with limited English, financial aid, and graduation rates are addressed by these charter school teams. List of colleges are created for each student based on compatibility (Blume, 2019). With these support programs put into place, Somali students feel more comfortable after leaving their charter schools and heading toward college.

Efforts by public schools

Much like charter schools, public schools have also developed methods to help Somali students feel welcome in their buildings. To accommodate a wide variety of immigrant students, there have been many different classroom models made to support English learners. There are pull-out classes, English learning periods, co-teaching, and many more strategies being implemented in the hope of furthering English development among students. However, students have often noted feeling a negative stigma when being separated from their classmates in pull-out instruction (Johnson, 2018). Moreover, the purpose of English Language Learner (ELL) classrooms is not properly communicated to families and makes most Somali parents feel that their child will not be served well by such programs. There is often a language barrier between Somali families and schools that creates a sense of distrust and unease when trying to share resources for Somali youth. For the purpose of increasing inclusion, some schools are trying to use more of the Somali language as a resource to make students feel more connected to academic content. Research tells us that bilingual immersion aids in retaining grammar and vocabulary in both languages (Johnson, 2018). Along with that, Somali students find it important to be able to read and write in their native language since it further connects them to their cultural identity. The use of books and other forms of literature can help promote native language development along with English proficiency (Johnson, 2018). In Somalia, most students learn how to speak Arabic along with their other subjects. Arabic is the foundation for the Islamic holy text, the Qur’an, and is also used as an international common language for Somalis. The teachings of this language along with Somali promotes bilingual education and helps students attach a personal connection to their studies (A. Sabrie, personal communication, November 11, 2020). However, public schools usually do not have the funding they need nor knowledge about how they can properly adapt their classrooms to create these vital connections for Somali students.

Innovative school initiatives

As mentioned earlier, U.S. public schools have noticed that their practices for teaching Somali students through ELL classroom models have been less effective than they had hoped. School administrators have also begun to feel how ill-equipped they are to serve Somali students and teachers since they speak different languages, adhere to different religions, and have a different culture from each other. Their differences can cause misunderstanding and frustration for both parties. In an attempt to find mutual ground, schools are trying to hire more people of color as teachers and trying to encourage minority students to become teachers (Thomas, 2016). The gap between Somali students and their teachers must be lessened through the connection and understanding of language and culture. Somali students find it comforting to be able to converse with their teachers in their native language and feel reassured that their teachers understand the aspects of their cultural norms (Koch, 2007). Teachers need to use the tools of language and culture to help their students feel like they have an important place in the learning environment.

There are many promising examples of schools narrowing the gap between staff and Somalis students in South Central Minnesota. In particular, the ISD 77 school district has made great progress regarding their strong connection with Somali students and their families. School staff have provided support to families by connecting them to resources, such as school supplies and study materials. As of now, schools in the ISD 77 district are coming up with different approaches on how they can increase the representation of people of color in the teaching field. In fact, ISD 77 schools are reaching out to minority students as young as thirteen years old to teach them more about the requirements for becoming a teacher. This developed pathway supports students of color to achieve their dreams of being a teacher in the future. Moreover, there is also a program called “Grow Your Own” that helps pay for the education of students of color through district funds so that they can hope to become a future teacher (A. Sabrie, personal communication, November 11, 2020). All of this effort toward building up diversity will create a brighter future for generations to come. The current level of representation in the teacher population leaves room for unconscious bias toward students of color. Once this bias has been eradicated, the public school system will be a safe haven for all its diverse students (Johnson, 2018).

Following these efforts to support greater Somali student academic achievement, U.S. public school educators and administrators are currently trying to learn about Somali history and culture in order to better understand their students. For a deeper connection, schools can work with leaders in the Somali community to help distribute resources to Somali families. There is a greater importance being placed on learning about Somali trauma from the civil war and how Somali (and the Somali people’s) culture has been the foundation of overcoming their problems. The training of culturally-sensitive guidance counselors can be used to help students overcome the wounds of their past. Also, hiring cultural brokers and liaisons can help facilitate a bridge of communication between teachers and Somali parents (Birman et al., 2001, as cited in Koch, 2007).


In conclusion, the growing issue of U.S. public schools’ lack of knowledge about Somali culture has made Somali families look towards a plethora of alternative options. For Somalis, the most important aspect of education is culturally relevant pedagogy. The current broken connection between teachers and Somali parents has generated frustration and confusion that leads to students leaving public schools for another choice. It has been found that Somali families would rather move to another area, attend a charter school, or even relocate back to Somalia in order to protect their cultural and linguistic identity (Thomas, 2016). In response, schools have begun to shift from pull-out ELL classroom models and are instead putting a focus on utilizing Somali culture and language as part of the curriculum. The hiring of more minority teachers will continue to grow the teacher workforce into one that is understanding and able to connect with Somali youth. These trends are especially important for both school districts and Somalis alike. School staff can look to these emerging solutions as examples of how they can further develop their own schools. On top of that, these ideas can be adapted for other minority groups that are also seeking a more appropriate education. Somali parents can also look at the recommendations of members of the Somali community and advise each other on culturally relevant education choices. As they learn of the new steps put into place by schools, Somali families might decide that working with the school administrators is the best option in the end. I hope that by listening to the voices of Somali-American parents as well as students like myself, school districts will be able to work with Somali families to keep Somali students in their schools through new programs and specialized staff.


Bigelow, M. (2008). Somali adolescents’ negotiation of religious and racial bias in and out of school. Theory Into Practice, 47(1), 27-34. https://doi.org/10.1080/00405840701764706 

Blume, H. (2019). Getting into college is hard. A degree? Harder: Charter-school group creates list to match minority students and schools for best fit. Los Angeles Times. Accessed 3 November, 2021 at https://enewspaper.latimes.com/infinity/article_share.aspx?guid=6615a8aa-77f8-4092-8641-9315ca87369b 

Iftin, A. N., & Alexander, M. (2018). Call me American: A memoir. Vintage.

Johnson, A. (2018). Somali student achievement in Minnesota: A report on the largest East   African community in Minnesota. Minnesota Education Equity Partnership and Augsburg University. Accessed 3 November 2021 at https://mneep.org/resource/somali-student-achievement-in-minnesota-2018/ 

Koch, J. M. (2007). How schools can best support Somali students and their families. International Journal of Multicultural Education, 9(1). https://doi.org/10.18251/ijme.v9i1.8 

Maira, S., & Soep, E. (2013). Youthscapes: The popular, the national, the global. University of Pennsylvania Press.

Thomas, P. (2016). Norwegian-Somali parents who send their children to schools in Somalia. Cogent Education, 3(1). https://doi.org/10.1080/2331186x.2016.1229520



The purpose of this study is to examine how elements of systemic infrastructure for multilingual success (SIMS) contributed to English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers’ ability to engage in language instruction during emergency remote teaching and learning (ERTL) in the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic when schools were transitioning to distance learning. Focused on the Great Lakes region, we utilized surveys and interviews to learn about the roles and responsibilities of ESL teachers during this critical transition. Findings illuminate the generative effects of existing SIMS such as collaboration and co-teaching, ESL leadership, and technology as well as the negative approaches to school infrastructure such as combined teacher/coordinator roles and at-will educator employment. Implications for systemic school reform for multilingual learner equity are discussed.
Keywords: English learners, COVID-19, Instruction, service, infrastructure, multilingual, remote

In 1981, the Castañeda v. Pickard case established a three-part framework to evaluate the efficacy of school district English as a Second Language (ESL) service programs. Thirty years later, the expectations specified in that case have been put to the ultimate test: a global pandemic. With almost five million students categorized as English Learners nation-wide (Mitchell, 2020) and an education system experiencing strain like never before, this article will illuminate how well our schools were able to adhere to the stipulations of Castañeda v. Pickard during emergency remote teaching and learning (ERTL).

The focus of the present study is on systemic infrastructure for multilingual success (SIMS) in the Great Lakes Region of the U.S., including Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Indiana. While these states have similar profiles when it comes to immigrant and refugee populations (U.S. Department of Education, n.d.), they have vastly different structures and policies in place when it comes to ESL education. Given these conditions, the research question guiding this analysis is: Which elements of SIMS afforded the least disrupted language learning experience during ERTL?

At the time of data collection, Minnesota had the most robust SIMS of the three states with the most comprehensive multilingual learner (MLL) legislation in the nation—The Minnesota Learning English for Academic Proficiency and Success [LEAPS] Act, 2014—rigorous teacher licensing requirements consisting of a stand-alone license of approximately 30 credit hours and mostly at the graduate level (M. Sandler, personal communication, September 2, 2021), and one of the largest state ESL teacher professional organizations in the nation, MinneTESOL (an affiliate of TESOL International Association). In addition, one of the researchers conducting this study, Michelle Benegas, is the principal investigator on a National Professional Development grant from the U.S. Department of Education called The English Learners in the Mainstream (ELM) Project. The ELM Project has prepared over 400 licensed ESL teachers across the state to serve as teacher leaders who provide professional development and coach their general education colleagues on promising practices for MLLs. In partnership with public districts, public charters, and private schools in urban, suburban, and rural communities, the ELM Project has increased the collective preparation of general educators across the state to better serve MLLs as well as the capacity of ESL teachers to serve as site-based instructional leaders. This manuscript will focus on data collected from Minnesota participants of the larger study to highlight how a state with strong SIMS carried out the expectations of historic supreme court cases and the Minnesota state LEAPS Act (2014).


The term “ESL teacher” is used throughout this article, as this reflects Minnesota state licensure requirements. While the state continues to use the term “English learner” or “EL” to refer to students acquiring English, we have opted to refer to these students as “multilingual learners” or “MLLs” to validate and celebrate the assets they bring to the classroom. “Instruction” refers to language and/or literacy support that facilitates access to academic content. “Service” refers to any non-instructional support that facilitates daily living or access to instruction.

Literature review and background

Building SIMS

U.S. MLL education policy is sparse and sporadically adhered to. However, one doesn’t need to look far to find an alternative. U.S. special education policy, for example, garners bipartisan support, statutorily limits teacher caseloads, specifies student contact hours as well as service models, and requires a legally binding contract that is required to be re-evaluated annually. McGill (2000) highlights the ways in which ESL programs are positioned as subordinate in school curriculum and draws parallels to the ways in which immigrants are marginalized in society. Additionally, there is research to support the claim that such marginalization of MLLs also manifests as marginalization of ESL teachers (Arkoudis, 2006; Davison, 2006; McClure & Cahnmann-Taylor, 2010). Nation-wide, the trend has been for ESL teachers to be positioned as reading specialists, classroom assistants, and interventionists (Harper et al., 2008). 

Given the impact of systemic racism on MLLs and the resulting diminished perception of ESL teachers, building effective school infrastructure is a significant challenge (Spillane et al., 2011). School infrastructure refers to “the resources that support school leaders and teachers in providing high-quality instruction” (Hopkins et al., 2015). Developed by the researcher for this investigation, the heuristic guiding analysis in this article is SIMS. The elements of SIMS are the following:

  1. Informed: ESL teachers have robust preparation; general education teachers and support staff have continuous professional development on promising practices for MLLs; and MLL leaders have ESL teacher credentials in addition to years of experience in the classroom.
  2. Proactive: Support systems are in place prior to a schooling disruption.
  3. Collaborative: Responsibility for MLLs’ success is shared across district/school sectors (social work, information technology, nurse, nutrition services, general education teachers, ESL teachers, etc.).
  4. Distributed: Decision-making and leadership for MLLs are shared by a variety of professionals with MLL expertise.
  5. Responsive: Support systems for MLLs are based on a continuous cycle of improvement and staff are provided ongoing professional development to respond to changing needs.

Building adequate and appropriate SIMS is particularly challenging in communities with rapidly changing student populations. Minnesota has more refugees per capita than any other state (Shaw, 2018), most of whom have been relocated in the last thirty years. This rapid demographic shift necessitated strong enough SIMS to withstand strain on the education system to avert a negative impact on MLLs during ERTL.

ERTL and the COVID-19 pandemic

ERTL is the response to a disruption in the predominant educational model. This disruption could be the result of political, economic, social, or environmental instability (Davies & Bentrovato, 2011; Milman, 2020). ERTL is distinct from typical online teaching and learning, in which school infrastructure is designed for a virtual format ahead of time and not during a time of crisis (Affouneh et al., 2020; Hodges et al., 2020; Milman, 2020).

​​In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, in the months of March, April, May, and June of 2020, teachers and other school leaders were called to make significant, abrupt changes as they transitioned to distance learning. During this time, the role and responsibilities of ESL teachers varied widely. Depending on the existing infrastructure in place to support MLLs, ESL teachers adapted and, in some cases, were unable to adequately attend to instruction as their attention was directed toward service-related tasks in order to ensure that their students had adequate shelter, food, healthcare, technology, and access to WiFi. This study sought to highlight how ESL teachers assumed, negotiated, and resisted instruction and service-related tasks during ERTL (Morita-Mullaney & Stalling, 2018).


This two-phase case study draws from data collected via 405 completed surveys and 60 semi-structured interviews of ESL teachers conducted between the months of April and June, 2020. The hallmark of case study research is the bounded unit of analysis, otherwise known as the case. Hamel et al. (1993) assert that the goal of case study research is the reconstruction and analysis of a case from a sociological perspective. Similarly, Johnson and Christensen (2008) maintain that case study research is “research that provides a detailed account and analysis of one or more cases” (p. 406). In case study research, the case is determined based on the question(s) that the researcher seeks to answer. Yin (2014) explains that a case is a unit of analysis, which may be an individual, an event or entity. Stake (2006) furthers that each case can be a “bounded system” in that it is made up of interrelated components or characteristics that have identifiable boundaries. Data were analysed for evidence of SIMS in place prior to the start of the pandemic in order to evaluate which SIMS are effective in providing MLLs with uninterrupted language learning and which infrastructural approaches are ineffective. For the purpose of this study, we narrow in on the state of Minnesota drawn from a larger scale study (Cushing-Leubner et al., 2021; Morita-Mullaney et al., 2021).


Study participants were recruited according to readily available teacher contact information in each state. In Indiana and Minnesota, surveys were distributed to the membership of each state’s TESOL affiliate. TESOL International is the predominant professional organization in the field of ESL. As such, MinneTESOL (Minnesota) and INTESOL (Indiana) facilitated the distribution of surveys to practicing K-12 ESL teachers in public district, public charter, and private schools in Minnesota and Indiana. Minnesota also utilized The ELM Project listserv to distribute surveys. In the state of Wisconsin, schools with ESL programs were identified using the Department of Public Instruction list of school districts and teachers, and participants were solicited using the emails listed on their school websites. Participants were novice and experienced ESL teachers.

Data collection: Surveys

A survey was divided into three sections: teacher and school demographic information, ESL teacher instruction provided before and during ERTL, and ESL teacher services provided before and during ERTL. The multiple choice survey was created using Qualtrics and shared via hyperlink. At the end of the survey, participants were given the opportunity to volunteer to participate in a follow-up interview. Data were disaggregated by state to examine patterns across these demographically similar contexts. While this study starts with an overview of the three states, its main focus is on the state of Minnesota, where SIMS looks different compared to other Midwest states studied (Indiana and Wisconsin). Of the 405 ESL teachers that responded, 47% were Minnesota teachers.

Data collection: Interviews

The semi-structured interviews were conducted via Zoom and WebEx. Data were transcribed using Zoom and WebEx as well. Interview questions were focused on the categories of instruction and service. Items related to instruction focused on frequency, methods of delivery, and content of instruction. In the area of service, items pertained to ways in which ESL teachers served ELs in non-instructional ways. Participants also reported the percentage of time that they spent working on instruction compared to the percentage of time that they spent working on service prior to and during ERTL. Finally, they were asked to consider how they may have been positioned to carry out these instructional and service roles. Of the 60 follow-up interviews that were conducted, Minnesota ESL teachers represented 45% of the total number of participants.

Data analysis

Data were coded and analysed using NVivo software. We utilized thematic coding to examine how ESL teachers assumed, negotiated and resisted particular instruction and service-related tasks during ERTL. Teachers who assumed tasks did what they were asked to do. Teachers who negotiated tasks voiced their opinions and found a middle ground. Teachers who resisted tasks refused to engage in tasks based on principle or bandwidth. The heuristic guiding this article is the five elements of SIMS which are: 1) informed, 2) proactive, 3) collaborative, 4) distributed, and 5) responsive.

Findings: Effective SIMS

This investigation demonstrated that quality MLL programming is not dependent on the number of MLLs served, rather the infrastructure that is in place. Through coding and analysis of the data, three themes emerged as features of systems that are aligned with the five elements of SIMS. SIMS functions with: 1) expert professionals in a distributed leadership model; 2) collaboration and co-teaching; and 3) technology support in place. While this study didn’t seek to find infrastructural elements that impeded ESL teachers’ ability to provide uninterrupted language instruction during ERTL, two emerged. They are presented below as examples of ineffective infrastructure for multilingual learners.

Expert professionals in a distributed leadership model

This finding attends to the first and fourth elements of SIMS: informed and distributed. These systems are informed by experts in the field and leadership responsibilities are shared amongst colleagues. In the case of K-12 schooling, leadership responsibilities can be taken up by the building principal, assistant principal, district level ESL coordinator, multicultural liaison, teacher, and other staff. When schools had this element of SIMS in place, ESL teachers were also more apt to be able to carry out instruction during ERTL. One teacher participant reported:

Our ELL coordinator was very instrumental. We had weekly check ins with her… She has the ear of the curriculum and instruction people at the district… so if issues came up, she could bring them up at the district level too. 

Reflecting on school-level leadership structures, another teacher shared:

Oh my principal is the most supportive principal I’ve ever had. I, which is why I’m never leaving… I also had weekly check-ins with my coach to help me work through any issues

Finally, this participant expresses that she works on a high functioning collaborative leadership team when she says:

I feel like I’m very fortunate. I have a support staff. If I reach out to an assistant principal and say, ‘This needs to happen’, it will get done… We’ve been able to get tons of help. And everybody is definitely, at least in my building, in my experience, 100% there to make sure that the [MLLs] are getting what they need.

The above selections from participant interviews illustrate how a distributed leadership model can offer a web of support to be accessed when needed, relieving the ESL teacher from the pressure they may feel to be the be-all and end-all for MLLs in their classes.

Collaboration and co-teaching

The third element of SIMS is that they are collaborative. In schools with a collaborative approach to service and instruction, ESL teachers reported little disruption to their language instruction at the onset of ERTL. One element of SIMS that presented itself repeatedly in the data is a collaboration and co-teaching model. One teacher reported: 

We meet non-stop. I feel like we’re texting and talking in PLC all the time… So the five of us kind of just work together to make sure that we’re hitting different areas where we’re focusing with different students

Whereas some co-teaching models fall short when it comes to collaboration and co-planning, this team is cohesive and connected. When the responsibilities are spread out over a team of teachers, they are more successful in meeting the needs of all learners. Teacher relationships like those described above develop over time. One participant shared:

I’ve been a teacher for a long time. I’ve been a co-teacher for a long time. And it’s one of those times where all of a sudden… all the things fall in place. The guy I co-teach with, he and I taught [together] for seven years and it was like, “Oh my God we’re doing it, we’re doing like, what you read about.”

This participant refers to the rationale beyond collaboration and co-teaching as an element of SIMS—to reinforce the MLL language learning experience so that it is continuous, uninterrupted, and impermeable to factors outside of the classroom.

Technology support in place

The second element of SIMS is that they are proactive. Technology and technology support facilitated learning environments where ESL teachers were able to carry out uninterrupted language instruction. The proactive aspects of technology that were reported to improve ERTL are:

  • a learning management system (LMS) in place prior to the start of the pandemic;
  • one-to-one devices for all students;
  • a non-instructional technology department that can assist with hardware as well as WiFi;
  • and teachers and students who have a high level of digital literacy. 

A critical component to a smooth transition to distance learning was an LMS in place prior to the transition to ERTL. While many secondary students were already skilled LMS users, few elementary schools had them in place in March of 2020. Dedicated technology support was also critical to ensuring teachers had the bandwidth to provide instruction to MLLs during this time. Many teacher participants in this study reported sacrificing hours of instructional time in lieu of student tech support. One teacher shared how this infrastructure allowed her to do her job when students needed her the most. She shares:

When we’ve needed technical support, our administration is on top of it to make sure that things are delivered in a timely manner and following up to make sure that it doesn’t go into the black hole of service tickets.

Schools with technology support infrastructure in place allowed MLLs to engage in more uninterrupted instructional time.

By far, the most challenging aspect of technology during ERTL was the lack of reliable WiFi. The pandemic revealed how many families were without connectivity and the support that these families needed so that their children could participate in school was significant. Whereas some teacher participants were struggling to negotiate with the local cable company on the weekends, another remarked:

We had a cultural liaison that would literally go to the apartment complex and help these kids get it hooked up because, if after multiple calls and multiple times, the kids just were not able to get it hooked up for whatever reason, he finally just went to the house and hooked it up.

The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated that access to technology is a basic need, not a privilege. When students have this basic need met, their academic experience is less likely to be impacted during a time of crisis.

Findings: Ineffective infrastructure for MLLs

While the aim of this article is on SIMS that improved ESL teachers’ ability to focus on instruction during ERTL, there were also examples of approaches to school infrastructure that bore out negatively when it came to ESL teachers’ instructional bandwidth. The data show two structural aspects that negatively impacted the continuous language learning experience for MLLs during ERTL. It is significant that data from both of these findings were present exclusively amongst ESL teachers in charter schools.

Dual teacher – MLL coordinator role

Data revealed that a number of ESL teacher participants in charter schools are asked to wear multiple hats—they may serve instructional as well as administrative roles, without adequate time built into the day or provisions in place to prevent disruptions to MLL language instruction. In the case of ERTL, schools with pre-existing limited capacity to support MLLs that assigned one person to multiple roles, such as school-wide MLL coordinator and ESL teacher, experienced impeded possibility for collaborative and distributive SIMS. MLLs benefit from teams of professionals who are committed to their best interests. In the absence of a professional team, dual role professionals will defer to administrative tasks and sacrifice instruction. Educators in these roles reported that they were often unable to provide direct instruction to MLLs during ERTL due to time constraints. Sometimes these roles were assumed and sometimes they were ascribed. Highlighting the complexity and demand of the position, one teacher/coordinator shared her duties in addition to teaching:

I also serve as the EL coordinator, which has some coaching. I’m also our school district assessment coordinator and migrant liaison… I’m the first point of contact for a lot of our immigrant families and so I help students access internet, access housing, access food.

Throughout the interview transcripts, professionals in these dual roles referred to themselves as “therapist,” “mother,” and “social worker”—roles that they didn’t feel prepared to carry out. They witnessed students struggle as a result of the limited school support and often took that on as a personal failure. One teacher/coordinator reflected on their instructional delivery being reduced to sporadic homework help:

It was just… horrible. I didn’t hear from three of my level ones [WIDA Proficiency Levels], the entire time… They would pull up their assignment, and I would just come up with something on the fly…It was just absolutely horrible—not proud of anything I did.

In many cases, dedicated language instruction goals were eliminated entirely from MLLs’ schedules and ESL teachers were relegated to attend exclusively to general education goals. Perhaps the most poignant comment from a teacher/coordinator was:

So I honestly did not do very much instruction… And I think that our whole distance learning process was very inequitable, especially towards our language learners. 

Study participants were cognizant of the ways in which MLLs were being provided a sub-par learning experience but it was out of their locus of control.

At-will educator employment

In the state of Minnesota, the vast majority of teachers in charter schools have at-will teaching contracts, which means that they can be dismissed at any time without advance notice and are without access to tenure or union representation (Eischens, 2021; Resilient Educator Editorial Team, 2021). Participants in this study illustrated the strain that they experience due to these conditions. Feeling frustrated and unappreciated, one teacher/coordinator shared: 

And nobody else really even understands, so they just kind of treat us like a hot potato.

Certainly, this falls in stark contrast to the second and third elements of SIMS, which are that they are proactive and collaborative. In line with previous findings, another participant reported being misunderstood by their colleagues and indentured to general education support:

I just positioned myself as, “All right, let’s get all of you across the finish line in your other classes. Let’s not focus on this one [EL class].” And I think I was forced into that position by other staff members, just because they were not going to accommodate or modify anything.

The perception of being misunderstood escalated in one case to an ESL teacher feeling threatened by general education colleagues. This teacher remarked:

There are teachers in the building that when I try to remind them there’s an [individual language plan] and the students are entitled to accommodations that I get screamed at and cussed at in front of students. So yes, it’s pretty regular that I have to do that. And pretty regular that kids won’t get service because that’s not what I want to risk my career over today, you know?

Not only did this participant feel threatened by her colleagues in the classroom, she also felt that their employment could be compromised if they advocated for MLLs.

It was apparent in the data from teachers at charter schools that they often made instructional decisions cognizant of the unprotected nature of their teaching positions. As teachers without union support or the possibility of tenure, they are at-will and can be terminated at any time. In the vast data set collected for this study across three states, there is just one example of a charter school teacher resisting an instructional decision and there are no examples of a charter school teacher resisting a service-related task. This degree of tension has the potential to result in high teacher turnover, which limits the collective expertise of a teaching faculty, thus hindering the first element of SIMS, which is that educators are informed.


In cases where SIMS was ineffective, language instruction was de-emphasized as MLLs, already struggling and marginalized, found themselves unable to meet their most immediate needs—shelter, food, and healthcare. During this time, ESL teachers worked tirelessly to support their students in any way that they were needed. They delivered food, arranged for home WiFi for families, accompanied students to the hospital when they were sick, and one even spearheaded a fundraiser that collected $10,000 to support MLL families who were in jeopardy of losing their homes. This is important work. This is critical work. ESL teachers should not be in the position to choose whether to offer support needed for survival or to provide language instruction. When schools have SIMS in place such as distributed leadership, technology support, and a model for teacher collaboration, teachers are able to fully dedicate themselves to what they have been prepared to do—provide MLLs with the linguistic tools they need to thrive in school.

Access to grade-level content is a right in U.S. schools. Supreme Court rulings on Lau v. Nichols (1974) and Castañeda v. Pickard (1981) established that schools must provide students identified as English learners with language support. Areas for future research include application of the SIMS heuristic to research in different school settings to better understand the relationship between infrastructure, teacher practice, and MLL experience/outcomes and reveal additional SIMS that contribute to uninterrupted language learning for MLLs. Additionally, further examination of the unequal access to MLL language instruction in charter vs. public schools revealed in this investigation is needed to better understand how state and federal policies may inadvertently allow for loopholes that sacrifice student learning. 

ERTL illuminated and exacerbated some equity gaps that we can learn from moving forward. The COVID-19 pandemic was not the first wide-scale crisis that has impacted schooling and it will not be the last. Findings will have significance for (1) district and school-level strategic design for MLL school-wide support and (2) federal and state policies about SIMS that adhere to existing federal law by protecting the roles of ESL teachers and the rights of MLLs. MLLs deserve to have safe, healthy lives and the support needed to succeed in content-area classrooms. We can achieve this by building systemic infrastructure strong enough to withstand the next crisis without the education of MLLs being a casualty.


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The Community English Program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham provides free English classes to adult learners from the international community. Housed in the School of Education for the past decade, this program serves as a “lab” school with a standards-based language curriculum taught by MA-TESOL students. By reflecting on how this lab school developed, we identify strategies for ongoing improvement.
Keywords: adult learners, lab school, standards-based curriculum, strategies, ongoing improvement, international community, free English classes

Ten years ago, budget cuts and institutional restructuring threatened to eliminate English conversation classes, a free service provided for over two decades by the International House at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). We, as English as a Second Language (ESL) faculty in the School of Education (SOE), were shocked at this pending loss and immediately sought a solution. The SOE secured these English classes and housed them in the Education Building. We restructured these classes with the dual purpose of meeting the language learning needs of international adults from the university community and greater metropolitan area and of meeting the language teaching needs of graduate students from the adult track of a new ESL master’s degree. 

Perceiving a need, preserving a service

By responding quickly to a perceived need, we, along with our SOE administrators, saved the English conversation classes. The ensuing Community English Program (CEP) has served as a laboratory school for two stakeholder groups: (1) students in the master’s in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (MA-TESOL) who become skilled in their chosen career by teaching English to adult learners, and (2) adult learners from over 50 countries who receive free, high-quality English language classes. These CEP learners represent diverse nationalities, languages, educational backgrounds, age, socioeconomic status, and motivation. They have included UAB employees such as medical researchers and visiting professors as well as employees’ spouses, parents, and other family members. For example, we vividly remember a retired chemistry professor and his wife from Syria who, though visiting their son—a UAB professor, were unable to return home due to an escalating war. CEP learners from the greater metropolitan area exemplify greater diversity such as a group of technology specialists from Colombia who were employed at an international bank’s regional headquarters. Young adults have also participated in CEP classes. We fondly remember the many au pairs from Europe, Brazil, Colombia, and Japan, as well as an Afghan woman who, with limited formal schooling, wanted to learn to read. Our CEP learners also include restaurant employees, construction workers, landscapers, and day laborers; among all these learners are recent arrivals and those who have lived in the United States for decades.

Now, at the 10-year anniversary of our lab school, we reflect on how the dual-purposed CEP supports both international adult English learners and MA-TESOL students learning to be teachers. From among criteria for successful language program administration (Stoller, 1997; TESOL, 2002), we have identified several strategies that have supported this dual purpose and offer insights for their application. These strategies include recognizing changes as they emerge, connecting needs of various stakeholders, linking practice to educational standards, innovating adjustments when faced by unusual circumstances, and planning strategically for the future.

Recognizing changes, developing opportunities in the learning landscape

UAB began offering TESOL methods courses in 1999. This led to an ESL certification program that included K-12 clinicals for teaching English learners. In 2005, some of our potential applicants wanted a path for learning to teach ESL to adult learners. To meet their need, we piloted an “adult option” in an existing master’s degree. For their adult clinicals, these graduate students taught weekly classes at UAB’s International House, the Literacy Council of Central Alabama, community colleges, ethnic centers, and/or faith-based entities (DeRocher et al., 2015). To determine their placements, we considered career goals and available settings (Spezzini et al., 2016). For instance, if graduate students wanted to prepare for teaching academic English, we would arrange their final clinical at UAB’s English Language Institute.

In 2011, two pivotal events opened new opportunities in this learning landscape. In March 2011, we received state approval to launch a master’s degree in ESL. This degree’s third track, called MA-TESOL, was for teaching ESL to adult learners and, as such, needed to align courses with clinicals in adult settings (Spezzini & Olmstead-Wang, 2013). In June 2011, we learned that the International House was charged with discontinuing its English conversation classes. To save these classes, both as a valuable campus legacy and as a clinical venue for teaching adults, we provided a new home for these classes. Literally overnight, we moved the English conversation classes to the SOE with summer classes starting the next day, as planned, but in a different place.

Linking and connecting needs of various stakeholders

A decade ago, we had the foresight to save UAB’s English conversation classes. Though not knowing what the future might bring, we imagined these classes as evolving into a more extensive effort in concert with Standards for Adult Education ESL Programs (TESOL, 2002) and Standards for ESL/EFL Teachers of Adult Learners (TESOL, 2008). Now named CEP, this evolving initiative has more thoroughly incorporated the learning needs of an existing constituency and served as a laboratory school to prepare future ESL teachers (Spezzini et al., 2015). Redesigning programs and clinical experiences: Bridging theory to practice. Paper presented at 49th annual International TESOL Convention. Toronto, ON, Canada). Our goal has always been to provide quality language classes to international adults from UAB’s greater community in a venue where MA-TESOL students could gain quality teaching experience, hone their teaching skills, expand their repertoires of teaching techniques, and benefit from regular, sequenced, professional feedback from SOE mentors.

During these past 10 years, our MA-TESOL students have taught CEP classes weekly, starting in their first semester and ending in their fifth and final semester. We pair MA-TESOL students who have no previous teaching experience as co-teachers with other MA-TESOL students who have experience teaching CEP classes. The MA-TESOL students with previous experience in teaching ESL to adults often skip this co-teacher phase and immediately start teaching their own CEP class. Our expectation is for all MA-TESOL students to have taught at least four different levels of CEP classes before graduating.

After establishing the CEP in the SOE, we converted loosely structured conversation classes into tightly structured classes where adult learners could develop all language modalities, thus more closely meeting the standards of adult ESL programs (TESOL, 2002, 2008). Honoring the premise that language is a social tool, the CEP promotes Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) (Richards & Rodgers, 2014) as its overarching approach towards language teaching and learning. To that end, CEP teachers are expected to use authentic materials and to develop learner-centered activities that build meaning. For language learning goals, they aim to develop multiple competencies such as grammatical competence, sociolinguistic competence, strategic competence, and discourse competence (Canale & Swain, 1980). Through this CLT approach, our CEP teachers also implement Task-Based Language Teaching (Richards & Rodgers, 2014) by focusing on real-world situations. The theories, methods, and techniques used by these CEP teachers for teaching classes are formally linked with the MA-TESOL program through projects and other activities assigned in their second language acquisition and methods courses.

CEP’s development also included iterative steps for blending two cultures of learning—the culture of community language learners and the culture of novice English teachers. We established sequences for placing MA-TESOL students as CEP teachers, developed rubrics to professionalize the training of these CEP teachers, and then upgraded these rubrics to better assess teacher progress. Now, by the CEP’s 10th anniversary, we have an articulated mission statement, flexible class schedules, multiple locations to meet learner needs, and a teacher-learner ratio of about 1 to 6. We also have access to SOE facilities and resources, clear and confidential communication among stakeholders, and an enhanced record keeping system to track English learners’ progress through integrated levels.

Linking education standards and practice, scaffolding to meet demands of best practices

The CEP curriculum has evolved over time. Our most recent curriculum team, which was convened in Summer 2020, consisted of SOE faculty and MA-TESOL students. With the goal of updating our earlier CEP curriculum, this 2020 team based the newly emerging curriculum on the English Language Proficiency Standards for Adult Education (U.S. Department of Education, 2016). This curriculum team adapted language learning outcomes for each level, provided sample assessments to meet a variety of standards, and prepared learning rubrics to determine whether language learners had mastered sufficient skills for moving to the next of CEP’s five levels. After several iterations, inclusive of cyclical reflection and feedback, the current CEP curriculum reached full implementation in Fall 2021.

For implementing CEP’s current curriculum, MA-TESOL students design weekly lessons on articulated standards and on learner interests, levels, and needs. In their role as CEP teachers, they start each semester by aligning language goals with two or three learning outcomes at the corresponding language level (Prado et al., 2020). On the first day of each semester, all CEP teachers conduct a needs assessment questionnaire and identify content that interests their respective learners. They design their lessons with authentic materials and appropriate technology for engaging these adult learners in interactive learning techniques to develop all four language domains. They align content with learning outcomes so that their CEP class becomes a learning community with a “destination” for the semester (Prado et al., 2020).

By means of evidence-based standards, regular assessment ensures that programs meet benchmarks and conform to best practices. With goals of improving the teaching practice of MA-TESOL students and of supporting language learners, we—as faculty mentors—scaffold the teaching experience for all CEP teachers, but especially for novice teachers and those who are new to the program. Each semester, CEP teachers participate in an orientation session, a mid-semester check-in, and a final wrap-up meeting. These meetings are touch points for questions and concerns. During these meetings and, as needed, throughout the semester, these teachers receive guidance on topics ranging from recommended co-teaching practices (Cook & Friend, 1995; Dormer, 2012) to CEP administrative tasks. Co-teachers share in writing weekly lesson plans and in receiving feedback. In addition, the CEP coordinator observes teachers and provides feedback on the observed teaching episodes.

Language proficiency standards (U.S. Department of Education, 2016) have guided CEP teachers in providing essential scaffolding and other support for CEP learners who, as adults, need language skills for many different environments. Our new CEP curriculum meets Standards for Instruction (U.S. Department of Education, 2016) and, as such, includes instructional activities that adhere to principles of adult language learning and approaches for learners from diverse educational and cultural backgrounds. Activities encourage participatory learning and the acquisition of communication skills through interactive group tasks.

The CEP also meets the standard related to learner recruitment, intake, and orientation (U.S. Department of Education, 2016). Intake procedures accurately assess learner levels, needs, and goals. The CEP also meets standards of retention and transition, assessment and learner gains, support services, and professional development. Because the CEP is a lab school, the standard on teaching evaluation is one of its major cornerstones. However, also because it is a lab school, the CEP’s organizational structure does not directly relate to the standard on employment conditions. Nonetheless, to prepare MA-TESOL students for real-world contexts following graduation, we attempt to replicate an employment setting as closely as possible, especially regarding work ethic and performance expectations.

Innovating in emerging circumstances, planning strategically for future contingencies

Flexibility and adaptability are necessary skills for dealing with new circumstances. As ESL faculty, we were flexible in 2011 when inheriting the English conversation classes and converting them into the CEP. We were again flexible in 2019 when incorporating graduate students from the SOE’s new Educational Specialist (EdS) degree in TESOL. As a post-MA degree, the EdS-TESOL attracts experienced ESL professionals, who, as such, bring well-honed teaching skills. By further adapting our existing CEP structure, we included a lead teacher role and incorporated these EdS-TESOL students as lead teachers. By doing so, we provided these TESOL professionals with a coaching experience through which they could demonstrate a competency required in their advanced degree program. As EdS-TESOL students, these professionals provide weekly coaching to novice CEP teachers. This is yet another example of how the CEP’s flexibility and adaptability have benefitted multiple stakeholders of the past, present, and future.

CEP exhibited a different type of flexibility when adapting to the challenges and disruptive factors stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. Across the world, this pandemic required an immediate transition from face-to-face (F2F) environments to virtual environments. For the CEP classes, this adaptation involved three stakeholder groups: the SOE’s ESL faculty, the CEP teachers (i.e., MA-TESOL and EdS-TESOL students), and the adult language learners. At UAB, all three groups were relatively new to the online teaching and learning of languages. Fortunately, we—the ESL faculty—had begun transitioning our graduate courses to online in 2019. Based on these experiences, we shared our new skills acquired from creating fully online graduate courses with CEP teachers as they transitioned to teaching English online.

When UAB’s campus closed F2F teaching, we needed to strengthen our graduate students’ knowledge and skills in the online teaching of language. Garrison et al.’s (2000) seminal theory, Community of Inquiry (COI), led CEP to reimagine an online learning community with overlapping COI facets: social presence, cognitive presence, and teaching presence (Prado et al., 2020). According to Garrison et al. (2000), building a social presence consists of both the teacher and the learners authentically interacting and presenting multiple facets of themselves. Likewise, cognitive presence is based on critical thinking but also depends on building meaning through authentic, consistent interactions. The teaching presence is two-fold. As the course designer and learning organizer, the teacher is responsible for presenting an engaging, authentic learning experience. The second component, course facilitation, is shared with learners. In building COI as a community for reciprocal teaching and learning, both the teacher and the learners discuss, question, and problem-solve.

To contextualize COI (Garrison et al., 2000) for language teaching, we integrated principles from second language acquisition. For teaching English learners online, Li (2013) recommends that teachers maintain comprehensible input, relate student learning to the real world, promote social interaction, and facilitate a welcoming learning environment, all of which broadly overlap with COI. These concepts guided our CEP discussions in summer 2020 when MA-TESOL students earned their clinical credit by locating resources for online language teaching and helping design an online curriculum for the CEP classes (Prado et al., 2020). These efforts culminated in an online handbook for CEP teachers, available on our CEP website at https://www.uab.edu/education/esl/community-english-classes.

In adherence with UAB mandates, we and the CEP will continue adapting to new challenges for a safe reopening of F2F classes while maintaining strong links to standards, technology improvement, and record-keeping software. Moreover, after we return to physical classrooms, the CEP will continue to provide online classes to language learners who request the convenience and safety of virtual instruction. Having surfaced from a pandemic-induced opportunity, these online classes are now included among the CEP’s regular class offerings.

Reflecting back, looking ahead

During the past decade, we responded to challenges facing our CEP lab school with flexibility, adaptability, and a forward-looking perspective. At strategic historic moments, we transitioned English conversation classes into the CEP, welcomed EdS-TESOL students to serve as lead CEP teachers, and converted classes to online instruction. Originally based on Standards for Adult Education Programs (TESOL, 2002) and on Standards for ESL/EFL Teachers of Adults (TESOL, 2008) and with a curriculum aligned to English Language Proficiency Standards for Adult Education (U.S. Department of Education, 2016), the CEP now also aligns with The 6 Principles for Exemplary Teaching of English Learners: Adult Education and Workplace Development (Hellman et al., 2019). Together, these standards and principles provide benchmarks for assessing CEP strengths and overcoming challenges. Guided by these benchmarks, the CEP will continue meeting the dual purpose of (1) providing clinical placements for MA-TESOL students to teach adult learners and (2) offering free, high quality English classes to international members of the extended UAB community.

Upon reaching our lab school’s 10-year milestone, we have identified key strategies of language program administration (Stoller, 1997; TESOL, 2002) used to make transitions, initiate improvements, and build for the future. These strategies include identifying opportunities, pivoting directions, reorganizing program components, linking the needs of constituencies to best practices and learning standards, and converting challenges into innovations. By continuing to use these same strategies and adjusting as needed, we look ahead to ushering the CEP into its second decade.


We thank Dr. Julia S. Austin for her contribution to the CEP and for her help with this article.


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U.S. Department of Education. (2016). English language proficiency standards for adult education. Office of Career, Technical and Adult Education. Retrievable from: http://lincs.ed.gov/publications/pdf/elp-standards-adult-ed.pdf



This literature review examines the perceptions teachers, administrators, and students have about multilingualism in the classroom in a variety of settings ranging from mainstream classrooms to dual language programs.
Keywords: English learners, education, perception, home language


Classrooms in the U.S. are becoming increasingly more diverse both racially and linguistically. In 2015, the country had nearly 5 million English language learners (ELLs), which makes up about 9.5% of the nation’s school population (Bialik et al., 2018). While linguists view all languages as equally important, sociolinguists also study the concept of linguistic inequality, or the idea that particular languages hold more power than others (Wardhaugh & Fuller, 2015, p. 50). Classrooms in the U.S. demonstrate the power that English holds. 

In our globalizing world, the benefits of bilingualism are apparent, yet our school system tells students that English is the language of the classroom while home languages do not belong. While the U.S. has no official language, there has been a push for exclusively English use in the classroom both historically and today. According to Wiley and García, “the ideology of English Only education as a principal tool of Americanization has had considerable influence on shaping school language policies, both in terms of the use of immigrant languages in schools and the emphases placed on foreign language education” (2016, p. 51). Using English as a “tool of Americanization” has put an emphasis on the assimilation of immigrants and multilingual learners when it is clear that we live in an era when multilingualism is beneficial.

For this literature review, I will focus on the perceptions of multilingualism in the classroom. I will explore studies that demonstrate mainstream teachers’ perceptions of multilingualism. I will also look at students’ perceptions of language use in three settings: the mainstream classroom, the English as a Second Language (ESL) classroom, and dual language programs.

Review of the literature

When students feel that their home language is valued in the classroom, it can lead to a positive impact on students’ self-esteem, support their second language acquisition, and have positive impacts in terms of identity (Wiley & Bougie, 2007). Negative perceptions of home languages can also have an effect. In one study, Fuller found that Mexican American children living in rural southern Illinois were often hesitant to speak in their native indigenous languages from Mexico because they “were sometimes teased for their association with these languages” (Wardhaugh & Fuller, 2015, p. 84). Each of the following studies demonstrate the perceptions of multilingualism in the classroom. The classroom programs vary, reflecting the diverse classroom environments that students in the U.S. experience.

In a study at a Texas high school, Spanish-speaking immigrant students’ perceptions of their ESL classroom were compared to those of their mainstream classes. Researcher Curtin (2005) interviewed students, teachers, and administrators, and conducted classroom observations. Students reported feeling supported in their ESL classes, while feeling ignored in their mainstream classes. One factor that played a role in these feelings was the teachers’ perception of multilingualism. In ESL classes, students often worked through problems together in Spanish. However, in the mainstream classes, students were discouraged from using Spanish and were often separated if they did. Discussions with these teachers revealed that they felt it was “their responsibility to help ESL students ‘transition’ to English and that they did not encourage asking for assistance in Spanish from a classmate in class” (Curtin, 2005, p. 22). This study reveals the perception mainstream teachers had of students’ home languages as separate from their education.

Curtin’s observations of negative perceptions of home languages from mainstream teachers is similar to that which Rizzuto noted in her 2017 study at a school in the Northeast where over half of the students spoke Spanish at home. Through interviews and classroom observations, Rizzuto  found that mainstream teachers had negative perceptions of ELLs. Teachers noted they were concerned about students’ use of Spanish in the classroom. Most teachers enforced English-only rules in the classroom and did not allow bilingual students to support ELLs in Spanish. Interestingly, when asked about their beliefs on Spanish in the classroom, teachers “indicated a high level of agreement with the prompts that measured openness to bilingual instruction and allowing students to use their language in school” (Rizzuto, 2017, p. 194). However, ultimately teachers’ negative perceptions of ELLs led to a monolingual classroom environment in which students were not supported and unable to meet learning objectives.

While the previous two studies discussed negative perceptions of multilingualism in mainstream classrooms, the following three studies demonstrate the positive perceptions of multilingualism in dual language programs. Studies of dual language approaches demonstrate higher levels of acceptance of the home language. De la Riva, a researcher at Hamline University, interviewed newcomer students at a dual language immersion middle school and those on the English-only track in order to compare their perceptions of membership according to the perception of Spanish in the school, academic participation, and peer acceptance. In interviews with students, de la Riva (2015) asked about the desirability of speaking Spanish and answers varied depending on students’ program and their language proficiency. Newcomers in the English-only track felt that they had to learn English before gaining full membership into the community and without it they felt they were “not even like a legitimate peripheral participant of the community” (de la Riva, 2015, p. 50). In the dual language immersion program, students also felt language acquisition was important in order to feel fully accepted; however, in this program the language was Spanish. The article concluded that students in the English-only track who were only proficient in Spanish felt excluded while those who were bilingual felt a sense of belonging.

Lindholm-Leary (2016) also conducted a study in a dual language setting, which demonstrated the support for bilingualism students felt in this environment. This school had both a Mandarin-English and a Spanish-English dual immersion program. Students were asked to create an advertisement for bilingualism, indicating that students had learned the benefits of bilingualism. Students’ answers ranged from cognitive benefits, to professional and academic success, to being able to connect with family. It is clear that this dual immersion program not only taught bilingualism, but promoted it as beneficial for students. Lindholm-Leary found that ELLs were successful in these programs, stating that ELLs who were reclassified as English proficient had “the highest ratings of bilingualism provided by teachers and themselves, and they are even more confident of their bilingualism than their peers who continue to be ELLs” (Lindholm-Leary, 2016, p. 65). The study demonstrates the effects of bilingualism being promoted as beneficial. Students held positive perceptions of both English and Spanish/Mandarin, allowing ELLs to thrive.

Another study that emphasizes the effects of promoting bilingualism was conducted by Butvilofsky and Gumina (2020). They researched students’ perceptions of their bilingualism at a school that emphasized bicultural and bilingual education in Arizona. Mexicayotl Academy is a charter school for students in K-8 and located on the U.S.-Mexico border in Nogales, Arizona. The bilingual school focused on the importance of bilingualism both in terms of language and culture. Students expressed positive perceptions of their bilingualism, noting that it led to “high self-esteem, pride, and higher status” (Butvilofsky & Gumina, 2020, p. 203). Butvilofsky and Gumina concluded that students valued their bilingualism and viewed both languages as essential in their identity.

In summary, the first two studies demonstrate that in many mainstream classrooms, multilingual students are being pushed to operate only in English, which often reflects teachers’ perceptions of ELLs as deficient in language. The final three studies demonstrate the positive perceptions of multilingualism that are present in dual language programs and the effects they can have on students. Students in these studies expressed higher levels of language proficiency and positive perceptions of multilingualism.

Recommendations for teachers of ELLs

The studies above indicate classroom strategies that teachers can practice to support ELLs and encourage multilingualism. According to student interviews conducted by Curtin (2005), Lindholm-Leary (2016), and Butvilofsky and Gumina (2020), students felt more supported in classes in which teachers allowed the use of home languages. Teachers can better support emergent bilingual students by offering a space in which all languages are accepted and valued. This can be practiced through displaying posters, artwork, signs, and so on that show multilingualism as well as using texts and materials that include multilingual speakers.

Another area teachers can support ELLs is through educating colleagues about the importance of multilingualism and promoting it as a “resource rather than as a deficit” (Rizzuto, 2017, p.195). Rizzuto’s study shows the negative effects teachers with negative perceptions of multilingualism can have on ELLs’ education. As teachers, it is important that we advocate for our students through teaching the positive benefits of multilingualism.

Finally, the literature suggests the success of dual language immersion programs in not only supporting language development, but also in promoting positive perceptions of multilingualism. While working at a mainstream school, some practices can be adopted from these programs. For example, encouraging multilingual students to take language classes in their first language. This demonstrates to students the value of being multilingual.


The literature shows that mainstream teachers often have negative perceptions of languages other than English being spoken in the classroom. They often have English-only approaches and rarely incorporate home languages into their curriculum. In Curtin’s (2005) study, students noted that this lack of support for their home language was a reason they did not feel successful in mainstream classrooms. On the other hand, the literature shows that in bilingual classrooms, there were often positive perceptions of languages other than English and teachers emphasized the importance of bilingualism. 

While there is ample research about effective teaching strategies for multilingual learners, there is very limited research about students’ perceptions of their home language. An area for further research is what factors lead to students’ perceptions of their home language.


Bialik, K., Scheller, A., & Walker, K. (2018). 6 Facts about English language learners in U.S. public schools. Pew Research Center. Accessed 16 November 2021 at www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/10/25/6-facts-about-english-language-learners-in-u-s-public-schools/

Butvilofsky, S. A., & Gumina, D. (2020). The possibilities of bilingualism: Perceptions of bilingual learners in Arizona. Bilingual Research Journal, 43(2), 196-211. https://doi.org/10.1080/15235882.2020.1781295 

Rizzuto, K. C. (2017). Teachers’ perceptions of ELL students: Do their attitudes shape their instruction? The Teacher Educator, 52(3), 182-202. https://doi.org/10.1080/08878730.2017.1296912

Curtin, E. (2005). Teaching practices for ESL students. Multicultural Education, 12(3), 22-27. 

de la Riva, J. L. (2015). Newcomer perceptions of identity and school membership: Program comparisons between English only and dual language immersion tracks [unpublished master’s qualifying paper]. School of Education, Hamline University, St. Paul, MN.

Lindholm-Leary, K. (2016). Students’ perceptions of bilingualism in Spanish and Mandarin dual language programs. International Multilingual Research Journal, 10(1), 59-70. https://doi.org/10.1080/19313152.2016.1118671 

Wardhaugh, R., & Fuller, J. M. (2015). An introduction to sociolinguistics (7th ed.). John Wiley & Sons.

Wiley, T. G., & García, O. (2016). Language policy and planning in language education: Legacies, consequences, and possibilities. The Modern Language Journal, 100(S1), 48-63. https://doi.org/10.1111/modl.12303   

Wright, S. C., & Bougie, É. (2007). Intergroup contact and minority-language education: Reducing language-based discrimination and its negative impact. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 26(2), 157-181. https://doi.org/10.1177/0261927X07300078



The following work builds an argument for translanguaging by looking at two key academic benefits for supporting translanguaging use in the classroom. Firstly, translanguaging helped multilingual learners comprehend and communicate about subject area content and, secondly, it improved their English proficiency by enabling them to make connections between their home language(s) and English. The purpose of this writing is to make a compelling case for allowing and encouraging multiple language use in the classroom and to change monoglossic ideology in schools where it is prevalent.
Keywords: teacher education, multilingual learners, translanguaging, ESL strategies, emergent bilinguals

The development of the guiding question

Throughout history, teachers in U.S. America have employed a monolinguistic approach to developing a student’s English proficiency. I am an emergent bilingual teacher who believed that the best strategy to help students become more proficient in general American English (GAE) was to limit their home language use in the classroom and to provide a full immersion into the target language. After an introduction to a process called translanguaging, I realized that when I speak Spanish or German (my 2nd and 3rd languages, respectively), I draw from what I know in English, my 1st language, to help me comprehend or communicate in that other language. The prohibition of that practice would make it virtually impossible for me to communicate in Spanish or German. This realization led to several discussions with peers and an extant literature review on translanguaging which convinced me that multilingual students also use their entire language repertoire to make sense of their lives, including their classroom.

The question which guided this review, What are some ways translanguaging can be academically beneficial for students?, revealed two main academic benefits of translanguaging in the classroom. Firstly, translanguaging helped students to improve comprehension of subject area content. Secondly, translanguaging enabled students to draw parallels between their home language(s) and English. Translanguaging helped to expand their comprehension and understanding of language features, thus improving their language proficiency. This literature review was important because translanguaging was found to be a successful academic tool leveraged by teachers to help emergent bilinguals increase academic performance and improve GAE proficiency.

Definitions of terms

The following technical terms are used throughout this literature review and are defined to aid in its comprehension.

General American English (GAE)

General American English is the variety of English that is encountered in reading, writing, television, educational contexts, and commerce (Washington & Seidenberg, 2021). Standard English, academic language, or English are other terms used when referring to the language variety of GAE.

Monoglossic ideology

Monoglossic ideology refers to an individual, group, segment of society, school, or an organization’s belief that languages should be kept separate from one another in their use in the classroom. Researchers Wardhaugh and Fuller (2015) define monoglossic ideology as “the idea that languages are distinct entities and should be kept strictly separate in their use” (Wardhaugh & Fuller, 2015 p. 411).


Translanguaging refers to a persons’ use of their entire language repertoire in the act of discourse. The repertoire includes all elements of language, such as varieties, registers, and styles (Wardhaugh & Fuller, 2015). Researcher García (2013) described translanguaging as the use of two or more language varieties in a flexible way—not separated—to make sense of their lives (García, 2013).

Improving students’ comprehension of subject area content

Improving multilingual learners’ comprehension of general education content was the first academic benefit revealed when exploring the research question: What are some ways translanguaging can be academically beneficial for students? Researchers Washington and Seidenberg (2021) stated in an article that academic content is challenging for students under the best of circumstances and adds a layer of complexity when that content is being delivered in a language other than the student’s home language or language variety. The research below postulated that natural and intentional translanguaging practices in the classroom enabled students to comprehend and engage with content more fully.

Natural use of translanguaging in the general education classroom

Researchers Daniel and Pacheco (2016) conducted a study of four multilingual students to observe how they naturally use their linguistic resources to make sense of the content area classrooms. One of the questions they asked to guide their study was “how do multilingual students use [languages other than English] LOTEs to support meaning making?” (Daniel & Pacheco, 2016, p. 654). Their study revealed that multilingual students use several strategies drawing from all the languages that a student knows. For example, one student would write down notes in her native language and then translate it into GAE. Another student would ask for peer assistance in their native language when they were struggling with content. At other times during the observation, researchers Daniel and Pacheco (2016) found that students co-constructed and negotiate meaning by sharing language knowledge with each other. The concluding thoughts of the study emphasized that, “teachers must begin to implement translanguaging pedagogies that encourage the development of the full range of the students’ linguistic resources” (Daniel & Pacheco, 2016, p. 661). The observations showed that even when translanguaging activities were not embedded into the lesson, multilingual students naturally used their entire language repertoire fluidly to make meaning of the content.

Intentional use of translanguaging in the general education classroom

An example of intentional translanguaging in the classroom was provided in a guide called Translanguaging: A CUNY-NYSIEB Guide for Educators (Celic et al., 2013). The program was implemented in eight New York schools by teachers who received professional development to use the strategies as outlined in the guide. Researcher García (2013, p. 2) stated in the first section of the guide that by using pedagogical translanguaging strategies, teachers were able to provide both rigorous content and academic language support simultaneously. In their work, Celic et al. (2013) found that these strategies helped emergent bilinguals achieve Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The guide itemized the CCSS alongside each strategy to ensure that the activity or strategy would meet the standard expectation. Examples of authentic student work were included in the guide itself as evidence of strategy and activity successes as it aligned to different standards. One student example showed how emergent bilinguals wrote and used science vocabulary and target language features to describe the solar system after only a few months following their arrival into the country (Celic et al., 2013, p. 47). This evidence was just one of many samples in the guide highlighting that emergent bilinguals were able to access rigorous content and meet CCSS through translanguaging.

In support of the CUNY-NYSIEB guide’s claim of effectiveness, Menken and Sánchez (2019) interviewed participants of the program created by Celic et al. (2013). This qualitative research found that students who participated in classrooms that used translanguaging strategies were more engaged in the lesson and participated more. Teachers also reported that when they provided students with translanguaging activities and incorporated home language use in their instruction, students had more access to the content being taught (Menken & Sánchez, 2019). By using intentional translanguaging strategies, teachers were equipped to help students utilize their entire linguistic repertoire to better understand complex concepts taught in core classes.

Translanguaging activities and strategies improve GAE proficiency

The second academic benefit for translanguaging found in the review was the improvement students amassed in their GAE proficiency. While exploring the guiding question, What are some ways translanguaging can be academically beneficial for students?, it was found that researchers agreed that translanguaging activities and pedagogical strategies enhanced students’ GAE proficiency. 

Activities that improve GAE proficiency

Bilingual students’ English proficiency improved when teachers intentionally provided activities that encouraged translanguaging. Researchers found that by using translanguaging activities, students developed language skills in English by connecting knowledge about language features and vocabulary in their LOTEs to those of the target language (Celic et al., 2013; Guzman-Orth et al., 2019). Researchers Menken and Sánchez (2019) confirmed these claims stating that by using translanguaging pedagogy in a strategic and flexible manner, teachers enabled students to access content and build on GAE language skills. The students’ discoveries of similarities and differences between languages was facilitated by the translanguaging activities provided by the teachers.

Translanguaging activities provide practice of language skills to create automaticity between students’ home knowledge and that of the target language. Researcher García (2013) wrote that, “Just as a Major League baseball pitcher develops his expert pitching form through practice, language users must develop their forms through practice” (García, 2013, p. 2). She stated that translanguaging provided students with the opportunity to practice GAE language forms and features alongside and with the support of the home language leading to the eventual appropriate use of GAE language forms (García, 2013, p. 3). Translanguaging activities provided by the teacher helped emergent bilinguals make connections between languages and improved their English proficiency.

Strategies that improve GAE proficiency

Two notable programs which provide teachers with specific translanguaging strategies discovered in this literature review were the Teaching Reading and New Strategic Language Approaches to English (TRANSLATE) and the Language Ambassador (LA) Program.

The translanguaging instruction strategy TRANSLATE was found to be effective in helping students deepen their reading comprehension by shifting students’ ability from word-level to a more comprehensive understanding at the sentence-level (Jiménez et al., 2015a, 2015b). TRANSLATE encouraged students to talk aloud while reading text which Jiménez et al. found to make language and content more salient to students. This strategy allowed students to show their thinking with a partner or small group while they unpacked text. This helped students understand complex text and enabled them to use each other as resources to draw connections between their home language(s) and GAE, thus improving their proficiency in English.

A second strategy found effective for improving GAE proficiency involved training teachers to lead discursive based activities. The LA Program was implemented in a bilingual school. In her study, Martin-Beltrán (2014) examined the relationship between translanguaging activities in the classroom and students’ GAE proficiency. She found that through the LA activities, students had an opportunity to use their language dexterity to talk about language function, express their understanding, and co-construct a language product (such as a piece of writing) (Martin-Beltrán, 2014). The findings from her study confirmed that the students engaged in cognitively advanced levels to unpack sophisticated literature and grapple with complex linguistic features (Martin-Beltrán, 2014). This equipped students to make direct connections between language features in their own language(s) and English.


In conclusion, the literature review examined the guiding question: What are some ways translanguaging can be beneficial for academic success? As stated in the introduction, this review builds an argument by looking at two key academic benefits for supporting translanguaging in the classroom. Firstly, translanguaging better positioned students for academic success, and, secondly, students improved their GAE proficiency. Teachers need to be aware of and respect students’ home language(s) as tools for success in their communities and in school (Fillmore & Snow, 2000). Understanding that emergent bilinguals come with their own personal language repertoire was key for these teachers as they strived to help students access rigorous content, improve GAE proficiency, and achieve academic success. The literature confirmed that students already used translanguaging in their daily lives and this ability could and should be leveraged to maximize student learning by providing activities and using strategies that encouraged translanguaging.

Shifting monoglossic ideology in schools

This literature review by itself is insufficient for changing monoglossic ideology in schools and classrooms. For policy and practice change, administrators and staff need professional development. Researchers (Menken & Sánchez, 2019) found that through professional development, attitudes about translanguaging shifted and its use increased in the classroom. In addition, professional development led to policy, pedagogical, and practice shift from a monoglossic approach to a more cross-cultural and translanguaging approach both in the classroom and school-wide (Menken & Sánchez, 2019). Although this shift required a tremendous amount of effort, the benefits for students whose home language is other than GAE is essential for their academic success and GAE proficiency.

Author’s final thoughts

Beyond the guiding question of What are some ways translanguaging can be beneficial for academic success? were broader concepts to be explored. Topics including the student’s social emotional wellbeing of using their home language in school, personal identity to language and culture, and the inherent inequalities associated with a dominant language such as GAE left me with many unanswered questions. Evident to me was that the relationship between translanguaging, the school, and the student is complex. Each one of these topics was beyond the scope of what this literature review could explore, however, each was equally important to students whose home language was other than GAE.


Celic, C., Seltzer, K., Garicía, O., & Ascenzi-Moreno, L. (2013). Translanguaging: A CUNY-NYSIEB guide for educators (2nd ed.). The Graduate Center at The City University of New York. Retrievable from https://www.cuny-nysieb.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Translanguaging-Guide-March-2013.pdf 

Daniel, S. M., & Pacheco, M. B. (2016). Translanguaging practices and perspectives of four multilingual teens. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 59(6), 653-663. https://doi.org/10.1002/jaal.500 

Fillmore, L. W., & Snow, C. E. (2000). What teachers need to know about language. Center for Applied Linguistics.

García, O. (2013). Theorizing translanguaging for educators. In C. Celic, K. Seltzer, & L. Ascenzi-Moreno (Eds.), Translanguaging: A CUNY-NYSIEB guide for educators (2nd ed.) (pp. 1-6). The Graduate Center at The City University of New York

Guzman-Orth, D., Lopez, A. A., & Tolentino, F. (2019). Exploring the use of a dual language assessment task to assess young English learners. Language Assessment Quarterly, 16(4-5), 447-463. https://doi.org/10.1080/15434303.2019.1674314 

Jiménez, R. T., David, S., Fagan, K., Risko, V. J., Pacheco, M., Pray, L., & Gonzales, M. (2015a). Using translation to drive conceptual development for students becoming literate in english as an additional language. Research in the Teaching of English, 49(3), 248-271.

Jiménez, R.,T., David, S., Pacheco, M., Risko, V. J., Pray, L., Fagan, K., & Gonzales, M. (2015b). Supporting teachers of english learners by leveraging students’ linguistic strengths. The Reading Teacher, 68(6), 406-412. https://doi.org/10.1002/trtr.1289 

Martin-Beltrán, M. (2014). “What do you want to say?”: How adolescents use translanguaging to expand learning opportunities. International Multilingual Research Journal, 8(3), 208-230. https://doi.org/10.1080/19313152.2014.914372 

Menken, K., & Sánchez, M. T. (2019). Translanguaging in English-only schools: From pedagogy to stance in the disruption of monolingual policies and practices. TESOL Quarterly, 53(3), 741-767. https://doi.org/10.1002/tesq.513 

Wardhaugh, R., & Fuller, J. M. (2015). An introduction to sociolinguistics (7th ed.). Wiley.

Washington, J., & Seidenberg, M. (2021). Teaching reading to African American children: When home and school language differs. American Educator, 45(2), 26-33. Retrievable from https://www.aft.org/ae/summer2021/washington_seidenberg



The WIDA English Language Development (ELD) Standards Framework, 2020 Edition, offers a more clearly organized framework to represent content-driven language learning. Grade-level cluster resources include Language Expectations to create unit-level language goals for all multilingual learners as well as Proficiency Level Descriptors for measuring individual student language growth. Portions of this article contain excerpts from the WIDA English Language Development Standards Framework, 2020 Edition: Kindergarten-Grade 12 (WIDA, 2020), Wisconsin Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System, on behalf of WIDA.
Keywords: elementary, middle School, secondary, teacher education

The WIDA English Language Development (ELD) Standards Framework, 2020 Edition: Kindergarten-Grade 12 [2020 ELD Standards Framework] (WIDA, 2020) provides both content and language educators with a clearly-defined, user-friendly set of resources to support content-driven language learning. The updates to the 2020 ELD Standards Framework respond to federal legislative requirements (such as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) of 2015), evolving academic content standards, the latest developments in scholarly literature, and a deepened commitment to equity and social justice for multilingual learners and other minoritized students. 

Visit the WIDA ELD Standards Framework Webpage as well as your state education agency website for resources to support your local conversations and implementation plan. These resources include an introductory video, Q&A webinar recordings and transcripts, PowerPoint slides, FAQ series, and information on professional learning opportunities.

This article provides a high-level comparison of the 20121 and 2020 ELD Standards Frameworks, targeting those educators who are already familiar with its 2012 precursor (WIDA, 2012). Figure 1 provides a comparison of the components in the 2012 and 2020 ELD Standards Frameworks.

In particular, this article unpacks the resources available within the grade-level cluster Language Expectations. Complementing this article, MinneTESOL Journal volume 37 issue 1 contains two companion articles: “Putting discourse first (Lundgren & Shafer Willner, 2021), which examines how a focus beyond the word or sentence level can support the development of multilingual learners’ expressive language (speaking, writing, and representing) and “Making language visible in content area classrooms using the [2020] WIDA ELD Standards Framework” (Westerlund & Besser, 2021), which provides an overview of discipline-specific resources available to content area teachers.

Figure 1. Comparisons of 2012 and 2020 ELD Standards Frameworks

Core philosophies and big ideas maintained

Since its inception in 2003, WIDA has tailored its approach to standards to support and sustain students’ unique cultural and linguistic experiences, assets, interests, and potential (González et al., 2005; Paris, 2012). WIDA’s Can Do Philosophy (last updated in 2019; WIDA, 2019a) has served as the foundation for four editions of English Language Development Standards—released in 2004, 2007, 2012, and now 2020. This philosophy is also represented in the recently-updated Guiding Principles of Language Development (WIDA, 2019b).

Putting the Big Ideas into Action 

  • What indicators might you use to provide evidence that the Big Ideas are coming to life in your school/classroom?
  • How might this (selection of indicators/evidence) inform discussions with school leaders and colleagues?”

For more information on the Big Ideas, see Section 1 in the 2020 Edition.

In keeping with an assets-based philosophy, WIDA now refers to students identified as English learners (ELs) as multilingual learners. Multilingual learners are not “failed” native English speakers (Kibler & Valdés, 2016; May, 2014), but have a range of assets to call upon when engaging in learning, such as knowledge of multiple languages, varying representation of ideas, metalinguistic and metacognitive awareness, and varied life and educational experiences.

Multilingual Learners 

Language learners who regularly come into contact with and/or interact in languages in addition to English. Multilingual learners include English language learners, dual-language learners, newcomers, students with interrupted formal schooling, long-term English learners, English learners with disabilities, gifted and talented English learners, heritage language learners, student with English as an additional language, and students who speak varieties of English or indigenous languages

  Definition excerpted from 2020 ELD Standards Framework Glossary (p. 255)

In addition to the foundational Can Do Philosophy and Guiding Principles, the 2020 ELD Standards Framework has four interwoven Big Ideas. Like the Can Do Philosophy, the Big Ideas support the design of standards-aligned educational experiences that are student-centered, culturally and linguistically sustaining, and responsive to multilingual learners’ strengths and needs. These Big Ideas offer strategic foci for addressing systemic challenges in the current educational landscape:

  1. Equity of access and opportunity is essential for multilingual learners’ preparation for college, career, and civic participation.
  2. Integration of language and content is critical in the planning and delivery of instruction.
  3. Collaboration among stakeholders is a shared responsibility for educating multilingual learners.
  4. A functional approach to language development prioritizes the purposeful use of language. 

The Big Ideas anchor and are interwoven throughout the components of the 2020 ELD Standards Framework.

2020 ELD Standards Framework: Clarified and streamlined

The abstract nature of the five WIDA Standards Statements (see Figure 2) has at times led to confusion as to what WIDA means by standards. In a needs assessment conducted prior to the initiation of development work, educators requested a more streamlined set of standards with clearly-defined purposes (Kray, 2020; Shafer Willner & Castro, 2017).

The 2020 Edition clarifies that the WIDA Standards Statements [italics added for emphasis] are the first of four, equally important components that comprise the 2020 ELD Standards Framework [italics added for emphasis]. Working together, these four nested components provide a comprehensive picture of language development within and across academic content areas. A primary purpose of the 2020 ELD Standards Framework is to make visible the language that students need to engage in the disciplines, in particular, language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies. In turn, educators can plan together to simultaneously develop content and language in systematic ways. In the sections that follow, we explore each of the four components of the updated 2020 ELD Standards Framework.

Figure 2. The 2012 WIDA English Language Development Standards

WIDA standard statements: Emphasizing language for thinking 

Historically, WIDA has been intentional in presenting its ELD standards not as “junior English Language Arts (ELA)” standards, but as standards that address the language of both sociocultural and disciplinary contexts of schooling. Therefore, the five standards statements have always been positioned in relation to social and instructional language as well as disciplinary language. In comparison, other ELD standards in the U.S. have been framed as a subset of ELA standards (Shafer Willner et al., 2021). 

To hone their focus, the five standards statements now employ new abbreviations, moving beyond the language of a content area (as if it were a finite, external, or static) to emphasize the use of language for thinking and acting in the world (Grant, 2012; Leont’ev, 1978; Vygotsky, 1978). The updated abbreviations of the standards statements are:

  1. Language for Social and Instructional purposes (ELD-SI)
  2. Language for Language Arts (ELD-LA)
  3. Language for Mathematics (ELD-MA)
  4. Language for Science (ELD-Sc)
  5. Language for Social Studies (ELD-SS)
Teaching Language for Learning

  • What role does language play in learning?
  • How and when might language instruction activities be integrated into content area instruction? 

For more information about the Big Ideas, see Section 1 in the 2020 Edition.

WIDA Standard 1: Expanding what we mean by academic language development

The 2012 Edition envisioned WIDA Standard 1 as working in conjunction with Standards 2-5. However, some educators interpreted Social and Instructional Language as functioning as a precursor to academic language or as used primarily by young children, newcomers, and students with limited or interrupted formal education (SLIFE) (Shafer Willner & Castro, 2017).

These misconceptions are rectified in the 2020 ELD Standards Framework. Here, everyday language is viewed as a legitimate contributor to academic language development (May, 2014) and as part of the continuum of choices students make in order to most effectively meet an activity’s purpose and other contextual variables (Derewianka & Jones, 2016; Halliday & Matthiessen, 2014). As a result, the 2020 ELD Standards Framework contributes to the movement to broaden the more traditional definition of academic language to include social language, approximations, and translanguaging (Canagarajah, 1999; García et al., 2017).

Enhancing Multilingual Learner Participation in Classroom Discussions 

  • What types of scaffolding might be incorporated in classrooms and instructional activities to help multilingual learners build on their assets as they learn?

For more information on Standard 1, see Section 1 in the 2020 Edition.

As in 2012, WIDA Standard 1 continues to connect the personal to the academic, conveying sociocultural influences on language: As students develop their identities as learners, their language use reflects their personal interests and needs, experiences, cultural and linguistic resources, social-emotional development, and family and community ways of knowing (Esteban-Guitart & Moll, 2014; Gándara, 2015). The positioning of Standard 1 in relation to Standards 2-5 is intentionally designed to send a message: The full range of students’ linguistic and cultural resources should be integrated with the language for making meaning in school (see Figure 3). 

Figure 3. Relationship among the WIDA ELD Standards Statements 

WIDA Key Language Uses: Making prominent the language uses in content standards

Key Language Uses, the second component nested within the 2020 ELD Standards Framework, offers an update to the Key Uses of Academic Language [Key Uses]: Recount, Explain, Argue, and Discuss (and described in Wright & Musser, 2014). To support educator and family interpretation of ACCESS for ELLs test scores, the Key Uses had been incorporated into the Can Do Descriptors, Key Uses Edition (WIDA, 2016).

For the 2020 ELD Standards Framework, the WIDA Standards Team conducted a review of current academic content standards for ELA/literacy, mathematics, science, and social studies, disciplinary practices, and related research literature (e.g., Brisk, 2014; de Oliveira et al., 2019). 

When changing the name from Key Uses to Key Language Uses, the team connected with existing concepts of genre and purpose for language use (Hyland, 2007) and the notion of four broad genre families (Rose & Martin, 2012). The updated Key Language Uses represent those genre families prominently presented in all grade levels and content areas: Narrate, Inform, Explain, and Argue. They are defined in Table 1.

As commonly seen on a daily basis, the four Key Language Uses are not “boxes” for language to fit within, but can intersect, blend, and build on each other. For example, an argument may also contain narratives (anecdotes or stories), informational texts (which name, define, describe, compare or contrast something), and/or explanations (about the how or why of a concept). 

The update from Key Uses to Key Language Uses represents a theoretical and linguistic refinement allowing greater clarity of terms. By splitting Recount into Narrate and Inform, there could be greater differentiation among the wide variety of genres within these two genre families. Since Discuss is not technically a genre family, it is no longer named a Key Language Use, but rather embedded within Standard 1 and still found across all Key Language Uses.

Table 1. Definitions of the 2020 Key Language Uses

Table 1. Definitions of the 2020 Key Language Uses

Key Language Uses position multilingual learners not just as learners of language, but as language users who adapt their use of language in ways that are appropriate to context (Cook, 2003). Language users actively adapt language by topic, purpose, audience, and situation (Derewianka & Jones, 2016). This focus on the context for language use and the adaptability of language moves beyond a single, generic, one-size-fits-all Standard English and into an awareness of the dynamic varieties of English used by different communities (Pennycook, 2010). It opens spaces for students to have multiple and equally valid ways of using language to engage with the curriculum—ways that value who students are and what they bring to the classroom.

Making Prominent the Language Uses of Each Content Area

  • As you prepare for your next unit of study, which Key Language Use would be most applicable?
  • In what ways might you support students to expand what they can do with language through each Key Language Use?

See the introduction to Key Language Uses in Section 2 of the standards book. For a deeper dive, check out “Key Language Uses: A Closer Look” in Section 4, or the “Theoretical Foundations” in Appendix F.

Language expectations: making language for content driven learning visible

In the 2012 Edition, the Model Performance Indicators (MPIs) played a central role. They offered a generative process for creating task-level performance descriptions that, for each proficiency level, combined a language function, content stem, and support for an example topic or theme. (See Figure 4.) 

Figure 4. 2012 Edition Model Performance Indicator for Writing in Grade 7 Science

Even as the generative process for building MPIs was a step forward in creating examples of language differentiation for students, many educators still found this process to be too complicated and time-consuming (Kray, 2020; Shafer Willner & Castro, 2017). Lee (2018) also voiced concerns about MPIs, observing, “The Language Functions themselves imply varying degrees of cognitive demand, thereby altering the Cognitive Function of the task for students at different proficiency levels [especially for students at lower proficiency levels]” (p. 322). 

Language Expectations, the third component of the 2020 ELD Standards Framework, focus on goals for content-driven language learning for multilingual learners at all levels of proficiency. While consistent with the focus of the MPIs, they offer a more stable, ready-made representation of content-driven language learning. Language Expectations are designed to be used in coordination with Proficiency Level Descriptors, which in turn, take into account the English proficiency levels of individual students.

Supporting conversations with content area educators, the Language Expectations have been written to be most similar to what educators generally find in academic content standards. As shown in Figure 5, they include reference codes that indicate the WIDA ELD Standard Statement, grade-level cluster, Key Language Use, and communication mode [ELD-SS.6-8.Explain.Expressive].

Figure 5. WIDA Language Expectations

Language Expectations reflect the high-priority language students need for engaging in disciplinary learning. This is important since research has shown that explicitly teaching the language for learning the content has a strong, positive impact on multilingual learner academic performance in grade-level curriculum, instruction, and assessment (Aguirre-Muñoz & Ambiasca, 2010).

Integrating Language Expectations into Local Curriculum Maps

  • What are the entry points at which Language Expectations might be integrated into curriculum and instruction – both for use in separate ELD classes and for use when collaborating with content area teachers?

See the introduction to Language Expectations in Section 2 of the standards book. Language Expectations for each grade-level cluster appear in Section 3. Additional resources:

  • Appendix B offers sample correspondence tables for academic content standards and Language Expectations. 
  • Appendix C offers a compilation of all Language Expectations, K-12. 
  • Section 4 provides a Sample Collaborative Planning Process for Content and Language Integration: A Jump-Off Point for Curricular Conversations.  It models the use of Language Expectations to create unit-level goals. 

Highlighting similarities and differences among disciplinary literacies used by different content area communities

The 2020 Language Expectations have been written to convey both the broad similarities and the unique distinctions in how a Key Language Use might be interpreted or expressed according to its disciplinary context. For example, across disciplines, a bedrock of middle school argumentation is the triumvirate of claims-evidence-reasoning. Yet, social studies discussions of evidence emphasize use of multiple sources (Swan et al., 2013), while science discussions of evidence emphasize use of evidence, data, and/or a model about issues related to the natural and designed world(s) (Next Generation Science Standards Lead States, 2013).  As shown in Table 2, Language Expectations are designed to convey the fundamental differences in “how knowledge is constructed, represented, and communicated” in each discipline (echoing the idea expressed in Goldman et al., 2016, p. 4).

Table 2. Grades 6-8 Expressive Language Expectations for Argue for the Five Standards Statements

Table 2. Grades 6-8 Expressive Language Expectations for Argue for the Five Standards Statements2

Language Expectations can support systematic, explicit, and sustained language development in all program models (such as bilingual or sheltered immersion) and classroom settings, such as those driven by content learning (such as math or social studies), by language learning (such as English as a Second Language), or for integrated purposes. When collaborating with content area teachers, Language Expectations can be used to identify unit-level goals as destination points on a map. As teachers design varying and responsive scaffolding approaches, students may take different routes to reach these language destination points.

Scaffolding Learning for Multilingual Learners

Multilingual learners’ language grows over time through real engagement with a challenging curriculum. 

  • What can multilingual learners “do with language” to meet the purpose identified in the Key Language Use?
  • How can I support multilingual learners as they interpret or express their ideas and engage, inquire, interact, and co-construct knowledge in the classroom?

The resources found within the Language Expectations also use a nested design. Embedded within the Language Expectations are sets of Language Functions which describe what the students do with (and through) language to accomplish the purposes identified in the Key Language Use. However, in the 2020 ELD Standards Framework, the Language Functions unfold the Key Language Uses in commonly recurring configurations or stages (Martin, 2009). In other words, there is not one single Language Function per Key Language Use, but multiple Language Functions that might be used to work through and realize the most prominent Key Language Uses for each WIDA Standard Statement and grade-level cluster.

In the 2020 ELD Standards Framework, the grain size of a Language Function is broader than used with the previous MPI process. Here, the 2020 Language Functions are contextualized through a particular Key Language Use, grade-level cluster, and discipline. In other words, the 2020 Language Functions are broader than the initial “action verbs” (e.g., interpret, describe, evaluate, select, organize) often associated with Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001) since the information that comes after the initial language function verb can be just as important (e.g., character, concept, phenomenon, or evidence) in defining the genre. There are even instances where the same initial language function “verb” might be utilized in different Key Language Uses—e.g., compare or contrast concepts or entities in an informational text, compare and contrast objects or concepts, or compare reasoning and claims based on evidence from two arguments on the same topic

At this point, educators who wish to dive deeper into explicit language instruction can use the associated Language Features. Consistent with the Big Idea of a Functional Approach to Language, language is defined as a resource for making meaning (italics added for emphasis) rather than as a set of rules for ordering isolated grammatical structures (Halliday & Matthiessen, 2014). Language offers a dynamic set of tools that can be used in the service of learning disciplinary concepts and practices (Schleppegrell, 2013).

Examples of Language Features (which help to carry out Expressive Language Functions) are shown in the clear sub-bullets in Table 3. In this table, the discipline (Science vs. Social Studies) informs the sampling of Language Functions and Language Features shown. (Please note that the Language Functions and Functions in Table 3 were extracted from Table 2.)

Table 3. Grades 6-8 Science and Social Studies Examples of Language FeaturesTable 3. Grades 6-8 Science and Social Studies Examples of Language Features3

Communication modes: Expanding accessibility for all multilingual learners through scaffolding and multimodality


Figure 6. WIDA Modes of Communication

Whereas the 2012 edition used the terms Receptive and Productive communication modes, the 2020 Language Expectations and Proficiency Level Descriptors are organized by Interpretive and Expressive Modes of Communication (see Figure 6). The two updated communication modes encompass the four language domains (speaking, listening, reading, and writing), as outlined in federal requirements for language proficiency standards.

The two communication modes spotlight the multimodal nature of both language development and content area learning (Choi & Yi, 2015; Cope & Kalantzis, 2015). They also position language as being more tightly integrated with other semiotic resources (Kress & van Leeuwen, 2001).

Enhancing the four language domains (listening, reading, speaking and writing) by including viewing and representing creates a natural connection to the principles of Universal Design for Learning. The result—expanded communication modes—invites multiple means of engagement, representation, and action and expression (CAST, 2015), thereby extending accessibility principles to all multilingual learners, including those with more intensive learning needs.

Proficiency Level Descriptors: Making explicit K-12 performance definitions for individual student language development 

As a reminder, the 2020 ELD Standards Framework separates Language Expectations from Proficiency Level Descriptors. This separation is important because multilingual learners do not need to first acquire “enough” English before being taught the content area curriculum. Multilingual learners in the early phases of English language development can still interpret and express grade-level concepts and skills, especially when appropriately supported through scaffolding that is inclusive of multilingual and multimodal means.

Similar to the 2012 K-12 Performance Definitions, the 2020 Grade-Level Cluster Proficiency Level Descriptors use three dimensions to conceptualize the linguistic system within a sociocultural context (illustrated in Figure 7). Consistent with the Big Idea of a Functional Approach to Language, language users are seen as simultaneously making choices in all three dimensions of language which contributes to how a text is purposely constructed and has a desired effect on its intended audience(s).

Figure 7. Dimensions of Language Within a Sociocultural Context

The 2020 Proficiency Level Descriptors bring an intensified focus to the discourse dimension of language use: whereas the discourse dimension has three criteria (organization, cohesion, and density of language), the sentence and word/phrase dimensions have only one criterion each: grammatical complexity of language for sentence and precision of language for word/phrase. (A companion article, Putting discourse first” [Lundgren & Shafer Willner, 2021], explores this concept in greater detail.)

Both 2012 Performance Definitions and the 2020 Proficiency Level Descriptors provide descriptions of a typical trajectory of linguistic growth for multilingual learners along continua that extend over many years. In its 2020 Edition, WIDA offers an additional proficiency level. Level 6 is open-ended as language development continues for both monolingual and multilingual students throughout life.

To avoid taking a deficit perspective about a multilingual learner’s “lack” of English, both the Performance Definitions and the Proficiency Level Descriptors were designed to help teachers identify language features that a student at each proficiency level might typically be able to use and what the student might be working toward in the next proficiency level. As a reminder: Descriptors for the end of any proficiency level include those of the previous levels. For example, Proficiency Level 4 (PL4) = End of [PL1 + PL2 + PL3 + PL4].

The 2020 Proficiency Level Descriptors are designed to be more developmentally appropriate for multilingual learners within six grade-level clusters (K, 1, 2-3, 4-5, 6-8, and 9-12). In contrast, the 2012 K-12 Performance Definitions offer a single continuum of English language proficiency descriptors. Having a single set of K-12 descriptors for the earlier standards edition meant different interpretations needed to be created for different grade-level clusters. For the most part, educators were left to create these interpretations on their own. However, one sample, yet somewhat confusing interpretation was placed in the 2016 Can Do Descriptors, Key Uses Edition:

For example, in level 5 [in the K-12 Performance Definitions], extended oral or written discourse would probably be indicated by a 1st grade student’s ability to orally retell a story in a series of sentences using simple transition words. However, a middle school student might be expected to exhibit linguistic complexity at [same] level 5 by incorporating a variety of sentence structures in an essay several paragraphs in length (WIDA, 2016, p. 3).

Using Proficiency Level Descriptors in coordination with the other 2020 ELD Standards Framework components

  1. What do the 5 criteria in the WIDA Proficiency Level Descriptors look like in the classroom? (Discuss this question while looking at student writing samples.)
  2. What do the 3 Discourse Dimension criteria (Organization of Language, Cohesion of Language, and Density of Language) look like in relation to each Key Language Use (Narrate, Inform, Explain, Argue)?
  3. What does student performance at each of the six English proficiency levels in the Proficiency Level Descriptors look like in relation to the Language Expectations?

See Section 2 for an introduction to the Dimensions of Language Use and the five PLD criteria. See how the PLDs appear in grade-level cluster materials in Section 3. Appendix D offers a compilation of all PLDs, K-12.

The 2020 Proficiency Level Descriptors have been carefully designed to maintain consistent criteria and equivalent levels of difficulty with those stipulated in the 2012 Performance Definitions, while also offering educators actual interpretations used with each grade-level cluster. As shown in Table 4, the 2012 and 2020 Editions use consistent criteria in the discourse, sentence, and word/phrase dimensions. 

Table 4. Comparison of Criteria in 2012 Features of Academic Language Chart and 2020 Dimensions of Language Table (WIDA, 2020, Appendix D Excerpt)

Table 4. Comparison of Criteria in 2012 Features of Academic Language Chart and 2020 Dimensions of Language Table (WIDA, 2020, Appendix D Excerpt)4

Final thoughts

Learning the ways of acting, interacting, valuing, and using tools in the disciplinary practices used by particular communities is an integral part of language learning (Gee, 2004). The 2020 ELD Standards Framework offers new opportunities for educators and policy makers to ensure access to rigorous instruction for multilingual learners. It can serve as a foundation for designing curriculum and instruction, as an advocacy tool, as well as a collaboration resource. 

Educators can use standards in a variety of ways as they work with students and families. For language and content teachers, the 2020 ELD Standards Framework opens the door to address the needs of multilingual learners wherever they may be in their language development journey, helping them engage and interact meaningfully in the classroom and beyond.

Suggested next steps

Pauline Gibbons’ (2015) Scaffolding Language, Scaffolding Learning and Maria Brisk’s (2014) Engaging Student in Academic Literacies provide user-friendly introductions to the functional approach to language development. Consider exploring one or both books with your local professional development community.

Another complementary article, “The WIDA ELD Standards Framework, 2020 Edition” (Kray, Gottlieb, & Shafer Willner, 2021), appears in the Spring/Summer 2021 issue of MATSOL Currents, highlighting the main architecture and offering suggestions for deeper explorations of the 2020 Edition through selected topics in a weekly a Professional Learning Community, along with potential action steps for integrating the updated ELD Standards Framework into local curriculum, instruction, and assessment.


  1. The 2012 WIDA ELD Standards Framework is an amplification of (and therefore, closely connected with the design of) the 2007 WIDA ELD Standards Framework. 
  2. As mentioned previously, resources for Standard 1 and Standards 2-5 should be integrated. For example, when designing a Science unit, collaborative teams might work from a design palette containing Standard 1 (ELD-SI) and Standard 4 (ELD-SC) Language Expectations.
  3. While extensive, it is important to note that the Language Features provided with the 2020 ELD Standards Framework are not exhaustive. Educators may identify other Language Features that are useful for carrying out Language Functions.
  4. The 2020 Proficiency Level Descriptors measure excerpts of language; neither descriptors nor examples within the Proficiency Level Descriptors describe the full amount of text that students can process or produce (e.g., chapter books).


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