Eight English Learner Myths for Administrators

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ELL experts Ruslana Westerlund and Kristina Robertson have compiled 8 common myths regarding ELs that they think administrators should reconsider, as well as supporting research for their responses to each myth, best practices, strategies, and recommended resources.

In our many years of working with English learners (ELs) and collaborating with our colleagues in support of ELs, we have come across a variety of common myths that are shared by educators in districts of all sizes across the country. While some of these can be addressed at the classroom level to some extent, it takes a "big picture", holistic approach to address them comprehensively and effectively for the maximum benefit of ELs. That is where the administrator comes in. The administrator can play a unique role in terms of setting the tone of the school, creating a culture of collaboration, maintaining high standards of excellence for all students and staff, using resources and staffing strategically, and ensuring a welcoming environment for ELs and their families.

To help you get started in this journey, we have compiled 8 common myths regarding ELs that we think should be reconsidered, as well as supporting research for our responses to each myth, best practices, strategies, and recommended resources.

Before diving into these myths, let’s make one thing clear: we don’t expect you to know all these things. That’s why we made this list. We hope you will find it useful, thought-provoking, and that it will afford you an opportunity to engage in deeper conversations about the needs of your ELs. We want you to explore multiple ways you can work together as an educational team to ensure ELs' success.

That’s another important point: you are not expected to do this alone. Addressing language and culture is complex work due to the highly diverse and ever-changing nature of the students we are serving. It requires that you learn new things about new students and their backgrounds and pedagogy constantly. You need a dedicated professional team in order to pull all the pieces together and develop a successful support system that works to meet the needs of English Learners.

Myth 1: Using a push-in model will guarantee an increase in collaboration and opportunities for success for ELs.

Fact: “Push-in” refers to a program model in which an EL teacher (such as an ESOL, ESL, or ELD specialist) provides ESL services in the mainstream classroom instead of a separate classroom. It is contrasted with a pull-out model in which ELs leave their regular classroom and go to an ESL classroom. The push-in model aims to provide inclusive services to English Learners. While it may seem like a better model because it’s “inclusive”, providing services to ESL students in a push-in model does not automatically guarantee high quality language services. Just having an EL teacher in the room with the classroom teacher does not lead to meaningful collaboration and quality services for ELs. Having a push-in model tells the administrator where the EL teacher is teaching, not what the EL teacher is teaching. Low-quality services (e.g. helping students complete assignments) have been delivered to English Learners in push-in models in the name of inclusion.

All instructional models need to begin with an analysis of the student needs, close examination of EL achievement data, outcomes desired and a review of a variety of models, approaches, and strategies that will be used to attain the goals. For most push-in situations, it should really be a collaborative model. Truly collaborative models require different resources and supports to be successful. Some of the questions to consider include: When will the teaching team meet and plan regularly? How much time do they need to co-plan together? What is the role of each teacher and how will they collaborate?

Recommendation: Examine your English learners’ needs, their educational backgrounds, and EL achievement data as well as language proficiency data when making a determination about your EL instructional models. Determine what professional development all teachers require to meet the needs of English Learners. A combination of instructional models might be needed to meet the developing language proficiency needs of English learners. For example, a pull out model may be utilized to provide targeted language support to newcomer students in addition to collaborative push-in service. In both models, the EL teacher’s role is to provide explicit, quality language instruction.

Recommended resource:

Myth 2: Sheltered Instruction is Forever!

Fact: Sheltered Instruction courses are modified content courses (e.g., sheltered science) designed to provide ELs with access to content learning. One can trace Sheltered Instruction back to the landmark case of Lau v. Nichols of 1974. Under Lau v. Nichols (1974) ruling, schools have an obligation to modify instruction to provide ELs with access to equal educational opportunities, instead of “sink or swim” approach where students are provided grade level content without modifications. On the other hand, the Office for Civil Rights Memorandum: May 25, 1970; 35 Federal Register 11595 (1970) prohibits tracking by the school system of English learners into lower-level ability groups or vocational programs without consideration of students' personal goals. It requires schools to show how segregation of students is preparing them to participate in their other instructional programs. Such programs "must not operate as an educational dead-end or permanent track."

In several studies, it has been documented that sheltered instruction was used with ELs not because students were not able to succeed academically, but due to the mainstream teacher quality to scaffold instruction up versus simplify it or water it down (Gandara & Maxwell-Jolly, 2000; Rumberger & Gandara, 2004). Student voices and experiences were recorded in several studies. For example, in Dabach (2014) study, stating that students found the label “sheltered” embarrassing because they knew that they were learning less in those classes. Prolonged participation in sheltered classes led to students’ lowered self-esteem, what they can and cannot learn, thus, diminishing their belief in their own abilities and whether they can handle mainstream classes.

Recommendation: Before you hurry back to your classroom and close down all your sheltered classes, stop and think about the following: Sheltered Instruction may be beneficial to beginning level ELs as a temporary programmatic option to provide meaningful content-based instruction (as opposed to “survival English” decontextualized learning). However, school administrators should provide meaningful professional development to all teachers to build teacher disciplinary language knowledge. Teachers need to be aware of the complexities of language within their discipline and how to provide well-sequenced scaffolded instruction that help students gain access to meaningful grade-level learning.

For example, one such approach is called Teaching and Learning Cycle (Rothery, 1994) in which students are provided with many opportunities to build knowledge on the topic, develop oral language, study a discipline-specific mentor text through a joint deconstruction process, followed by joint construction before students write independently. In this approach, genres of school texts (written and spoken) are explicitly taught. After developing ideas and building knowledge on the topic, in teacher-guided discussions, students work with mentor texts of science explanations or historical accounts to learn from author’s choices of text organization and language features before they write independently. One key component that this approach provides is joint construction of text where students’ language is crafted to meet the expectations of writing for a particular purpose, audience, and mode.

This approach takes the mystery out of teachers’ expectations of what is expected in writing. It also expands a variety of writing that disciplines value (e.g. consequential explanations in history, journal entries in science, descriptive reports in geography, classifying reports in biology and many others). The Teaching and Learning Cycle has been developed in Australia and has been used successfully in the US and is described in multiple research studies (e.g. Brisk, Gebhard, deOliveira, Schleppegrell and others).

Administrators could examine not only where ELs are placed, but also students’ experiences in those placements by talking to students and observing their levels of engagement or disengagement. Teachers can affirm students’ identity and counteract their lowered self-esteem by explicitly acknowledging their multilingual and multicultural assets and continuously rebuilding students’ self worth.

Recommended Resource:

Myth 3: EL funding is limited to federal and state LEP dollars.

Fact: EL students usually generate additional funding in the form of federal Title I and state compensatory dollars. These funds are often reserved for district and school initiatives such as literacy intervention designed to help struggling students, some of whom are ELs. While ELs may benefit from these initiatives, they may benefit from increased funding towards language development and these funding streams can also be used to develop language and academic knowledge for ELs. Some district budgets have a strict line between Title I and Title III (federal funds set aside for EL support) and this can be problematic when you consider that a great number of ELs are generating federal Title I dollars, they will increase their reading comprehension when they have attained a higher proficiency level in English and Title III funds are often about 10% (or less) of the Title I amount.  The narrow view that EL funds are the only funds available to support ELs severely restricts the amount of funds available to support language development while ignoring the greater amount of funds ELs generate in other financial categories.

Again, this is not to say that ELs won’t benefit from literacy initiatives or other improvement efforts funded by Title I or other sources, but to point out that language needs can be addressed through a variety of funding sources.

Recommendation: Review your instructional needs and resources closely and determine if additional funds are available to support the EL instructional program. What are the highest priorities for your ELs and what kind of funding and support is needed to reach your goals? Developing literacy and math skills funded by Title I and Title III dollars is important, but it should not be done at the expense of developing disciplinary literacies offered in inquiry-rich learning such as STEM or interdisciplinary inquiry units.

Recommended resource:

Myth 4: Translating materials is adequate for communicating to EL families.

Fact: We should begin by saying that written communication via letters or emails alone is not adequate for any families. Families and schools should be partners and relationships are built best through authentic communication. Written communication is a one-way communication without any way for families to engage meaningfully. In addition, for EL families, especially, understanding school communication extends beyond understanding language.

As an immigrant parent with a doctorate degree in educational leadership and high academic language skills in English, Ruslana notes that she personally continues to struggle understanding all of the school communication that comes home from school. The main reason for her is not language, but all the cultural knowledge that is embedded in those messages which inhibit her comprehension of those written messages. Written communication translated in families’ languages is a start, but it should not stop there. Reaching out to families and communicating with them to help them understand the school culture will help build stronger relationships with families and empower them with the knowledge necessary to advocate for their students in informed ways. It will also help you as an administrator to understand your culture better, in this case, your school culture.

Imagine taking your family to Kenya and attending the school there for a year and trying to navigate the school culture that’s foreign to you. Written letters in Swahili will probably end up in the recycling bin. In addition, EL families come from a wide variety of backgrounds and you can’t be sure that translation will be understood for a variety of reasons. There may be dialects or tribal languages that may be overlooked. In addition, parent literacy levels in their home language(s) or English need to be considered as well.

Recommendation: Build relationships and two-way communication pathways with EL families. Find a variety of ways to communicate with EL families - some in print, some through phone calls and some in person. The more frequently and meaningfully you can communicate with families, the better support the student will have at home to be successful at school. Meet families in their communities: at markets, places of worship, or community events.

Recommended Resource: WIDA Family Engagement Focus Bulletin 2015

Myth 5: ESL Teaching is Just Good Teaching.

Fact: There are many elements of “just good teaching” that provide quality support for ELs - the gradual release of responsibility, pair and group work, clear objectives, etc. However, without scaffolding toward deep disciplinary learning and only focusing on differentiating for language levels at the expense of disciplinary learning, ELs are likely to remain academically behind. Most of an EL student’s day is spent listening to others and if they are going to reach parity with their native English speaking peers they need multiple opportunities to discuss, read and write about age appropriate content themselves. Teachers need to 1) possess disciplinary language knowledge 2) explicitly teach language in the service of deep disciplinary learning 3) provide ELs with opportunities to use language in meaningful ways (filling in worksheets is not a meaningful use of language).

In their article Preparing Mainstream Teachers for English-Language Learners: Is Being a Good Teacher Good Enough?, de Jong and Harper (2005) lay out clear misconceptions about the myth that “good teaching is good for all kids” and provide research to understand what is involved in educating culturally and linguistically diverse learners who qualify for additional language support.

Recommendation: Provide support for teachers to learn about quality disciplinary language instruction in the context of learning. Help them deconstruct standards to determine the language associated with academic tasks and then plan for modeling and measuring the academic language during the lesson. Hire licensed, qualified EL staff to teach and collaborate on professional development for all staff.

Recommended Resource:

Myth 6: EL language development is the responsibility of the EL teacher.

Fact: ELs are the responsibility of all educators. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (1973)29 U.S.C. Section 706 states that English Learners are entitled to “free and APPROPRIATE [emphasis added] public education. The need may be met by providing all teachers working with ELs with meaningful professional development that targets their specific EL needs and strategies that help teachers be successful with EL students. While each teacher may have a specific role to play in supporting the ELs academic and linguistic development, it is important that all are aware of their own responsibility to the student and their family. Even if an EL teacher is able to meet with the EL student for one hour daily, AND the EL teacher is a major award-winning educator, there are multiple hours in the day when the EL student would not receive language instruction. This myth is perpetuated in the teacher education field when the regular education teachers are not provided the foundational knowledge of the language demands of their disciplines and effective scaffolding for language learners in their coursework.

Recommendation: Work with all educators to better understand the language proficiency levels of ELs, develop language instructional strategies, and develop ways to measure language progress and provide feedback to students. Adopt a motto,”Teachers are also learners” and create a culture of learning at school where all teachers can continue to learn because cultural and linguistic diversity is becoming the norm rather than an exception.

Recommended Resource:

Myth 7: ELs no longer need language support once they meet language program exit criteria.

Fact: Language development is a long-term process. Language demands increase through the years of schooling, beyond the “exit” stage. As a result, ELs may require attention to their language needs even after exiting the EL program for several reasons. If the exit criteria are not rigorous and aligned to success in content areas, ELs will need further support to be successful in the academic areas. Also, if ELs exit at the end of their elementary school, they might show signs of needing support in middle school due to the increase of the language demands in middle and high school. For more on this topic, read Much More Than Reclassification by Ruslana and Luciana de Oliveira, Ph.D.

Recommendation: Work with all educators to better understand language demands in academic areas. Develop language-rich pedagogies, measure language progress, and provide feedback to students. Ensure that there is a way to track ELs in the system to help educators keep track of students even after they have exited the program.

Myth 8: ELs automatically means “struggling students” and therefore, ELs cannot be successful in gifted and talented programs or advanced coursework due to their “limited” English language skills.

Fact: Just because English Learners are learning English, it does not mean they are struggling students. Many are high achieving or exhibit achievement in areas not traditionally identified. Understanding giftedness among culturally diverse learners will require a new lens.

Office for Civil Rights Memorandum: May 25, 1970; 35 Federal Register 11595 (1970) requires school districts to take affirmative steps to provide equal access to educational programs for students with emerging proficiency in English. It prohibits denying access to any instructional programs - whether college preparatory, gifted and talented, vocational, computer, compensatory or special education - on the basis of English language skills. Dear Colleague Letter issued by the Office of Civil Rights and the US Department of Justice on January 7, 2015 states,

“School districts may not categorically exclude EL students from gifted and talented education (GATE) or other specialized programs such as Advanced Placement (AP), honors, or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses. Unless a particular GATE program or advanced course is demonstrated to require proficiency in English for meaningful participation, schools must ensure that evaluation and testing procedures for GATE or other specialized programs do not screen out EL students because of their limited English proficiency.” (http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-el-201501.pdf)

Recommendations: Giftedness or participation in advanced coursework is not restricted by the English language level. A study by Kanno & Kangas (2014) found that ELs have been placed in the remedial algebra tracks regardless of their high achievement in math. They concluded that “unless high school educators abandon their assumption that English proficiency must be fully in place before ELLs are ready to take high-level courses and begin offering linguistic support within the context of a rigorous academic curriculum, ELLs’ underachievement will persist, not because they are incapable of learning but because they are not given the opportunity to learn”. Moschkovich (n.d.) recommends that teachers encourage participation in discussions that focus on important concepts and cognitive development, rather than on pronunciation, vocabulary, or low-level linguistic skills. By learning to recognize how ELs express their ideas as they are learning English, teachers can maintain a focus on cognitive reasoning as well as on language development.

Review how giftedness is defined in your school. Examine how effective the core instruction is to allow ELLs to be successful and showcase their giftedness. Reflect on how well the teachers are trained to recognize giftedness among multilingual students. Provide a space for parents of ELs to learn about recognizing giftedness outside of school so that they are more equipped to advocate for gifted services for their children. Many parents might not even know that those options are available for their children. They may not know what questions to ask due to the challenge of navigating a new school system and knowledge of the policies and options.

Recommended Resource for Identifying Gifted ELs:

Recommended Resource for Expanding Access to Advanced Placement Courses:

About the Authors

Ruslana Westerlund

Ruslana Westerlund, Ed.D. is an associate researcher at WIDA, Wisconsin Center for Education Research, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her current research involves training teachers how to support English learners disciplinary literacy in science, social studies, and English Language Arts using Systemic Functional Linguistics.  She has over 20 years of experience in the ESL field at K-12 and higher education levels.  Before coming to WIDA, Ruslana worked as an ESL teacher in K-12 schools and in teacher preparation programs at undergraduate and graduate levels.  She also served as an ELD and refugee student specialist at the Minnesota Department of Education.  In that role, she managed grants from the Office of Refugee Resettlement and collaborated with various state departments to provide wrap-around services to refugee children.  She completed her doctorate degree with the focus on educational leadership. In her spare time, she blogs at Reclaiming The Language For Social Justice blog. She also offers consulting to schools who are seeking solutions on how to best supporting ELs’ developing disciplinary literacy in science, social studies, and English Language Arts.

Kristina Robertson

Kristina Robertson is an English Learner (EL) Program Administrator in Roseville, MN who works with K-12 teachers and administrators to develop quality language programming and instruction needed to advance equity for ELs in academic achievement. Kristina has 20 years of education experience as a teacher and leader in English language instruction, with licenses in ESL, Administration, and Reading. Kristina holds a Masters of Arts in TESOL from the School for International Studies in Brattleboro, VT and has dabbled in PhD coursework for Leadership, Learning Technologies and Curriculum and Instruction. She started her career as a Peace Corps volunteer in Sri Lanka and then returned to Minnesota, where she has taught many language and cultural backgrounds in the K-12 setting, as well as ESL teacher preparation courses at the college level. Kristina served on the American Federation of Teacher's ELL Educator Cadre for a decade and has authored a number of our Bright Ideas articles. She is also featured in a Colorín Colorado Meet the Expert video interview. Kristina resides in Minnesota.


Dabach, D. B. (2014). “I’m not a shelter!””: Stigma and social boundaries in teachers’ accounts of students’ experience in separate “sheltered” English learner classrooms. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 19, 98-124

Gandara, P., & Maxwell-Jolly, J. (2000). Preparing teachers for diversity: A dilemma of quality and quantity. Berkley, CA: California: University of California Linguistic Minority Institute. Retrieved from http://escholarship.org/uc/item/9xx421bc

Gibbons (2009). English learners academic literacy and thinking. Learning in the challenge zone. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Kanno, Y., & Kangas, S. (2014). “I’m Not Going to Be, Like, for the AP’’: English Language Learners’ Limited Access to Advanced College-Preparatory Courses in High School. American Education Research Journal. Retrieved from http://www.aera.net/Newsroom/Recent-AERA-Research/Im-Not-Going-to-Be-Like-for-the-AP-English-Language-Learners-Limited-Access-to-Advanced-College-Preparatory-Courses-in-High-School

Lau v. Nichols, 414 U.S. 563 (1974).

Markos, A., & Himmel, J. (2016). Using Sheltered Instruction to Support English Language Learners. Center for Applied Linguistics. http://www.cal.org/siop/pdfs/briefs/using-sheltered-instruction-to-support-english-learners.pdf

Moschkovich, J. (n.d.). Mathematics, the Common Core, and Language: Recommendations for Mathematics Instruction for ELs Aligned with the Common Core Retrieved from http://ell.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/pdf/academic-papers/02-JMoschkovich%20Math%20FINAL_bound%20with%20appendix.pdf

Rothery, J. (1994). Exploring Literacy in School English (Write it Right Resources for Literacy and Learning). Sydney: Metropolitan East Disadvantaged Schools Program.

Rumberger, R., & Gandara, P. (2004) Seeking equity in the education of California’s English learners. Teachers College Record, 106(1), 2032-2056. Retrieved from http://tcrecord.org ID Number: 11681

Westerlund, R. & deOliveira, L. (2016). More than reclassification. Retrieved from: https://reclaimingthelanguage.wordpress.com/2016/02/02/much-more-than-a-reclassification-issue-ells-in-k-12/

U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Department of Education (2015). Dear Colleague Letter. Retrieved from: http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-el-201501.pdf


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Excellent summary of issues facing districts.

Very good information in this article.

Although I was aware of some of the ELL myths, I did find new information, which better clarified how to address these in my classroom.

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