Signposts: ELL Policy Recommendations for Policy Makers

Educating Emergent Bilinguals: Policies, Programs, and Practices for English Language Learners

In this excerpt from Educating Emergent Bilinguals: Policies, Programs, and Practices for English Language Learners (Teachers College Press, 2010), Ofelia García and Jo Anne Kleifgen detail policy recommendations that need the leadership of government at the federal, state, and local levels, and school officials.

Policy Recommendations

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In the other sections of Chapter 9, the authors also include recommendations for:

  • advocates
  • educators
  • researchers.

The recommendations that follow for transforming the education of emergent bilinguals take on greater urgency today given the increase in the number of students — citizens and noncitizens alike — coming into classrooms speaking a language other than English.

Policy design

Develop a definition of an English language learner that is stable across federal and state lines. The federal government should require stable and accurate data reporting and classification.

It is imperative that agreement be reached about what constitutes a learner of English. Policy makers could call on scholars of bilingualism to explore how to measure and assess the academic English proficiency needed for success in schools. To be accurate, the measure should include students' home languages and their bilingual abilities. Policy makers could demand that this measure not defi ne a category from which students exit to a "proficient" category, but designate points on a continuum of emergent bilingualism that require different kinds of educational programs and different levels of academic intervention.

Design educational policy based on current theory and research regarding the benefits of an equitable education for emergent bilinguals.

The research evidence supporting the use of emergent bilinguals' home languages in their education is incontrovertible. Policy makers could become well versed in this research and empirical evidence so that this becomes center stage in developing policy.


Support and expand educational programs that have demonstrated success in providing a challenging, high-quality education and that build on the strengths children and youth bring to school, particularly their home languages and cultures.

Policy makers could desist from portraying categories of educational programs as if they were in opposition to each other — ESL or bilingual — for example. Instead, informed policy makers could support the use of children's home language practices in educating emergent bilinguals to a lesser or greater extent, depending on capacity, community, configuration, and desires. They could support and encourage educational programs that follow research findings to the extent the community situation permits.

Support and expand student access to high-quality materials, including new technologies, especially in high-poverty schools, to facilitate access to the changing communication mediascape and give students a better chance to reach academic attainment.

Policy makers need to provide schools with multilingual literacy material—books and digital audio and video resources. Access to technology — computers, translating software, and voice recognition software—are especially important for emergent bilinguals, and policy makers should ensure that this is readily available in all classrooms so that students can read, write, and carry out research using all the languages at their disposal.

Start bilingual educational support early — through meaningful bilingual early childhood programs.

Policy makers could ensure that multilingual early childhood programs are available and that early assessment and intervention, when appropriate, are done in the children's home languages. Language majority children could also benefi t from these multilingual early childhood programs, participating in and becoming familiar with different languages and cultural practices early in life.

Secondary students

Pay particular attention to the middle school years.

Emergent bilinguals that are supported in elementary schools—through either ESL or bilingual programs—most often get fewer services when they reach middle school. Policy makers must pay particular attention to the middle school years, for students who continue to be categorized as English language learners after having received 5 to 6 years of education may have serious educational impediments. These students cannot be educated in the same ways as emergent bilinguals who are newcomers; educational programs have to be designed to meet their needs.

Support strong programs for emergent bilinguals at the secondary level.

Especially at the secondary level, emergent bilinguals need challenging educational programs. Policy makers should insist that schools provide these adolescents with the challenging academic content they need, while at the same time developing academic English. A rigorous academic program that can also develop advanced English literacy is essential to make these adolescents college ready.

Dual-language and the home language

Support the development of more two-way bilingual education programs and programs that support understandings of bilingualism and linguistic tolerance.

Two-way bilingual education programs hold much promise in developing the bilingualism of both language minorities and majorities. Although much work is needed in supporting the education of language minorities, language majorities also need to develop their bilingualism and further their understandings of bilingualism and bilingual communities, both in the United States and in the world. Policy makers need to support the development of such curricula for all American children.

Require that all school leaders, teachers, and other school personnel be well versed in issues of bilingualism and understand the importance of the home language and culture for the child.

Policy makers could make understandings of bilingualism and emergent bilinguals a requirement for certifi cation and employment. Beyond specialized teachers of English as a second language and bilingual teachers, all teachers should be required by policy makers to demonstrate an ability to work with bilingual children and their families.

Professional development and teacher training

Promote strong pre-service/in-service education and professional development that prepares teachers to work with emergent bilinguals.

Given the growing numbers of emergent bilingual children in American schools, policy makers could require that all teacher education programs include coursework on bilingualism and the education of emergent bilinguals. Policy makers could also require that all teachers receive professional development that specifically targets emergent bilinguals and bilingual students as part of their professional commitment.

Provide incentives for the preparation and hiring of additional bilingual staff—from school leaders and teachers to paraprofessionals, school psychologists, school counselors, therapists, and the like.

Because bilingual school staff is more diffi cult to recruit, prepare, and retain, policy makers should provide fi nancial incentives to those institutions of higher education that prepare bilingual staff and to schools that hire them. Financial incentives should be targeted to members of language minority groups that are particularly needed in the teaching profession. Incentives for community members to become paraprofessionals would be especially important, as are programs in which these paraprofessionals could then extend their preparation and eventually become teachers.

Provide incentives for bilinguals to enter the specialized profession of teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL) or to enter the bilingual teaching profession.

Bilingual individuals who can become teachers of English as a second language and bilingual teachers need to be offered incentives to join the profession. Different states and regions may offer incentives to different language groups whose language expertise are sorely needed by school systems.

Require all teachers to develop some experience as emergent bilinguals themselves.

Academic study of an additional language is a worthy aim. However, a richer experience could be considered. Teacher education programs could arrange for prospective teachers to experience a period of time abroad or in a U.S. ethnolinguistic community other than the teacher's own.

Promote the integration of ESL/bilingual education programs so that all ESL teachers would know about bilingualism and all bilingual teachers would be experts in the teaching of academic English.

Policy makers could require that, with the exception of the coursework required of bilingual teachers in teaching content in the home language, the preparation of ESL and bilingual teachers be the same. Being in classes together would ameliorate the divisions between programs that often exist. All should know how to teach content in English to emergent bilinguals, as well as support their development of academic English. Additionally, all should understand how to use the students' home languages as sense-making in educating them.

Require schools to recognize the funds of knowledge that exist in emergent bilingual students' families and communities, to be accountable to them, and to achieve closer mutual engagement for a higher-quality education.

Policy makers could also require that all teachers have coursework on how to work with families of emergent bilinguals who do not speak English and how to provide translation services to parents. This coursework would require that all teachers learn an additional language to maximize the bilingualism of the U.S. teaching force in the 21st century. In addition, the coursework would make teachers aware of what they could learn from the funds of knowledge of the community and parents by developing the prospective teachers' ethnographic skills. This specialized coursework would help teachers develop assignments that build on parents' existing knowledge, whatever that might be, while extending the children's understandings in ways that would not require the parents to be knowledgeable of the same content or linguistic practices.


Our policy section made possible by a generation grant from the Carnegie Corporation. The statements and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.


García, O. and Kleifgen, Jo Anne. Educating Emergent Bilinguals: Policies, Programs, and Practices for English Language Learners. Excerpt from Chapter #9, "Alternative Paths for Educating Emergent Bilinguals." Pps. 127-131. New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University. 2010. Reprinted with permission.


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