Standards That Impact English Language Learners

In this article written for Colorín Colorado, Dr. Diane Staehr Fenner and John Segota discuss the ways in which language proficiency and teaching standards can help shape the instruction of English language learners.

They also discuss the relationship between these different sets of standards and their connection to the implementation of the Common Core State Standards.

Why Standards Matter

In a standards-based curriculum, all students — particularly English language learners (ELLs) — face demanding academic and cognitive requirements across content areas and grade levels. To fully and successfully participate in school, ELLs must simultaneously acquire English language proficiency (ELP) and achieve academically across content areas. In fact, two kinds of language proficiency are necessary for school success: the social and intercultural competence of using English in the classroom, and the academic language necessary to access the content areas such as English language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies.

Standards provide a tool for defining the language as well as the content that ELLs are expected to achieve. In order for ELLs to succeed academically in US schools, both ELP standards and professional teaching standards for English as a second language (ESL) teachers are needed to ensure achievement for ELLs.

ELP Standards

English language proficiency standards act as a starting point for identifying the language that ELLs must develop to successfully access and negotiate content in and beyond the classroom. ELP standards do not stand alone, but provide the bridge to the content-area standards expected of all students in U.S. classrooms. Although academic content-area standards mandate high levels of achievement in content learning for all students, they do not provide educators strategies needed to assist English language learners because they assume student proficiency in and ability to use English to engage with content. ELP standards are therefore used in conjunction with content-area standards to provide guideposts for educators in helping English language learners develop the academic language proficiency in English necessary to reach the high levels of achievement outlined for all students.

The first national ELP standards in the U.S. were published by TESOL International Association in 1997. Entitled ESL Standards for Pre-K-12 Students, these standards were the first to promote a vision of effective education for the growing population of English language learners in the U.S. With the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), the federal government recognized the need for language standards to assist English language learners in developing English proficiency, and thus mandated for the first time that each state develop ELP standards for their English language learners. As a result, each U.S. state -either on their own or within different state consortia — developed ELP standards for use within their school systems. The standards developed by the World Class Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA) Consortia are now used in 27 states, and were adapted and augmented by TESOL International Association in the revision of its own standards in 2006.

Professional Teaching Standards for ESL

As with the standards movement in general, the 1990s and 2000s saw a great deal of variety in the field of English as a Second Language (ESL) and the preparation of teachers to teach ESL. During this period of time, the number of ELLs at the P-12 level in school was increasing dramatically, particularly on the east and west coasts. California, New York, and Florida, along with Texas and other states in the Southeast, experienced an exponential growth in the numbers ELLs they served. Education Week (2011) reports that from the 1997-1998 school year to the 2008-2009 school year, the number of ELLs enrolled in public schools increased from 3.5 million to 5.3 million, or by 51%.

When TESOL International Association became a member organization of the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) in 1999, it was because the association felt it was in the best position to help define the field for teachers who would be teaching these students English. The association began developing standards for the national recognition of P-12 ESL teacher education programs that were first put into practice in 2001. These standards, which were revised in 2009, represent what pre-service teaching candidates earning their initial licensure in ESL should know and be able to do in order to effectively teach ELs. More than 200 institutions of higher education have used the TESOL P-12 Professional Teaching Standards as the framework for their ESL programs for national NCATE recognition purposes.

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) first developed its standards for "accomplished" teachers of English as a new language (ENL) in the late 1990s, and then revised them in 2010. Currently, there are over 1300 Nationally Board Certified teachers in English as a New Language using the NBPTS ENL standards as a framework. Both sets of standards' revisions reflect recent changes in the educational landscape for ELLs and their teachers such as accountability expectations and assessment requirements for ELLs, emphasis on academic language learning, expansion of ESL teacher roles, developments in technology and its application to education, research-based understandings of the nature of language and language learning, the role of language and culture in learning, and the role of advocacy in the education of ELLs.

Both TESOL International Association and NBPTS revised their professional standards for ESL teachers during the same timeframe, and their standards could reflect the current state of the field of teaching ELs. Although the TESOL and NBPTS standards' formats and purposes differ (see Table 1), they do have similarities (Harper & Staehr Fenner, 2010). Both are professional standards for ESL teachers, focus on teacher qualifications in US school settings, and represent high-quality teaching of ELLs. They also both include a performance-based review process that uses standards-based evidence and documentation of the impact on student learning.

Table 1. TESOL and NBPTS' Professional Teaching Standards

TESOL P-12 Professional Teaching StandardsNBPTS English as a New Language Standards
Developed for ESL teacher education programsDeveloped for individual ESL teachers
Address teacher competence at the initial ESL licensure/certification levelAddress teacher competence at the accomplished level after at least 3 years of classroom experience
Provide national recognition of ESL teacher education programsAward certification to individual ESL teachers
26 states require participation; other ESL teacher education programs voluntarily undergo the processVoluntary participation by individual ESL teachers

What is most important about the commonalities between the TESOL and NBPTS standards is that they both recognize a unique academic discipline that is both separate from other content areas yet serves to complement them, and one that is increasingly important for the U.S. education system.

Common Core State Standards

In addition to the developments in the field described previously, the introduction of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is also having a marked impact on ESL education. When they were first introduced in 2010, many uncertainties existed regarding how these standards would be implemented and assessed for ELLs. Although the CCSS did include some basic information about implementation with ELLs, much research still needs to be done in this area. Several prominent organizations and researchers have begun work looking at this question, recognizing that the implementation of the CCSS for ELLs is important for all teachers as increasing numbers of educators across the content areas work with ELLs.

Addressing the question of ELLs and the CCSS, the following are some activities that are currently underway:

  • WIDA is in the final stages of updating its ELP standards, which will be called English language development (ELD) standards, to illustrate the alignment with the CCSS.
  • TESOL International Association is also developing ancillary information for its standards that show the relationship to the CCSS.
  • Other states, beyond those that are members of WIDA, are also having conversations about revising their ELP standards to align them with the CCSS, creating new ELP assessments, and providing specialized professional development for teachers regarding the impact of the CCSS on ELLs.

How These Standards Work Together

While it's important that all teachers receive professional development and information on best practices on working with ELLs, professional development is simply a baseline and is not sufficient in and of itself. Just as ELP standards do not work alone, the same is true for academic content standards when it comes to ELLs. Similarly, the expertise of both ESL teachers and content teachers is needed to help ELLs achieve, so it's critical to have professional teaching standards for ESL educators such as those provided by TESOL and NBPTS.

In order to provide effective professional development for those who teach ELLs, teacher educators must first have an understanding of the systematic role that content area and ESL teachers have in teaching ELLs. Within this framework, each of the three components (teachers, standards, and assessment) constantly interacts and influences each other as parts of an inseparable system. An optimal system triangulates these elements and develops them equally so that ELLs are able to learn content and language simultaneously. One component cannot be neglected, or the other two will not flourish. Figure 1 represents the multifaceted approach to teaching ELLs that triangulates the relationship between content standards, ELP standards, content assessments, and ELP assessments to support overall academic achievement for ELLs.

Figure 1

Standards for ELLs

Policy Questions/Needed Areas of Research

However, much more research needs to be undertaken to effectively implement the CCSS for ELLs and determine the role of ELP and teaching standards in future conversations about teacher preparation and evaluation. Below we frame potential research needs as policy questions.

  • ESL teacher certification requirements vary dramatically from state to state, resembling a patchwork quilt. With such tremendous variation among these credentials each state offers, what are the specific credentialing requirements among the states?
  • What is the impact of ELL teacher preparation on ELL achievement?
  • How can the TESOL P-12 Professional Teaching Standards as well as the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards' ENL Standards add to the conversation on how to meet the needs of ELLs as they work within the CCSS framework?
  • In order to truly provide guidance on how ESL teachers' expertise can best be utilized to implement the CCSS, we need much more information on their current roles. What is the role of the ESL teacher across multiple contexts in the United States?
  • Because the population of ELLs in US schools will only continue to grow, ELL issues and ESL educators must be central to the conversations that are currently taking place regarding the implementation of the CCSS, not an add-on or an afterthought. This level of collaboration will help make sure that ELLs are considered during this groundbreaking phase in the US education system.

About the Authors

Dr. Diane Staehr Fenner

A trilingual educator and researcher with two decades of experience in the instruction, assessment, and support of English Learners (ELs), Dr. Diane Staehr Fenner is president of DSF Consulting. Her interests lie in student achievement of ELs, including ELs with disabilities, and in improving teacher education and professional development for those who teach ELs in K-12 classrooms. Dr. Staehr Fenner earned her Ph.D. in Multilingual/Multicultural Education from George Mason University with an emphasis in Literacy.

In addition to her work on policy and practice issues at the national, state, and local levels, Dr. Staehr Fenner has an extensive instructional background in K-12, including ten years teaching and assessing ELs in Fairfax County Public Schools (Virginia) as well as experience teaching EFL as part of a Fulbright Scholarship. She was a committee member for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards' recent revision of its English as a New Language Standards and a committee member to revise Florida's ESOL teacher performance standards.

Dr. Staehr Fenner also has supported TESOL International Association as its National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) Program Coordinator and she is the lead author of a book, to be published by TESOL in March 2012, that applies the TESOL professional standards for ESL teacher education program development, NCATE accreditation, and professional development purposes in districts and states. She is also authoring a book focused on educating ELs that will be published by Corwin Press in early 2013. You can learn more about Dr. Staehr Fenner's work from her website, DSF Consulting, LLC.

John Segota

John Segota has been with TESOL since 1996. Mr. Segota's responsibilities at TESOL include government relations, policy analysis, media communications, and management of TESOL's advocacy activities. He works closely with TESOL's executive director and Board of Directors on issues management and elements of strategic planning, and has also assisted with the development of several standards projects. Part of Mr. Segota's ongoing duties also include serving as TESOL's liaison to groups such as the National Coalition for Literacy, Hispanic Education Coalition, and the Joint National Committee for Languages, as well as serving as a staff liaison to the TESOL Standards Committee, Global Professional Issues Committee, and Employment Issues Committee.

Mr. Segota serves on the Board of Directors for the National Coalition for Literacy and is on the Advisory Board for USA Learns. Mr. Segota has a BA in Political Science with a concentration in International Studies from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA, and a graduate certificate in Project Management from the Keller Graduate School of Management.


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


Harper, C., & Staehr Fenner, D. (2010, March). Comparing the revised TESOL/NCATE and National Board Teaching Standards. Paper presented at the 44th Annual TESOL Convention and Exhibit, Boston, MA.

National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. (2010). English as a new language standards (2nd ed.). Arlington, VA: Author.

The National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition. (2011). The Growing Numbers of English Learner Students, 1998/99-2008/09. Retrieved from

NCATE. (2010). Transforming teacher education through clinical practice: A national strategy to prepare effective teachers. Retrieved from /TransformingTeacherEducation/tabid/737/Default.aspx

Staehr Fenner, D. & Kuhlman, N. (2012). Preparing effective teachers of English language learners: Practical applications for the TESOL P-12 Professional Teaching Standards. Alexandria, VA: TESOL International Association.

TESOL International Association. (2010). TESOL/NCATE standards for the recognition of initial TESOL programs in P-12 ESL teacher education. Retrieved from

TESOL International Association. (2006). PreK-12 English Language Proficiency Standards. Alexandria, VA: Author


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Thank you for this policy section and the valuable update on this important topic. One of the most valuable uses of the ELP/ELD Standards may be as a guide to differentiate content instruction and assessment for English learners. The more complex application is goal-setting for language development. One of the question practitioners are asking is this: How do ELD/ELP Standards guide teachers in setting end-of-year language targets that are both reasonable and rigorous? Where are the models/benchmarks that describe the expectations for language development within each academic year for students at each grade and ELP level? What is the expected growth trajectory for language development for a student with on-level first language skills? Where is the bank of common language assessments that ELL specialists can draw from? Perhaps we all need better guidance about how the ELD/ELP Standards can serve both as a differentiation guide for content teachers and a goal-setting guide for ELL specialists. Thank you.

I am a fourth grade teacher one of seven. I am the only one self contained due to my high ELL students 11 of 15. I am concerned with the CCSS and my students. I have four who speak little or no English. I can't seem to find answers at local level please help me. These kids deserve a chance.

Steele, please email me at [email protected] so we can communicate about your situation.


I am a teacher in one of the remote community schools. i see over all egnlish language standard of my children are quite low compared to those children in the town schools. Some of children can not even construct or speak a sentence correctly in english. we are having tough time in convincing the lessons in english language. How should i go about to help them improve english language standard? Are there other physical and social aspects which determines the language standards? Please help me at [email protected]

English language proficiency standards act as a starting point for identifying the language that ELLs must develop to successfully access and negotiate content in and beyond the classroom. ELP standards do not stand alone, but provide the bridge to the content-area standards expected of all students

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