Themes I'm Seeing in ELL Education: Fall 2017 Edition

Hi everyone!  We’re happy to present a new blog post from Diane Staehr Fenner on themes she’s been noticing while she has been busy out in the field. Don’t miss the recommended resources that follow each theme.

Now that the school year is well underway, the time seems right to share some themes I've been noticing in educating English language learners (ELLs). While these started as hunches, I confirmed that these are all topics gaining traction while attending the WIDA 2017 conference in Tampa, Florida in October – either through the high-quality presentations given or through rich conversations with conference-goers.

While there are many more themes that are emerging when it comes to educating ELLs, three major themes I'll focus on in this blog post are supporting students with trauma, young dual language learners, and dual language programming. For each theme, I'll share what I'm noticing by way of the sense of urgency or demographics, suggest some ideas on what you can do to address these issues, and provide a few resources for each topic in case you're interested in learning more.

Editorial Note: This blog features a range of resources providing useful information for schools and educators. While some of this material includes advocacy information, Colorín Colorado and our parent organization, public broadcasting station WETA-TV-FM, do not take political positions or participate in political advocacy. In addition, if your students or families are looking for legal advice, we strongly encourage you to collaborate with immigration attorneys or organizations who have the most updated information possible.

Theme 1: Supporting Students Living with Trauma

So much has been happening this fall that impacts our ELLs and their families that it can be challenging to keep up. Consider for a moment the news about the uncertainty of DACA recipients' and DREAMers' futures, students with limited or formal education (SLIFE) enrolling in U.S. schools, and the effects of natural disasters unfolding on a seemingly weekly basis this fall. In order to be in tune with what is happening in the world and on a local level (both of which are forces that play out in our schools), we have to pay even closer attention to supporting ELLs and their families on a social-emotional level. As educators and advocates for our ELLs, we can not just focus on fostering students' academic achievement. Part of this support takes the form of recognizing and thoughtfully responding to trauma that can seriously affect our ELLs, often without educators' knowledge that they are experiencing trauma.

Take a look at these statistics for a sense of how important it is to recognize and address trauma in our ELLs.

  • In 2016, the American Psychological Association reported that 4.1 million children born in the United States have at least one parent who is undocumented (Menjivar & Cervantes, 2016).
  • Since the federal government's DACA program was created in 2012, almost 790,000 young undocumented immigrants have received work permits and deportation relief (Krogstad, 2017).
  • Many school districts in the United States are getting ready for an influx of students from Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
  • Sixty percent of ELL families had incomes 185 percent below the poverty level (Grantmakers for Education, 2013).
  • In New York City alone, SLIFE accounted for nearly 5% of the total ELL population or nearly 7500 students in 2015-16 (New York City Office of English Language Learners, 2013).

Note on DACA: Changes in DACA policy will have an impact on a wide range of groups served by K-12 schools and higher education, including: students in high school, college, and graduate school; young professionals, including thousands of teachers working across the country; and children whose parents and older siblings may be affected. Learn more about the impacts of DACA on K-12 students in Colorín Colorado's resource section on DREAMERS & DACA: Information for Schools.

What You Can Do

First of all, it's important to begin supporting students who have experienced trauma with a strengths-based approach. Zacarian, Álvarez-Ortiz, and Haynes (2017) advise us to try to learn about what your students' strengths are, help your students become aware of their own strengths, and draw from your students' strengths in your instruction. Meanwhile, create a safe space in your classrooms for all students to feel empowered and in control so they can cope with trauma and stress in general. It's ideal for students and their families to know who their allies are in school. Finally, consider collaborating with other educators, social workers, community organizations, and counselors to brainstorm specific supports you can provide to students with trauma. Create a plan with action steps, timelines, and milestones to keep yourselves on track as you support your students who are experiencing trauma.

Resources: Supporting Students Living with Trauma

Theme 2: Young Dual Language Learners

In recent years, educators and researchers have been paying more attention to our youngest ELLs. These are children from zero to eight years old, referred to as dual language learners or DLLs. The term DLL "acknowledges that very young children are still actively developing their home language(s) along with an additional language" (WIDA, 2014, p. 2). Our heightened awareness of DLLs is an important step in the right direction. We need to focus on the access to schooling and the quality of schooling provided to our nation's DLLs if it is our wish for them to succeed later in their academic careers. Attending a high quality PreK program helps increase DLLs' school readiness so that they are more prepared in elementary school. School readiness can also contribute to discrepancies between academic outcomes of ELLs and non-ELLs when they are in elementary school, which we see play out on the National assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) fourth grade reading and math scores[1]. Also, we can see the inclusion of DLLs in the soon-to-be-revised TESOL PreK-12 Professional Teaching Standards. The excellent team which led the recent revision of the standards included DLL expert Karen Nemeth to ensure that the youngest kids were provided a voice in the process.

Take a look at these statistics:

  • The number of DLLs in the United States has increased by 24 percent since 2000 (Park, O’Toole, Katsiaficas, 2017).
  • DLLs number more than 11 million children and make up 32% of the nationwide population ages 0 to 8 (Park, O’Toole, Katsiaficas, 2017).
  • Some states have seen more than a 200% growth in DLLs (Espinosa, 2013).
  • DLLs enroll in PreK programs at lower rates than non-DLLs (Park, O’Toole, Katsiaficas, 2017).
  • Most states do not track the enrollment of DLLs in state PreK programs rendering DLLs invisible in policy conversations (Park, O’Toole, Katsiaficas, 2017).
  • Only 5 states require PreK teachers to have qualifications related to DLLs (Barnett et al., 2016).

What You Can Do

If you're not working in a PreK program but your district has one, consider meeting with some PreK administrators and educators to brainstorm ways in which you can collaborate to share your expertise and support DLLs as well as their families. Also, consider sharing any resources for DLLs, such as books and videos in DLLs' home languages, to encourage and support home language literacy. You can also help ensure that families of DLLs are aware of any PreK options they have by asking your current K-12 ELLs if they have any younger siblings or relatives who might be eligible to enroll in a PreK program. Once DLLs are enrolled, work with PreK educators to provide families of DLLs to volunteer and share their linguistic and cultural expertise in PreK classrooms as their schedules permit. You can also come up with some ideas together for ways in which to thoughtfully bring in DLL families' expertise as volunteers in classrooms, as well as to match older kids with young children in buddy programs.

Resources: Young Dual Language Learners

Theme 3: Dual Language Programming

The final theme is one that is definitely gaining traction across the United States. Despite dual language programs' existence in a space in which the languages and cultures of ELLs are not always valued, there is a strong movement taking place toward two-way dual language immersion programs. Dual language programs are those in which fluent speakers of the "partner language" (e.g., Spanish, Mandarin) and fluent speakers of English come together to receive instruction in core content in the partner language as well as English. This push toward valuing multilingualism goes hand in hand with more states adopting the Seal of Biliteracy. As educators of ELLs, many of us have seen that providing our ELLs support in their home languages can have immediate benefits in the classroom. There is also a growing body of research citing the long-term benefits of dual language programs for ELLs if they remain in quality programs. Recently, some states which had excluded the possibility of bilingual or dual language instruction for the majority of their ELLs have been shifting their policy so that dual language programming is once again on the table. For example, California passed Proposition 58 nearly a year ago, which allows school districts to offer dual language and other types of bilingual education programs. Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Georgia, for example, are also in the process of promoting dual language immersion programs for all learners. Most notably, Massachusetts, having restricted the use of bilingual education in 2002, recently passed legislation in support once again giving schools the option of using bilingual education in support of ELLs.

What You Can Do

If you're living in a state with a Seal of Biliteracy already in place, find out if your school district has its own Seal of Biliteracy and see what the requirements are. You can see the latest information on the Seal of Biliteracy state map, which is updated regularly. (Schools can award the Seal even if it has not been adopted by the district or state.) Share this information with your ELLs and their families in their home languages to make sure word is getting out. Also, be sure your school administrators and guidance counselors are aware of the Seal of Biliteracy and how ELLs can obtain it. If your state doesn't yet offer a Seal of Biliteracy, your district may still be able to offer it. Find some like-minded allies to brainstorm a plan for starting a Seal of Biliteracy at the district level. Be sure to cite research on the benefits of bilingualism and come prepared to present district administrators with talking points, and look at the resources available on the Seal of Biliteracy website.

Another area in which you can make an impact is ensuring ELLs are aware of any dual language programming and enroll their children in these programs if it's a good fit for the family. Make sure families of ELLs know about opportunities for their children to enroll in dual language programs and share the benefits of such programming with them. For example, the Syracuse City School District in New York conducts interviews and public service announcements about their dual language programs in Spanish on the city's Spanish language radio station. If your school or district does not have a dual language program, you can find out what your state or district requirements are to have a program and start gathering information on whether there is interest in starting a program.

Resources: Dual Language Programming

Final Thoughts

These three themes – supporting students with trauma, young dual language learners, and dual language instruction and programming – are ones that I will keep my eye on as the school year progresses. I'm glad to see that these often invisible students and type of instructional support are on more people's radar now and hope that we continue to provide resources and advocate for them. Please comment here to share what themes you’re noticing this year and suggestions for what you can do when it comes to supporting our ELLs!


[1] Source: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, “NAEP Data Explorer-Math and Reading assessments, 2015.”


Barnet, W. S., et al. 2016. The State of Preschool 2015: State Preschool Yearbook. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Graduate School of Education. Retrieved from:

Espinosa, L. (2013). PreK-3rd: Challenging common myths about dual language learners. Foundation for Child Development. Retrieved from: Challenging%20Common%20Myths%20Update.pdf

Grantmakers in Education.  (April 2013).  Educating English Language Learners: Grantmaking strategies for closing America's other achievement gap.  Retrieved from:

Krogstad, J. M. (2017). DACA Has Shielded Nearly 790,000 Young Unauthorized Immigrants from Deportation. Retrieved from 

Menjivar, C., & Cervantes, A. G. (2016, November). The effects of parental undocumented status on families and children. Retrieved from

New York City Department of Education, Division of English Language Learners and Student Support. (n.d.). English Language Learner Demographics Report for the 2015-16 School Year. Retrieved from

Park, M., O’Toole, A., & Katsiaficas, C. (2017). Dual Language Learners: A National Demographic and Policy Profile. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute. Retrieved from:

WIDA. (2014). WIDA Focus On: The early years: Dual language learners. Madison, WI: WIDA. Retrieved from:

Zacarian, D., Álvarez-Ortiz, L. & Haynes, J. (2017). Teaching to strengths: Supporting students living with trauma, violence, and chronic stress. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.


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