Making sure English Language Learners get what they need

By 2025, 1 out of 4 children in classrooms across the nation will be English Language Learner (ELL) students. In fact, this is the fastest-growing group of students in grades K-12.

English Language Learners bring an array of cultures, experiences, and perspectives—as well as 400 different languages—to public schools. That richness is good for all of us.

However, due to a lack of preparation, information, and professional development for educators, schools are not as ready as they should be to welcome and nourish this diversity. Add to that the fact that fewer than half the states require that all teachers have at least some training in working with English Language Learners, and it is clear that students don’t always get what they need.


We know, for instance, that integrated and designated English Language Development models of instruction work best—emphasizing English skills as part of the overall curriculum and providing targeted time specifically for honing English language skills. This is a recognized best practice, but school districts are falling short.

The NEA believes all students deserve the tools and support to flourish. We advocate for our students by pushing for programs that address their unique needs, and we want educators to have every resource they need to connect with ELL students. As their numbers increase, this responsibility is more important than ever.

NEA was ahead of the curve in 1966 when we held a conference on bilingual education. We said loud and clear back then that non-English speaking students were not deficient. The deficiency was in the materials, techniques, and the schools. Our advocacy led directly to passage in 1968 of the Bilingual Education Act, the first step in attempting in a systematic way to address the needs of ELL students.

Bilingual education today is part of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which focuses more strongly on closing the achievement gap between English learners and other students.

The NEA continues to champion ELL students in the community and the classroom and to advocate for the opportunities they deserve. As our 2015 report on English Language Learners declared, “These are America’s students, and the nation can’t afford to let them down.”

Here are some resources to help educators connect with, mentor, and inspire every child.

All In! How Educators Can Advocate for English Language Learners”: A guide for championing the opportunities ELL students deserve. This report also includes summaries of key court cases affecting bilingual education, suggestions for additional reading, and a comprehensive list of English Language Learner-based organizations.

Meeting the Unique Needs of Long Term English Language Learners”: A research-based overview that provides recommendations for teaching and supporting long-term ELL students.

Diversity Toolkit: English Language Learners”: Strategies for helping ELL students to progress.

For more information about ELL students, check out the English Language Learners page on the NEA Edjustice site. And if you’re an educator working with English Language Learners, contact Luis-Gustavo Martinez at, or (202) 822-7396 regarding professional development opportunities, including online modules.

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