ELL Compliance 101

by Kerry Shelke

Once a child enters a school district there are certain steps to follow during the enrollment process and placement into specific classes. Most school districts have this process down pat.  Yet, the process varies slightly once a child is deemed potentially eligible for language services with service from the English Language Learner department and staff. The program, staffed by trained and certified teachers and paraprofessionals, serves students whose first language is not English.  Together with a team, staff determine eligibility for each child and thus receives appropriate services upon enrollment into an established program. But what happens when a child enrolls into a school district where no established English as a Second Language (ESL)/English Language Learner (ELL) program exists? Further, what if my district has an established program but isn’t completely sure on the steps to take or protocol to follow? Where does the process begin? What steps are to be taken and how does a district know what those steps are? Enter ELL Compliance 101.

Historically there have been many court cases and amendments to bilingual and ESL laws. In December 1973 the class action suit Lau v. Nichols was filed as a result of Chinese immigrant parents’ concerns about their children’s equity of education. As a result the Supreme Court ruled in 1974 that the previous ruling in 1968 to address civil rights did not adequately address the needs of students learning English. Over the years many lawsuits and amendments have been made regarding compliance and equality for students deemed ELLs.

As such, school districts across the nation have developed ESL and bilingual programs as they are legally required to abide by the laws established in order to serve all students equally. In many urban areas, programs exist and even though not perfect, many continue to evolve as improvements are continuously made. However, many rural school districts do not have established programs despite enrollment of ELLs consistently rising and are faced with building programs from Ground Zero. To begin, districts must follow a winding path addressing each legal requirement. 

  1. Identification

The first step to take begins during the enrollment process. Most school districts choose to use a Home Language Survey (HLS) to determine if there is a second (or more) language present. Each state determines what the HLS looks like and includes. However, the majority of these surveys ask about language spoken at home, the child’s first language and whether or not the child speaks the language. In many cases parents and grandparents speak their native language at home while children within that home only speak English but can still be determined an ELL because of the language influence.

The second step is to determine if the child qualifies for ELL services. Based on the answers on the HLS, a student is then screened in English to determine their reading, writing, listening and speaking skills. Students in PK and K are administered a separate screener assessing only listening and speaking skills.

Individual states have the autonomy to choose which screening tool they will use with many choosing to be a WIDA Consortium member. If your state is a WIDA Consortium member, you will need access to the portal which can be found here, while non-WIDA members can request information using the same link. WIDA provides a state approved screener and can be given online or on paper. For those non-WIDA states, each determines which screener or placement exam to use. Staff administering screeners in a WIDA state must be certified to give it.

Based on the results of the screener, a student is then deemed eligible or ineligible for services (based on individual state criteria; contact local administrators for eligibility requirements). Again, for WIDA Consortium member states this process is streamlined and results can be input into the WIDA Screener Score Calculator to determine eligibility. Further, staff have 30 days to notify parents of their child’s eligibility and enrollment into an ELL program. Notice should be given in writing to the best extent possible.  Be aware that ELL families have rights under federal law to access information from the school in a language they can understand. See the federal guidelines here.

  1. Program Establishment and Determination

Your new student has been determined eligible for service. What’s next? Qualified staff need to determine the best program for the student. In many cases these staff members may consist of the ELL Program Director, ESL/bilingual teachers and/or other relevant, certified personnel within the school district. Many choices exist in choosing the path of the student and will vary from district-to-district as well as state-to-state. Depending on the “score” the child received on the screener, the student will be placed in the appropriate corresponding program.

  1. Program Placement

Each state/district will offer required program options and will vary accordingly. Some of the types of programs are very similar and will have some overlap. Making the best decision for your district and the children it serves will ultimately be the most critical factor in choosing. It is highly suggested to bring in as many experts on the matter as possible (ESL certified administrators, ESL certified directors, ESL certified teachers, any other ESL certified staff).

1) Newcomer-typically a self-contained program for students with very limited English language proficiency. Oftentimes these students are new arrivals to the United States as immigrants, refugees, or those seeking asylum. On average, students tend to stay in this program for up to three years depending on progression of literacy skills. This type of program uses a combination of native language as well as English, specifically if there are newcomer students with mixed first languages. This program can be the most overwhelming as language and content are intense at this level. It is critical for the success of the ELL to have a qualified teacher at the helm of this program.

2) Sheltered English Instruction-Also known as Sheltered Instruction Operation Protocol (SIOP) consists of eight different components beginning with lesson preparation and ending with a review and assessment. Most educators who are certified in SIOP methodologies report that this approach benefits all learners in the classroom, not only English Language Learners.  

3) Structured English Immersion Program-Offers an approach to quickly get the student ramped up in English. Different than a Sheltered program, a structured program is an English-only model using sequential lessons with expected outcomes.

4) Dual Language-May offer Spanish and English, depending on the “other” language chosen to be taught. Both languages are used in content areas and are typically used 50/50. The goal is complete bilingualism.

5) Maintenance Bilingual Education (MBE)- As the name suggests, maintenance bilingual education programs have goals established for students to maintain their heritage language throughout their education. Hence, they are completely biliterate and bicultural in both English and their L1. This program may be the most beneficial, but also the most challenging and would require many qualified staff members as well as a large enough population to sustain and support this program for the K-12 years.

6) Submersion-This approach, often referred to as the “sink or swim” method, is a program in which English is the only instructional language used. An ESL certified teacher may or may not exist. Language support is minimal, if present at all.

7) Transitional Bilingual Education Program (TBE)-The use of two languages in the classroom with the goal of a transition to English from the heritage language. Districts may have the option to determine how and how often each language is used. Many schools choose to decrease the frequency of the heritage language as the student moves from grade to grade.

Annual Assessment

WIDA Consortium Member States: Each year enrolled ELLs must take an annual exam called ACCESS 2.0. Your district will need to work with WIDA and local administration to facilitate procedures before, during and after testing.

Non-WIDA Consortium Member States: Contact your local SEA to determine which method to use.

Exit and Monitor

Once a student is deemed proficient in English each is eligible for exit from the program. Each student then transitions into a non-ESL setting with no further support within the classroom.

Because exiting and monitoring students varies from school-to-school, district-to-district and state-to-state, you may end up designing your own plan, collaborating with others and/or consulting your local regulators to determine the best incorporated into your program. For example, some states may require monitoring for a year or more, while other states may have specific criteria to follow during the monitoring process. Regardless of what system is in place, the act of monitoring should be seen as an additional safety net for the kids moving up the educational ladder. Once again it is useful to rely on your experts in the field; use their combined skills and knowledge to create (if needed) and assess the exit and monitoring criteria.

Finally, remember that programs are not built in a day nor implemented with perfection during inception. Your district will experience growing pains, but with dedicated staff who are relentless in the quest for equity and achievement, students have the forum in which to thrive and flourish.

To Further Your Learning

Colorin Colorado -breaks down individual states’ specific ELL laws, regulations and policies

National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition offers a toolkit for guiding state and local education agencies

English-Learners Are a Diverse Group. How Can Schools Meet Their Needs? from EdWeek on a guide from Regional Education Laboratory Northwest


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