Much more than a reclassification issue: ELLs in K-12

by Ruslana Westerlund, Ed. D., WIDA at Wisconsin Center for Education Research and Luciana C. de Oliveira, Ph.D., University of Miami

Much more than a reclassification issue: ELLs in K-12: A Response to Keeping long-term English learners from getting stuck

Schleppegrell in Gibbons
Schleppegrell, M (2004) The Language of Schooling: A Functional Linguistic Perspective as quoted in Gibbons, P. (2009). English Learners Academic Literacy and Thinking

This blog post is in response to the original blog Keeping the Long-Term English Learners from Getting Stuck written by the principal at Baker Elementary Kathleen Gallagher on January 20th, 2016. The blog was published in the SmartBlog on Education in which “experts explore trends in learning research and highlight teaching strategies that can help improve student performance”.  One of the concerns we raise in our response to this blog is that Gallagher’s position was not research-based and contained many common misconceptions about second language development for school purposes.  We aim to clarify those misconceptions in our response.

Original message:  The entire blog sends the message that the challenges in language learning are inherent to students themselves.  It says, “… long-term English learners who are struggling to learn the language [emphasis added].”  In that same paragraph the term LTEL (long-term English learners) is described “as a problem that has become common among English learners”; and, lastly, “a student who does not make adequate yearly progress.”

Our response: Language learning for school purposes is different from learning a world (or “foreign”) language.  Have you ever heard someone say, “Those students in that French class are really struggling with the language.  They are not making the adequate annual progress.  They are struggling to learn the language.”?  In foreign language learning, the stakes are not as high.  Foreign language classes serve other purposes. Learning another language helps become aware of one’s own language as well as the cultural and linguistic diversity of our world.  However, the purpose for learning English at school is to be academically successful, to do well in the content areas (e.g. math, science) and to meaningfully engage in school.  The language ELLs are learning is derived from the content areas they are studying. It should not be derived from separate ELL materials because those materials often simplify the language of content areas to the point where the children never have a chance to learn complex and authentic language used in various disciplines. We remember hearing our students complain about the materials we used with them calling them too easy. That was the primary reason for their disengagement.  They felt stupid reading simplified texts.  Meaningful learning comes from supported environments where students are engaged in meaning making through accessible language.  We learn science through language (and other multisemiotic means), and language plays a critical role in engaging in science practices.  The stakes are much higher.  Their educational career depends on English.  It’s not “a nice to have”, but “a must have”.  Because schooling is hard enough and learning in a second language that’s new to you is doubly challenging, ELLs without proper supports, first sit on the sidelines of learning and eventually disengage and it starts to look like the students are not passive and not motivated.   See more on this in Myth 1 (Learning academic language means learning vocabulary words) and 2 (Language is learned by osmosis): in ELL Myths From the Trenches.

Bottom line:  The struggles of learning English are not inherent to students.  The struggles of learning English for academic purposes lie in the language demands themselves.  Just read the science textbook and you’ll see the complexities of the English language for academic purposes.  And no, teaching language does not belong to the “English” teacher or the ESL teacher.  Teaching language belongs to all teachers.  All teachers need to be properly equipped to provide meaningful learning to ELLs. Administrators need to get onboard and create school-wide responsibility for equitable education of culturally and linguistically diverse students.  Adopt a school-wide motto “All students are language learners.  All teachers are language teachers.”

Original message:  “Under normal circumstances, students typically transition from a beginning English learner to a reclassified English learner within 5 years.  This means, if a kindergartener begins school as a beginning English learner, by the time they reach fifth grade, they should be reclassified as a fluent English speaker. Unfortunately, many English learners who were beginners in kindergarten leave elementary school unprepared for reclassification.  This puts them at a disadvantage as they prepare for college readiness in middle school.”

Our response:  Established in the ESL literature for quite some time now, while oral language proficiency takes 3-5 years to develop, it takes 5-7 years or more to develop academic language proficiency (Collier, 1987, 1995; Cummins, 1981).  The rate of second language development depends on many factors such as age when children started schooling in English (earlier is not better unless schooling is available in first language), amount of formal schooling, availability of quality bilingual education to continue cognitive development in the home language and other factors.  The language of K-5 classrooms is challenging to ELLs, but the demands of language encountered in various disciplines during the adolescent years increase dramatically.  Students who may have been reclassified from ESL services in grade 5 may continue to struggle in middle school because of the challenges that various disciplines present in middle school and beyond.  In fact, beginning in fourth grade we can already see the language demands of the content areas that are so pervasive at the secondary level (de Oliveira & Lan, 2014). Children move from writing personal narratives and short information reports in K-5 classrooms to producing arguments with claims, supporting evidence, counterclaims in language arts to planning and carrying out investigations and sharing results of science experiments with the larger scientific community (the latter is from the Next Generation Science Standards and is a practice that should begin in K-5 classrooms). All of these tasks place heavy linguistic demands on all students and are especially difficult for ELLs. Christie (1999, 2012) argues that academic language is a “hidden curriculum” of school, and many ELLs are not taught language for academic purposes, or teachers attend to it at a surface level by teaching bolded words on a page or asking students to provide definitions to key science terms.  She suggests that “[t]hose who fail in schools are those who fail to master the genres of schooling: the ways of structuring and of dealing with experience which schools value in varying ways” (Christie 1985, p. 24). ELLs may need more support in middle school as they encounter more complex discipline-specific genres ridden with complex language.  Giving students a window into how school genres are organized will give them a stronger footing to access content and deeper content learning, create their own genres and contribute from their unique identities. But the complex language that is encountered in school is functional for meaning making in various disciplines, as much work in this area has shown (see, for example, de Oliveira & Schleppegrell and Schleppegrell, 2004). The issues we highlight here go beyond ELLs “who were beginners in kindergarten” leaving “elementary school unprepared for reclassification”. These issues go beyond a “reclassification” problem that seems to be conceptualized as a problem of ELLs instead of so many circumstances surrounding the education of ELLs.

Bottom line:  Students who may have been reclassified from ESL services in grade 5 may continue to struggle in middle school because of the challenges that various disciplines present at the secondary level and beyond. Reclassification of students is not the ultimate goal. Meaningful and targeted support may be needed throughout the adolescent years.

The demands of schooling do not end with reclassification for language learners even when they move out of the “ELL” label.

We appreciate the perspectives presented by Gallagher in the blog post and wanted to offer additional support for some misconceptions about teaching ELLs. We especially appreciate the fact that Gallagher and her school are “…are working to transform the way we engage and involve students in learning.” Being proficient in academic language and the various genres of schooling is one way we have found particular important in our work. Reclassification is not a “silver bullet” that will solve all “problems”. There is much more at stake for ELLs in school. The demands of schooling do not end with reclassification for language learners even when they move out of the “ELL” label.



  1. Christie, F. (1999). The pedagogic device and the teaching of English. Pedagogy and the Shaping of Consciousness: Linguistic and Social Processes. F. Christie. London, Continuum: 156-184.
  2. Christie, F. (2012). Language Education: A Functional Perspective. Language Learning Monograph Series. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.
  3. Collier, V. (1987). Age and rate of acquisition of second language for academic purposes. TESOL Quarterly, 2 1:6 17-64 1.
  4. Collier, V. (1988). The effect of age on acquisition of a second language for school. New Focus: Occasional Papers in Bilingual Education. No. 2. Washington, DC: The National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education. Collier, V. (1995). Acquiring a second language for school. Directions in Language and Education, 1:4. Washington, DC: The National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education.
  5. de Oliveira, L. C., & Schleppegrell, M. J. (2015). Focus on grammar and meaning. New York: Oxford University Press.
  6. Schleppegrell, Mary J. (2004). The Language of schooling: A functional linguistics perspective. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.


ru dec 2013

Ruslana A. Westerlund is an Associate Researcher in Research and Development, Standards Department at WIDA.  Her research interests include advocacy for more rigorous language instruction in ESL programs, exploration of genres in various disciplines and uses of genre pedagogy with English language learners.  She has experience as an ESL teacher in K-12 settings, pre-service and in-service teacher educator as well as the ELL program evaluator and a refugee grant coordinator at the state level. She also currently serves as an Adjunct Professor at Hamline University and Bethel University, St. Paul, Minnesota.  

luciana de olivieraLuciana C. de Oliveira is Associate Professor in the Language and Literacy Learning in Multilingual Settings program area in the Department of Teaching and Learning at the University of Miami in Miami, Florida. Her research focuses on issues related to teaching English language learners (ELLs) at the K-12 level, including the role of language in learning the content areas; teacher education, advocacy and social justice; and nonnative English-speaking teachers in TESOL. Currently, Luciana’s research examines the linguistic challenges of the Common Core State Standards for ELLs and their implications for teachers of ELLs.


3 thoughts on “Much more than a reclassification issue: ELLs in K-12

Add yours

  1. Thank you!

    I think you hit on a great distinction: the different goals in EL and “World Languages” education. The first is taught more seriously and with more funding. It is perceived to be for “disadvantaged” people. “World languages” is not taught seriously, gets very little funding, and it is for “advantaged” students. Look at the textbooks. ELL focuses on succeeding in school; World Languages focuses on getting a hotel reservation in another country.

    When “all students are language learners” in a serious way, language-learning will be seen as necessary and helpful for all, not as a luxury for some. “All teachers are language teachers,” is true, but I’m waiting for the day when all teachers are language *learners*. Let all teachers face the humiliating and rewarding process of learning another language. Empathy will surely grow.


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