Scholars say teachers lack tools to meet English learners’ needs

Most teachers are ill-prepared to meet the needs of the children struggling to learn English in California's public schools, according to a new study by researchers at the UC Davis. And as the number of English learners increases, they say, instruction and professional development policies further hinder the effectiveness of teachers.

The researchers found that teachers of English learners face unique challenges and yet receive few tools and little professional development geared to the task. "We've reached a crisis in the preparation for teachers of English learners," said Patricia Gándara, a professor of education and the study's principal investigator. "It's urgent that we do something to change that trend."

Almost 1.6 million, or 25 percent, of children in California's public schools are classified as English learners and require special assistance to meet the state's academic content standards while also learning English.

Through a survey and focus group sessions, teachers said they are struggling to communicate with these students and their parents, do not have enough time to teach academic content and language skills, and are frustrated with the wide variety of academic skills and language proficiency among students. In addition, they said they lack appropriate teaching materials — from textbooks accessible for English learners to tests for assessing academic achievement — and quality professional development programs.

Gándara said policy-makers should take heed. "California has a huge stake in how these students do," she said.

Gándara teamed up with senior researchers Julie Maxwell-Jolly and Anne Driscoll of the UC Davis School of Education to do the study.

Their report, "Listening to Teachers of English Language Learners," is the result of a collaboration between Policy Analysis for California Education, The Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning, and the UC Linguistic Minority Research Institute.

The study is based on a 2004 survey with responses from about 4,500 classroom teachers in 22 school districts and information from four focus group sessions in different areas of the state.

The population of English learners in California public schools has increased by almost 30 percent over a nine-year-period, from about 1.25 million 1995 to 1.6 million in 2004. "Rather than clustering English learners by language needs," the report states that California's current policy places the great majority of English learners in mainstream classes. Therefore, abilities within classrooms can vary widely. "Mainstream teachers are saying they can't cope with that," Gándara said.

The survey showed that teachers who had more preparation focused on English learners were more confident in their abilities to meet the challenges of their students.

Unfortunately, Maxwell-Jolly said, the majority of teachers who have English learners receive very little professional development on how to teach them.

About 43 percent of teachers with 50 percent or more English learners had received no more than one in-service training session on the instruction of English learners over the last five years. Teachers with 25 percent to 50 percent English learners had only one such session or none at all. And only half of new teachers, required to participate in some in-service training focused on English learners, had done so.

Teachers most often said they wanted professional development in second-language reading and writing, English language development and instructional strategies.


Among its recommendations, the report calls for policy-makers to place a higher priority on professional development for teaching English learners.

The researchers say that mandatory inductions for new teachers and professional development should have a more explicit focus on English learner education, especially in schools with large numbers of English learners.

"We need to develop policies to strengthen training and professional development for teachers of English learners that take into account differing levels of expertise and experience," Maxwell-Jolly said.

The researchers also recommend that:

  • the governor and legislative leadership convene a statewide summit to address the issues raised by teachers;
  • county offices of education collaborate with a local college or university to develop a clearinghouse of resources to help teachers;
  • the California Department of Education create a tool kit for evaluating the quality of local programs for English learners; and
  • further research be commissioned to examine questions ranging from how teaching and learning time for English learners is organized to how the needs of rural areas and small districts with limited resources can be met.

The report is online at

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Julia Ann Easley, General news (emphasis: business, K-12 outreach, education, law, government and student affairs), 530-752-8248,

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