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Developing Educator Expertise to Work with Adolescent English Learners

Module 6 – Equitable Policy and Practice for English Learners: What Should Teachers and School Leaders Know and Do?

By George C. Bunch

OVERVIEW    |    INTRODUCTION    |    PART 1    |     PART 2    |    PART 3    |    REFERENCES

Part 3: Advocating for English Learners


In a 1996 article called Unpeeling the Onion,” language education scholars Thomas Ricento and Nancy Hornberger argued that the various agents of language policy in educational settings can be viewed as layers of an onion.


The outer layers of the onion are composed of overarching national language policy objectives as determined by laws or court rulings (such as those we explored in Part 1 of this module).


In the next level of the onion, these laws and court rulings get enacted by regulations and guidelines, which in turn (moving down further into the onion) are interpreted and implemented in particular institutional settings.


Each of these local settings (county offices of education, schools, districts) has different, situated contexts, and different institutional and individual participant discourses representing different goals, values, and identities (including adopting or countering the kinds of deficit perspectives we explored in Part 2 of this module). Therefore, the authors argue, “Within each layer, competing discourses create tensions and ambiguities” (p. 409). For example, different political parties with different perspectives toward the education of English Learners might control different branches of the federal or state government. Individual states may pass laws that represent significantly different priorities than federal policies. And local districts may formulate and implement policies that contradict the beliefs of individual school leaders.


These various levels of policymaking, implementation, and interpretation lead to the heart of the onion: the classroom teacher! Teachers are often socialized to understand their role as merely carrying out policies that others have established. But as Ricento and Hornberger remind us, in contrast with the image of teachers as mere “implementers” of policy, research has shown how, through their choices regarding how they enact language policies (including perhaps, at times, resisting them), “teachers can transform classrooms, thereby promoting institutional change that can lead to... broader social change” (p. 418).


Ricento and Hornberger argue that “the most fundamental concerns” of teachers of English Learners—“what will I teach? how will I teach? and why do I teach?”—are all actually language policy issues. In this way, as teachers act with agency as “primary language policymakers” (p. 418), their actions reverberate back out through the various levels of the onion. And there is no opting out of this responsibility, because acceptance of the status quo is also a language policy decision: “One way or another, all [teachers] play a role in reaffirming or opposing language policies that affect not only our students’ future lives but the lives of our communities and nations as well” (p. 422).


In Part 3 of this module, after listening to and discussing a short clip of Magaly Lavadenz and Aída Walqui conversing about this issue, we explore specific ways in which teachers and school leaders can exercise agency in transforming the education of English Learners in a number of different ways: getting to know their individual students; acting as advocates for their students inside and outside of the classroom; designing challenging, meaningful, and engaging instruction; and acting on school-level concerns.

Activity 3.1: Teachers as agents of language policy


In this activity, you are invited to listen and discuss a short clip of the conversation in which Aída Walqui and Magaly Lavadenz discuss the importance of individual teachers in the “elusive quest for equity” for English Learners.


As you listen to this five-minute clip  (which takes place from 20:45–26:15), consider the following questions.


  1. What are your own frustrations with policies that you feel “tie your hands” with regard to the equitable education of English Learners?

  2. To what extent to you feel that you have agency in responding to, implementing, or resisting policies relevant to educating this student population?


Discuss these questions with your module colleagues after listening to the clip.

Activity 3.2 Teachers as advocates for English Learners

In the last activity (3.1), we explored the idea that teachers are not just “implementers” of policies for students classified as English Learners. They are actually active agents, as they react to, grapple with, try to understand, revise, and resist official policies, and as they create their own language policies in the classroom.


In this activity, we explore the various agentive roles that teachers can play in advocating for English Learners. Advocating for English Learners can take many forms, large and small, inside and outside of the classroom.


Before you read the box below (“Many Ways to Advocate for English Learners”), discuss the following questions:

  • What do you think of when you hear the word “advocacy”?

  • What images come to mind?

  • In what ways do you feel that you have been an advocate for English Learners?


As you read the examples in the box:

  1. Identify one or two types of advocacy that you already engage in, or that you have seen others engage in. What was the result?

  2. Identify one or two examples that make you think of things that you have not done but that you feel would be reasonable to try. What would be the concrete next step toward making these happen?

  3. Identify one or two examples that you feel are important but seem a bit out of reach for you right now given your current context. What might make those possible?

After reading the box, share your responses with others and discuss.

 Note to EL Center team – please add a hyperlink here to the clip that the author references

Many Ways to Advocate for English Learners

The following are examples of “real-life” examples of advocating for English Learners, as documented by researchers, teachers, and school leaders.


In the classroom:

  • Teachers responded to what they viewed as inequitable access to high-quality instructional materials for English Learners, replacing overly simplistic texts with more challenging ones (De Oliveira, L. C., Athanases. S. Z.. 2007. Graduates’ reports of advocating for English language learners. Journal of Teacher Education, 58(3), 202–215).

  • Teachers integrated content materials that are culturally and linguistically relevant to their students (De Oliveira & Athanases, 2007).

  • A secondary teacher opened up classroom conversations about segregation and institutional racism at a school with what he described as a “very large split of Caucasian/Hispanic” students (De Oliveira & Athanases, p. 209).

  • A teacher scheduled individual meetings (during class, during lunchtime or other breaks, and before or after school) with English Learners to talk with them about how to help them as learners (De Oliveira & Athanases, 2007).

  • An elementary school teacher included opportunities for English Learners to be able to communicate in multiple ways, including having them use a white board to draw what they are trying to say, and encouraging them to speak to the teacher in Spanish if they are upset or need to talk to the teacher for other reasons (De Oliveira & Athanases, 2007).

  • A third-grade teachers noticed that her “Anglo students” were “policing” the use of Spanish in class by English Learners. She conducted a simulation using an invented language that none of the students understood, using it to provoke a discussion of the challenges studying in a new language and the importance of being able to use a more familiar language when necessary (De Oliveira & Athanases, 2007).

  • A White math teacher emphasized the importance of institutional transparency, explaining, discussing, and even role-playing his academic and behavioral expectations and maintaining “open books” so that students can see their grades at any time (Bartolomé, 2002).


In the school:

  • Several teachers created after-school clubs to support English Learners with literacy development and computer skills (De Oliveira & Athanases, 2007).

  • Teacher A, who identified as White, confronted the honor society advisor, Teacher B, who was also White. Teacher B had not encouraged racially and ethnically minoritized students already in the honor society to compete in a district competition because of Teacher B’s belief that they were not qualified to compete against White students from more affluent schools. Teacher A tracked down alumni college graduation information to show the potential of these students (Bartolomé, 2002).

  • A White principal allowed students at her school to protest against an anti-immigrant proposition (Bartolomé, 2002).

  • A middle school teacher at a school with 98 percent Latino students, hearing her colleagues complain about how much school students were missing to return to Mexico during the month of December, encouraged her principal and colleagues to consider changing the school calendar so that students have that month off of school (De Oliveira & Athanases, 2007).


At the district level:

  • In an urban school district with one-third of its students designated as English Learners and many more from immigrant backgrounds, teachers advocated through their union for an increase in the number of teachers working with English Learners, smaller class sizes, and more school psychologist and nurses (Samway, Pease-Alvarez, & Alvarez, 2020, p. 264).

  • A small group of teachers from different schools within one district (with 55 percent English Learners and 90 percent Latina/o/x students) worked together as part of a grass-roots organization (associated with the teachers’ union) to resist top-down district assessment mandates that they saw as counter to the needs and interests of English Learners. After not getting a response to a letter written to district administrators, they published a statement, signed by over 200 teachers, criticizing district assessment policies. They shared it with the media (including a widely available Spanish-language newspaper), held public events to raise awareness, and successfully got the statewide union’s committee on professional issues to unanimously pass a resolution based on the teachers’ concerns. Testing and placement are issues raised in contract negotiations between the district and the union, and the final version of the contract stated that the district would seek the union’s assessment committee’s input on future assessment decisions (Pease-Alvarez & Thompson, 2014).


With families:

  • Teachers across schools developed a wide variety of strategies to communicate with families when they do not speak the same language: smiling, expressing regret that they don’t speak the parents’ language, speaking slowly and clearly but not in an exaggerated or unusual way, using gestures, pausing frequently to ask parents if they understand or have questions, using an illustrated bilingual dictionary or internet dictionary, drawing sketches of words or concepts, and making a list of talking points to give to parents so that they can seek translation or other help later (Samway, Pease-Alvarez, & Alvarez, 2020, p. 245).

  • An elementary teacher developed strategies for making parents and other caregivers of English Learners feel valued and welcome when they drop their children off. She greeted them at the door, invited them to stay for a few minutes, and planned the first few minutes of class time for children to share a favorite book with them (Samway, Pease-Alvarez, & Alvarez, 2020).

  • Some teachers engaged family members as “co-advocates” in designing and planning “interventions for language and academic development” (De Oliveira & Athanases, 2007, p. 210).

  • Teachers advocated for making school events more welcoming and inclusive for families of English Learners. They did this by making the events festive by having students decorate the room and share student work, serving food and beverages, using students’ home languages for invitations and materials, including phone as well as written invitations, and having bilingual student ambassadors welcoming and guiding parents at the event (Samway, Pease-Alvarez, & Alvarez, 2020, p. 255).

  • One teacher called students’ homes, visited their homes, and got invited to their birthday parties (De Oliveira & Athanases, 2007).

  • When conducting home visits, teachers followed some basic guidance: learning about cultural, community, and family norms for home visits and conversations; asking a trusted member of the community to accompany the teacher the first time and/or to translate; suggesting alternative places to meet (libraries, cafés, community centers) if parents or the teacher is uncomfortable with a home visit; having concrete and positive things to share about the child; and leaving information about upcoming events with the family (Samway, Pease-Alvarez, & Alvarez, 2020, pp. 247–249).


In the community:

  • A kindergarten teacher in a low-socioeconomic-status, linguistically diverse school planned a library fieldtrip for her students and their families to the local public library, facilitating all of their applications for library cards (De Oliveira & Athanases, 2007).

  • A teacher inquiry group designed and published a guide for how to support undocumented students in K–12 classrooms (Samway, Pease-Alvarez, & Alvarez, 2020).

  • To support English Leaners and their families, teachers worked with school leaders to collaborate with community organizations such as local food banks, volunteer tutor organizations, and immigrant legal rights resources (Samway, Pease-Alvarez, & Alvarez, 2020).

  • Teachers formed a non-profit organization that works to ensure existing legal protections are granted to unaccompanied minors detained by federal immigration authorities and advocates for additional protections (Samway, Pease-Alvarez, & Alvarez, 2020).



Bartolomé, L. (2002). Creating an equal playing field: Teachers as advocates, border crosses, and cultural brokers. In Z. F. Beykont (Ed.), The power of culture: Teaching across language difference. Harvard Educational Publishing Group.


De Oliveira, L. C., Athanases. S. Z. (2007). Graduates’ reports of advocating for English language learners. Journal of Teacher Education, 58(3), 202–215.


Pease-Alvarez, L. & Thompson, A. (2014). Teachers working together to resist and remake educational policy in contexts of standardization. Language Policy, 13, 165–181.


Samway, K. D., Pease-Alvarez, L., & Alvarez, L. (2020). Supporting newcomer students: Advocacy and instruction for English Learners. TESOL Press and Norton.

Activity 3.3: What’s in a name? A first step toward getting to know our students


Activity 3.2 identified a wide range of ways that teachers and school leaders can advocate for English Learners. In this activity, we explore a concrete, feasible, and powerful first act of advocacy that every teacher can take: taking students’ names seriously, learning to pronounce them, and learning something about the origin of those names. 


Students classified as English Learners come from a wide range of backgrounds, geographically, economically, educationally, culturally, and racially (Walqui, 2005). A first step toward getting to know our students is to start with their names. The Santa Clara County (California) Office of Education, where more than 60 different languages are spoken in students’ homes, has developed a wide array of resources for teachers and school leaders with ideas for classroom activities based on students’ names.


In this activity, you will have a chance to explore and engage with those resources.



Begin by writing for a few minutes and discussing the following with those completing this unit with you:

  • What challenges do you face in learning and pronouncing students’ names?

  • What are some strategies that you have tried, or that you have seen others use, to learn and pronounce students’ names?

  • What have you learned about your students through conversations about their names?

  • What other ways do you work to affirm students’ identities?


Then, browse the My Name, My Identity website. As you look at the materials and resources, consider the following questions, and be prepared to share your responses with a small group of colleagues.


  1. Were there ideas, perspectives, or other content presented on the website that you had not encountered before? Did anything you see on the website lead you to shift your thinking about educating English Learners?

  2. Identify at least one of the resources for educators (books, articles, websites designed for teachers) embedded throughout the website that you would like to track down and spend more time investigating.

  3. Among the various classroom and school activities and resources (to use directly with students), what are one or two ideas that can you envision utilizing with your students (current or future) or with teachers that you work with?

Some Highlights of the My Name, My Identity Website

Some particular places in the website you might want to focus on:



Educator Toolkit: Filled with classroom activities, student videos, and books and resources for students

  • Video of several students discussing the meanings and origins of their names (1 minute video clip)

  • One student’s reflection on their experiences with teachers’ and classmates’ (mis)use of their name, and the impact of the My Name, My Identity initiative (4 minute video clip)

  • Global Competence Resources page: More classroom ideas, videos, books, articles, and websites for teachers and school leaders

After you have browsed the website, engage in a Round Robin with a small group of about four others who are completing this module:


  1. Each person in the small group shares ONE idea or perspective that was new to them.

  2. Each person shares ONE educator resource that they would like to explore further.

  3. Each person shares ONE classroom activity that they would like to try out.

Activity 3.4: Designing classroom learning activities that treat English Learners as thinkers and doers


Module X introduces the idea of Deeper Learning and the importance of providing challenging curriculum and instruction for English Learners that builds on and helps develop their competencies for engaging in a complex and interconnected world. Various other modules also focus on pedagogical principles and examples for doing this. In this activity, the goal is to remind teachers and school leaders that at the center of equitable education for English Learners is the quality of education they receive in the classroom. 


Pauline Gibbons, in her book English learners, Academic Literacy and Thinking: Learning in the Challenge Zone (2009), draws on Mariani (1997) to envision “four zones of teaching and learning” for English Learners (p. 16):

Module 6 Figure1.1

Gibbons describes the four zones as follows:


From the perspective of the learner, a high-challenge classroom with low levels of support creates frustration and anxiety and may lead to learners giving up and ultimately opting out of school. Low challenge and low support is likely to lead to boredom, with similar resistance to school. Low challenge and high support allows learners to work in their “comfort zone,” but not a lot of learning will take place, and neither will learners develop autonomy and independence in their learning. In the fourth quadrant, the combination of high challenge and high support allows learners to be stretched to reach their potential and to successfully engage with new learning: here they learn in their zone of proximal development. (pp. 16–17)


Aída Walqui and her team at WestEd developed an instructional unit, Persuasion Across Time and Space, for the Understanding Language initiative at Stanford University that serves as an exemplar of creating high-challenge/high-support curriculum for English Learners.


Watch this 10-minute video introducing the unit designed to exemplify access for English Learners to high-quality content-area instruction (in this case meeting the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts).


As you watch, consider the following questions:


  1. In what ways does the unit represent high challenge for English Learners?

  2. In what ways does it represent high support?


[NOTE: The unit is available in its entirety, along with all instructional materials and teacher guides, on the Understanding Language website. A detailed presentation of the principles and design frameworks underlying the unit, along with examples in science, mathematics, and history, can be found in the book chapter, Where the Rubber Meets the Road: Teachers and Students Report When Implementing High-Quality Learning Designs for English Learners (Bunch, Schlaman, & Rutherford-Quach, 2019) in the book Amplifying the curriculum: Designing quality learning opportunities for English Learners (Walqui & Bunch, 2019). This book also reports on teachers’ and students’ comments during and after the English language arts unit portrayed in the video.]


After watching the video, discuss you answers to questions #1 and #2 with your fellow participants.


Next, read pp. 1–8 of chapter 3 (High Quality Instruction for Newcomer Students) of the U.S. Department of Education’s Newcomer Toolkit (please note that page numbers begin anew in each chapter) and discuss the following questions with your fellow participants:


  1. Which of these broad principles, approaches, and guidelines did you see represented in the video?

  2. Which have you seen successfully adopted elsewhere, either in your teaching or the teaching of others?

Activity 3.5: School-level principles and action


In Activity 1.5, you were introduced to the dual aspects of equity for English Learners: (a) removing barriers for access to the educational goods available to other students, and (b) providing special kinds of support where necessary.


Think for a moment about practices that your school currently engages in that address each of these dual aspects of equity for English Learners, as well as priorities that would help your school better address them. Include your examples in the chart below. (You will add to this chart after reading an excerpt of the U.S. Department of Education’s Newcomer Toolkit.)

Remove discriminatory practices by ensuring that English Learners receive similar treatment as other students do

Provide special treatment for English Learners in order to provide equitable opportunities for them to succeed

Questions and notes

Practices that my school currently engages in that...

Examples BEFORE reading the chapter excerpt:


Examples AFTER reading the chapter excerpt:

Examples BEFORE reading the chapter excerpt:


Examples AFTER reading the chapter excerpt:

Key priorities that would help my school better provide equitable instruction for English Learners that...

Examples BEFORE reading the chapter excerpt:


Examples AFTER reading the chapter excerpt:

Examples BEFORE reading the chapter excerpt:


Examples AFTER reading the chapter excerpt:

Browse pp. 11–14 of chapter 2 (Welcoming Newcomers to a Safe and Thriving School Environment) in the U.S. Department of Education’s Newcomer Toolkit (please note that page numbers begin anew in each chapter).


After browsing through those pages, add your examples to the chart.


Share your responses with your colleagues, and discuss how you might advocate for the priorities that you would like to see your school enact.

Activity 3.6: Final Reflections and Moving Forward


In this final activity, you will listen to the short (3 minute) closing segment of the conversation between Dr. Walqui and Dr. Lavadenz. Dr. Lavadenz describes her own educational journey after her family arrived in the United States when she was a young child, and the origin of her commitments to an equitable education for English Learners.


Watch the segment from 55:45 to 58:45 of the video.


As you listen to the conversation, please reflect on the following:


  1. What do you find interesting, compelling, challenging, familiar, or unfamiliar about Dr. Lavadenz’s experience?

  2. Reflect on your own motivations for becoming an educator: What sustains you as you work in your current role. How do you envision your future work with English Learners?

  3. What specific commitments can you make after completing the various activities in this module? What are two new specific actions that you will take to advance educational equity for English Learners?



After watching: Write for a few minutes in response to the questions above. Then, participate in a Round Robin with your group. Proceed question by question, with every member of the group having an opportunity to weigh in on each question.

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