By: Jeannette Rowland, Rebecca Reumann-Moore, Rosemary Hughes,
Joshua Lin

June 2016


In Philadelphia, a growing and increasingly diverse population of English Language Learners (ELLs) is intensifying demands on the city’s public schools as they work to meet the educational needs of these students. As in many cities across the country, educators in Philadelphia are searching for ways to more efficiently and effectively meet the needs of ELLs and close long-standing achievement gaps between ELLs and their native English-speaking peers.

As a group, ELLs are diverse, coming from a variety of native languages, cultures, and educational backgrounds, posing unique opportunities and challenges for schools. In their efforts to serve the needs of ELLs, schools grapple with many complex issues; within the City of Philadelphia, many district and charter schools navigate similar issues in coordinating robust ELL programs.

Academic success for ELLs depends on high quality instruction and the infrastructure needed to support it (e.g., staff, curricular materials, collaboration, professional development). This brief examines the challenges schools face in these areas and the strategies they use to mediate them. The purpose of this brief is to share these strategies across schools and with the larger Philadelphia community, in order to help schools continue to improve ELL programming.

In a study focused on district capacity-building efforts in response to increasing ELL populations, the Regional Educational Laboratory serving the Appalachia region (REL Appalachia) organized 15 infrastructure components into five categories:

  • Personnel (Leadership Structures, Staffing, Professional Development)

  • Instructional Resources and Supports (Curricular Resources, Additional Supports for Particularly High Needs ELLs, Materials)

  • Assessment (Identification of Needs, Assessing Language Proficiency/Academic Achievement)

  • Administration (Rostering, Funding Mechanisms, Data/Data Management)

  • Outreach (Students, Parents, Community, Social Service)

Key Findings


Teachers have a stronger foundation for working with ELLs when they understand the linguistic and cultural backgrounds of the students, patterns in second language acquisition, students’ specific education needs (such as level of prior schooling and first language literacy skills), and strategies for involving their ELLs in meaningful ways in instructional activities. Issues such as ESOL certification status and experience of teachers, adequacy of staffing structures, and availability of professional development for ESOL and general education teachers contribute to an ESOL program’s infrastructure.

  • Stakeholders from both district and charter schools highlighted the difficulty of finding qualified bilingual and/or ESOL-certified staff. Identifying teachers with the appropriate training and certification for working with ELLs is essential.

  • Teachers and staff across sectors highlighted the need for more ESOL staff in their buildings. Many educators reported that their ESOL teachers had to serve large caseloads of students, which made it difficult to give each student the level of support they needed.

  • Additional professional development for both general education and ESOL teachers was requested across schools. Staff at several schools emphasized the need for additional support to help general education and ESOL teachers, as well as teachers in the new dual language programs, understand how to better support their ELLs.

  • Across sectors, teachers and administrators reported that a “deficit perspective” of ELLs sometimes created challenges for serving and integrating ELLs into the school community. This suggested the need for more professional development to create greater understanding of ELLs’ needs and assets.

Instructional Resources and Supports

Curricular resources for ELLs provide a foundation for academic success when they are designed to ensure adequate progress toward both academic proficiency in English and achievement of content standards. Because ELLs have not yet achieved full academic language proficiency in English, their teachers require access to a range of resources and supports to meet their needs.

  • Across sectors and grade levels, educators reported a lack of appropriate, adequate, and engaging curricular resources for ELLs. General education teachers expressed a desire to have access to more resources with content and language that was geared to and more appropriate for their ELLs.

  • In some schools, it was difficult to find adequate resources in both Spanish and English. This was true for both bilingual programs and ESOL programs.

  • Supporting students in mastering academic language was particularly challenging at the high school level, suggesting a need for additional supports or resources to help teachers accelerate academic language development. Academic language, the kind of language used in textbooks and educational settings, is the language necessary for success in school.

  • Meeting the needs of students with little or interrupted formal education (SLIFE) was challenging, as these students often require supports beyond literacy and language instruction. SLIFE usually are new to the U.S. school system and have had interrupted or limited schooling opportunities in their home country.


Assessment is centrally important to the education of ELLs. Districts and schools need to master complex federal and state requirements for assessing English proficiency. Teachers benefit from the use of assessment data to track the progress of English language learners in developing proficiency in English, and to inform instruction. And because assessment data determines how ELLs progress through and exit ELL programming, districts and schools must establish consistent procedures and administer assessments.

  • Teachers and Coordinators across sectors articulated a number of issues related to the ACCESS for ELLs. First, some felt frustrated because it took so long to receive the most recent scores, which impeded their planning and preparation for the next school year. Other teachers felt that the test did not accurately gauge their students’ levels.

  • Some educators highlighted the difficulty of meeting complex and extensive exit criteria. Assessments like the PSSA do not have adequate accommodations for ELLs, which may be one reason why ELLs struggle to meet the threshold for exit.

  • Across sectors, educators reported that it was sometimes challenging to determine if ELL students require special education. Teachers and coordinators find it challenging to determine whether students who struggle more than expected do so because of linguistic or other cultural issues, or because they are also experiencing issues that require special education interventions.


ELLs need time set aside to learn how academic English really works. They also require specifically designated time for English language development, as time when they learn sentence structure, vocabulary, and how English is used in academic settings. Schedules for ESOL should be created first in the rostering process, to ensure that students are grouped by level and can receive appropriate mandated ESOL services.

  • Teachers and Coordinators at high schools reported that ELLs are often rostered last, resulting in challenges accessing appropriate classes for ELLs. It was challenging to roster by proficiency level. In addition, within the limited number of periods available during the school day, there were competing priorities, such as AP classes, which further complicated scheduling.

  • Teachers and Coordinators at high schools also articulated that ELLs are rostered incorrectly if rosters are shaped by grade level, rather than English proficiency level.