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Rural Schools and English Learners
July 2019


What does the research say about how rural schools are serving English learners, especially rural schools that have small numbers of English learner students?

Ask A REL Response

Thank you for your request to our Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Reference Desk. Ask A REL is a collaborative reference desk service provided by the 10 RELs that, by design, functions much in the same way as a technical reference library. Ask A REL provides references, referrals, and brief responses in the form of citations in response to questions about available education research.

Following an established REL Northwest research protocol, we conducted a search for evidence- based research. The sources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic research databases, Google Scholar, and general Internet search engines. For more details, please see the methods section at the end of this document.

The research team has not evaluated the quality of the references and resources provided in this response; we offer them only for your reference. The search included the most commonly used research databases and search engines to produce the references presented here. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The research references are not necessarily comprehensive and other relevant research references may exist. In addition to evidence-based, peer-reviewed research references, we have also included other resources that you may find useful. We provide only publicly available resources, unless there is a lack of such resources or an article is considered seminal in the topic area.


Carter, G. F. (2018). Rural high school teachers' perceptions of an inverted intervention model to support English learners: A multiple case study (Doctoral dissertation, Sam Houston State University). Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"[This case study] explored the perceptions of rural high school teachers regarding: (a) adequacy to offer content-area instruction to English learners embedded in mainstream classrooms; (b) adequacy of pre-service and professional development training intended to provide instructional strategies suitable for English learners in content-area classrooms; (c) district support for content-area instruction for English learners; (d) the impact of rurality on classroom compositions and intervention needs; and, (e) the impact of high-stakes, state-mandated tests on the academic outcomes of English learners in rural high school content-area classrooms."

Husby, S. (2018). Effective characteristics of rural English learner programs (Doctoral dissertation, Minnesota State University, Mankato). Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"The purpose of this quantitative study was to examine specific characteristics of English learner programs in rural areas in order to determine possible factors that promoted higher English language proficiency growth for English learners. The subjects in this study were English learner teachers and administrators from five micropolitan school districts in a rural Midwestern state."

Manner, J. C., & Rodriguez, D. (2012). Rural redesign: Delivering online professional development for rural teachers of ESL. US-China Education Review A, 3, 267–277.

From the Abstract:
"This study reports the progress of a project in a teacher education program designed to deliver professional development to rural teachers through an online format addressing ESOL (English for speakers of other languages). Funded by a Professional Development Grant from the OELA (Office of English Language Acquisition) of the United States Department of Education, the project was conceived in response to a number of factors, commencing with the perceptions of teacher candidates in the program that they had not received sufficient coursework or field experience to prepare them to teach the growing numbers of ELLs (English language learners) they were encountering in their internship classrooms."

Shim, J. M. (2013). Involving the parents of English language learners in a rural area: Focus on the dynamics of teacher-parent interactions. Rural Educator, 34(3), 18–26.

From the Abstract:
"In this study, the author suggests that the current ELL parental involvement model often overlooks the structural aspects and power asymmetry of parent-teacher relationships that can hinder productive collaboration. … The study uses a general qualitative methodology to explore the dynamics of ELL parent-teacher interactions. Three broad themes that emerged as obstacles that inhibit productive ELL parent-teacher interactions were (1) teachers' judgments toward ELL students and their parents, (2) ELL parents' frustration about their inability to influence a teacher's decision making, and (3) ELL parents' fear of repercussions for speaking up."

Zehler, A. M., Adger, C., Coburn, C., Arteagoitia, I., Williams, K., & Jacobson, L. (2008). Preparing to serve English language learner students: School districts with emerging English language learner communities (Issues & Answers Report, REL 2008-049). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Appalachia.

From the Abstract:
"This report aims to help school districts deal with the challenges of newly enrolling or rapidly increasing English language learner students by offering background information and sharing the experiences of districts that have addressed similar challenges in providing services and infrastructure to support the success of English language learner students."


Keywords and Search Strings: The following keywords, subject headings, and search strings were used to search reference databases and other sources: English learner OR English language learner OR ESL or ELL, Bilingual, Rural, School OR District, Low incidence

Databases and Resources: We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and EBSCO databases (Academic Search Premier, Education Research Complete, and Professional Development Collection).

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

Date of publications: This search and review included references and resources published in the last 10 years.

Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority was given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations, as well as academic databases, including ERIC, EBSCO databases, and Google Scholar.

Methodology: The following methodological priorities/considerations were given in the review and selection of the references:

  • Study types: randomized control trials, quasi experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, and policy briefs, generally in this order
  • Target population and samples: representativeness of the target population, sample size, and whether participants volunteered or were randomly selected
  • Study duration
  • Limitations and generalizability of the findings and conclusions

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by stakeholders in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Northwest. It was prepared under Contract ED-IES-17-C-0009 by REL Northwest, administered by Education Northwest. The content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.