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Cross-REL Working Group Focuses on English Learners

Heidi Larson

Heidi Larson
REL Northeast & Islands Cross-REL/TA Outreach Coordinator

Mon Dec 13 2021

English learners are the fastest-growing group of students in U.S. schools, with 43 states seeing increases in their English learner (EL) student population between the 2000/01 and 2016/17 school years.1 The 10 Regional Educational Laboratories (RELs) are committed to supporting EL students and their families so that students can thrive in school and beyond. To this end, RELs have partnered with states and districts to identify and address the needs and priorities of EL students and formed a cross-REL working group to advance this work. Over the past eight years, the group has explored EL issues relevant to REL work, acted as a clearinghouse on key EL news and updates, and shared REL work on EL topics internally and externally.

Who Are English Learner Students? Recognizing Their Strengths and Diversity

To ensure that our RELs are supporting EL students across the U.S., our working group focused on key themes that are foundational to our work. One point the working group kept foremost in mind and shared with our RELs, is recognizing that EL students are not a monolithic group. Rather, they are diverse and complex individuals with differing strengths, cultures, backgrounds, and needs.

For example, EL students may be fluent in several languages, none of which their teachers understand. Their heritage languages may be in danger of extinction, such as indigenous languages in the southwest or Alaska or the primary language of their region or territory, such as Puerto Rico. In addition, EL students may have suffered trauma, be identified or misidentified as having learning disabilities, and be underrepresented in gifted student programs.

REL regions may include EL students who are Native American, Alaskan Native, and Pacific Islander. They may include students who are new to this country and others who have lived in the U.S. all their lives. The percentage of ELs in each district can vary from a large concentration to an emerging few, both of which carry different challenges and benefits.

What has become more evident through research is that multilingualism brings advantages to EL students’ language development, as well as adding knowledge, broader perspectives, and other benefits into our classrooms.2

The Power Dynamics of Language

The working group has also discussed the impact, sometimes unintended, that laws, policies, or even regular curriculum decisions can have. For example, if classroom materials and instruction are only in English, what students (and families) are we not reaching? If service providers speak only English, does this impact the equitability of support we are providing? Conversations like these have broadened our understanding and influenced our REL work.

English Learner Resources from the RELs

With 9 of 10 REL contracts coming to a close, the Cross-REL EL Working Group pulled a sampling of REL resources aligned with these themes to leave as a resource. The first group includes resources to identify EL students and their needs, and the second offers resources on ways to focus support. Formats include infographics, guidance documents, briefs, toolkits, videos, and more—all designed to be accessible, usable, and valuable. Visit the IES English Learner page for a complete list of our EL-related products, including research, briefs, infographics, and webinars.

Identifying English Learner Students and Their Needs

Focusing Support

Other IES Resources

1U.S. Department of Education, Office of English Language Acquisition. (2020, February). English Learners: Demographic Trends. Washington, D.C. Retrieved from

2Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA). (n.d.) Benefits of Multilingualism. Retrieved from