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Exploring Policy and Practice for Alaska Native English Learner Students

Northwest | August 06, 2021

Alaska Native, American Indian, and Native Hawaiian students represent diverse Indigenous communities with rich resources, including many heritage languages.1 While these communities have distinct linguistic practices, they share a history of forced assimilation that has led to a dramatic decline in the use of heritage languages.2,3,4

As a result, many Indigenous students speak English as their primary language, and some speak varieties of English that are influenced by their heritage languages.5 Because of this, Indigenous students have unique federal eligibility for English learner (EL) services: They are the only group of students who can be classified as EL even if English is their primary or sole language.6 However, because EL services are often designed for immigrant-origin students whose primary language is not English, Indigenous EL students may not receive services designed for their unique language needs.

Given this distinct context, a better understanding of Indigenous EL students and the EL policies that affect them can help ensure that these students access a linguistically and culturally sustaining and equitable education.

Nationally, just under 1.5 percent of all EL students are Indigenous7. However, in Alaska, more than 40 percent of EL students are Alaska Native. To understand the experiences of these students and inform policy decisions, REL Northwest partnered with Alaskan education leaders to conduct a study exploring EL policy and practice for Alaska Native students.

Alaska Native EL students have rich linguistic assets. We found that this group of students has 24 reported heritage languages, primarily within the Yupik family.8 EL administrators, however, perceived that many Alaska Native EL students spoke English—rather than their heritage language—as their primary language.

Other study findings highlighted inequities experienced by Alaska Native EL students. Compared to their non-Alaska Native peers, a higher percentage of Alaska Native EL kindergarteners attended schools that were in rural remote9 areas, served larger proportions of economically disadvantaged students, and employed fewer designated English as a second language teachers—if any. Because Alaska Native EL students often attend schools with greater financial and staffing needs, additional resources may be necessary to ensure equitable access to EL supports.

Additionally, reclassification rates were very low among Alaska Native EL students over the study period. Reclassification indicates that a student no longer needs English language supports and allows them to exit EL services that, in some cases, remove them from general classrooms. By grade 7, only 11 percent of Alaska Native EL students were reclassified, compared to 30 percent of non-Alaska Native EL students. These disproportionately low rates suggest that existing EL policies and practices may not meet all Alaska Native students' needs. In fact, we also found that EL policies and services—including identification and classification policies—were rarely differentiated for Alaska Native students. This suggests that EL programs focus on the needs of immigrant-origin students and not on the unique cultural and linguistic contexts of Alaska Native EL students.

Among the few districts in our study that did differentiate EL services for Alaska Native students, we discovered some promising practices, such as conducting outreach to Alaska Native communities and promoting collaboration between Alaska Native education and EL departments. Another important service was Alaska Native heritage language programs, which provide English development instruction and access to core content while helping students develop proficiency in their heritage languages.

Our study focused on Alaska, but the opportunities to better serve Indigenous EL students could apply to other states. Districts might benefit from state guidance on linguistically and culturally sustaining supports for Indigenous EL students. State leaders can collaborate with Indigenous education stakeholders to adapt EL policies for the unique linguistic profiles, histories, and goals of Indigenous students. Additionally, more research with and outreach to Indigenous communities, heritage language program staff, and EL educators could illuminate promising practices that support English acquisition while uplifting the tremendous cultural and linguistic assets of Indigenous students.

Review our study infographic for a snapshot of our findings, or explore the full study on Alaska Native EL students. You can also visit the REL website to learn more about topics related to American Indian and Alaska Native students across the country.


Lorna Porter is a doctoral candidate at the University of Oregon College of Education. Her research focuses on how education policy decisions impact the experiences and outcomes of students classified as English learners and immigrant students.

Ilana Umansky is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Methodology, Policy, and Leadership at the University of Oregon. Her work focuses on education policy as it relates to multilingual and English learner-classified students.

1 Heritage language in this context refers to the Indigenous language spoken historically and/or currently by the Indigenous group to which an individual belongs/identifies.
2 Barnhardt, C. (2001). A history of schooling for Alaska Native people. Journal of American Indian Education, 40(1), 1–30.
3 McCarty, T., & Zepeda, O. (1995). Indigenous language education and literacy: Introduction to the theme issue. The Journal of the National Association for Bilingual Education, 19(1), 1–4.
4 Spring, J. (2016). Deculturalization and the struggle for equality: A brief history of the education of dominated cultures in the United States. Routledge.
5 Leap, W. (2012). American Indian English. University of Utah Press.
6 According to the Every Student Succeeds Act, American Indian and Alaska Native students qualify for English learner services if they “come from an environment where a language other than English has had a significant impact on the individual's level of English language proficiency.” For more, see Education Commission of the States. (2014, November). 50-state comparison: How is an "English language learner" defined in state policy?
7 Snyder, T. D., de Brey, C., & Dillow, S. A. (2019). Digest of education statistics 2017 (53rd Ed.) (Table 204.27) (NCES No. 2018– 070). U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics.
8 Yupik refers to a language family that includes Central Yup'ik (Yugtun), Cup'ik (Cu'pig), Supiaq (Alutiiq), and Siberian Yupik. For more information, see: Krauss, M. E. (1974). Native peoples and languages of Alaska (Map). Alaska Native Language Center.
9 Schools in Alaska can be categorized into one of four locales based on the state's unique geography; rural remote9 indicates a small, off-road community that is accessible only by small plane or boat. For more, see Vazquez Cano, M., Bel Hadj Amor, H., & Pierson, A. (2019). Educator retention and turnover under the midnight sun: Examining trends and relationships in teacher, principal, and superintendent movement in Alaska. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Northwest.


Lorna Porter

Ilana Umansky

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