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REL Southwest resources supporting Indigenous English learner students

Southwest | October 23, 2023

Three students walking through school hallway

In recognition of National Native American Heritage Month, we are featuring resources and research from the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Southwest that focus on supporting Indigenous English learner students and Native language preservation.

A complex set of factors shape the unique context of Indigenous English learner students.1 Unlike English learner students who are recent arrivals in the United States, Indigenous English learner students usually come from families who have lived in the country for multiple generations. Some of these students may speak their Native language as their first language and English as a second language. Others may speak only English but use a modified version influenced by Native language structure and patterns or not yet have proficiency in standard academic English. Additionally, many Indigenous English learner students attend school in small, rural districts with limited access to instructors who are qualified to teach English as a second language, particularly to Indigenous students.2 Therefore, supports for language development among Indigenous English learner students may vary widely.

Historically, Native language use was forbidden in U.S. public schools. Yet, Native languages survived, and many schools and communities are engaged in efforts to revitalize these languages. Recently, the U.S. Department of Education announced funding for the new Native American Language Resource Centers program, which will support the preservation and use of Native languages in classrooms across the country.

At REL Southwest, we're committed to working with partners across our five-state region to support Indigenous English learner students and Native language preservation. For example, New Mexico includes 23 federally recognized tribes, pueblos, and nations. In all, the state contains 32 school districts or charter schools that identify as Native-serving institutions, and American Indian students made up 17 percent of English learner students (8,092 students) in 2015/16.3 New Mexico's McKinley County has the second-highest concentration of Native language speakers in the United States. About one-third of American Indian students in New Mexico who initially entered kindergarten in 2013/14 or 2014/15 were identified as English learner students within five years of entering kindergarten.4  REL Southwest collaborated with our New Mexico partners, including representatives at the New Mexico Public Education Department, district and university educators and administrators, and professional organization staff, to develop research and resources focused on Indigenous English learner students and Native language preservation.


Walking in Both Worlds: Native American Students and Language Acquisition (Parts I & II)

This two-part mini-documentary from REL Southwest explores the context of language acquisition and development among Indigenous students in New Mexico. Interviews with researchers and educators highlight the value of supporting Native language acquisition, development, and preservation at the same time as English language acquisition and development. Viewers learn about promising research-based strategies that educators, administrators, and community and tribal leaders can use to support Indigenous students' language acquisition as well as the importance of culturally responsive instruction, connecting with tribal leaders, and family and community engagement.

  • Part I: Researchers at the University of New Mexico explain that heritage language acquisition and development can help Indigenous students advance their English language skills.

  • Part II: Educators and administrators from Cuba and Jemez, New Mexico, describe the strategies they are using to preserve Native languages and support English language development. In the Cuba Independent School District's Navajo language program, students learn to speak Diné. At the San Diego Riverside Charter School in the Pueblo of Jemez, students in kindergarten to grade 8 participate in a Towa language immersion program.

New Mexico's State Seal of Bilingualism-Biliteracy

Two REL Southwest videos showcase New Mexico's State Seal of Bilingualism-Biliteracy. This seal helps preserve Native language and culture in New Mexico by connecting students with their communities, heritage, and cultural identity.

  • New Mexico's State Seal of Bilingualism-Biliteracy: Supporting American Indian Language Preservation: This video highlights how New Mexico's State Seal of Bilingualism-Biliteracy helps support Native language preservation. Teachers and administrators from Farmington Municipal Schools in New Mexico discuss how they work with the Navajo Nation to provide the Bilingualism-Biliteracy seal in Diné (Navajo) and align language instruction to their unique tribal language and culture needs.

  • Supporting Language Proficiency & Cultural Preservation: New Mexico's State Seal of Bilingualism-Biliteracy: This video highlights student experiences with New Mexico's State Seal of Bilingualism-Biliteracy. In the video, high school students from Cuba and Farmington, New Mexico, describe how they earned the State Seal of Bilingualism-Biliteracy in the Native languages of Diné (Navajo) and Spanish by taking courses to develop their language proficiency and to learn about history, culture, and tribal government.


English Language Development Among American Indian English Learner Students in New Mexico

To better understand American Indian English learner students' progress toward English language proficiency, REL Southwest examined four years of data from two cohorts of American Indian students classified as English learner students in kindergarten during the 2013/14 and 2014/15 school years. The study found that American Indian English learner students who were reclassified as English proficient within five years of kindergarten were more likely to meet grade-level standards in English language arts and math in grades 3 and 4 than were American Indian English learner students who were not reclassified as English proficient. Only 18 percent of American Indian students identified as English learner students in kindergarten were reclassified as English proficient within five years. The findings from this study can help the New Mexico Public Education Department identify language domains and grade levels in which American Indian English learner students may benefit from additional support and inform plans and guidelines for multicultural bilingual education programs serving American Indian students. Key study findings are highlighted in a companion infographic.

Cover image of Resource

Evidence review and training series

Culturally Responsive Practices to Support Indigenous English learner Students

Another suite of REL resources developed to support American Indian English learner students focuses on culturally responsive practices to support this specific group of learners. The effort started with an evidence review, which then informed the development of a teacher learning series, followed by an infographic, blog post, and webinar.

Related resources


1 Demmert, W. G., Jr. (2001). Improving academic performance among Native American students: A review of the research literature. ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools. 

2 Carjuzaa, J., & Ruff, W. G. (2016). American Indian English language learners: Misunderstood and underserved. Cogent Education, 3, 1–11.

3 New Mexico Public Education Department. (2016). Bilingual multicultural education annual report: 2015–2016. Santa Fe, NM: Author.

4 Stoker, G., Arellano, B., & Lee, D. H. (2022). English language development among American Indian English learner students in New Mexico (REL 2022–135). U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Southwest. p. 6.


Lacy Wood

Lacy Wood
Dissemination Task Lead

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