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Supporting American Indian English learner students

Southwest | September 15, 2021
Supporting American Indian English learner students

REL Southwest technical assistance consultant Traci Maday-Karageorge led a recently completed project for the Southwest English Learners Research Partnership. She worked closely with our New Mexico partners at the state, district, and school levels to develop a learning series to support teacher implementation of culturally responsive practices for American Indian English learners.

Nationally, American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) students make up about one percent of students in elementary and secondary schools.1 Of those, eight percent are also identified as English language learners.2 In New Mexico, American Indian students made up 17 percent of English learner students in 2015/16 (8,092 students).3

With such small population numbers nationally, and concentrations of AI/AN English learners scattered across primarily 10 states in the West and Alaska, it was no surprise educators from an American Indian English Learner task force in New Mexico identified the need for educators to be culturally and linguistically responsive and high-quality instructional materials and resources specific to American Indian students who are identified as English learners in their classrooms.

Historical and current factors contribute to the unique context of American Indian English learners. For example, AI/AN students who are English learners are unique from other English learners in that their home language may be English.4 AI/AN English learners may not exhibit fluency in their heritage language. Historically, Native language use was forbidden, yet despite this disruption American Indian languages survived and many communities are engaged in revitalization efforts. Federal policy compels states to support Native language learning5 and consult meaningfully with Tribes regarding the development of state accountability plans.6 The Every Student Succeeds Act (2015) includes provisions "to ensure that Indian students gain knowledge and understanding of Native communities, languages, tribal histories, traditions and cultures."7

To address the need identified by New Mexico task-force educators, our Southwest English Learners Research Partnership with the New Mexico Public Education Department (NMPED) designed a training series to assist teacher implementation of effective strategies for American Indian English learners. The work unfolded in two phases:

First, REL Southwest conducted an evidence review, initially looking for rigorous studies about instructional methods specific to American Indian English learners. However, we found a lack of studies establishing a causal link between instructional methods and outcomes for AI English learners.8 We expanded our strategy to identify studies of instructional interventions specific to American Indian students that are effective in incorporating relevant American Indian cultural traditions and pedagogy. One study provided strong evidence and two others provided promising evidence on incorporating a culturally responsive approach for AI learners in math.9

Next, REL Southwest developed training materials that merged two bodies of research. One body of research was on culturally responsive practices for AI/AN learners in general, summarized in the evidence review, and the other was on effective practice for teaching academic language to English learner students. Fortunately, the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) and REL Southwest had two existing resources to adapt to the project's purpose: the WWC practice guide Teaching Academic Content and Literacy to English Learners in Elementary and Middle School and the companion resource developed by REL Southwest, the IES PLC Facilitator's Guide for Teaching Academic Content and Literacy to English Learners in Elementary and Middle School.

Members of the research partnership layered findings from the evidence review onto selected practices described in the WWC practice guide. Then, using the activities outlined in the companion PLC Guide, we developed a three-part teacher learning series. The learning series, designed to support teacher implementation of culturally responsive practices for AI English learners, incorporates a variety of media and strategies including small group discussion and collaborative sessions, tools, videos, as well as handouts summarizing strategies used in the evidence review.

NMPED and REL Southwest recruited a cohort of about 20 teachers to participate in the learning series, held virtually for three consecutive Wednesdays in May 2021. REL Southwest staff provided instruction about the strategies in each body of research and teacher participants were given time to practice and apply the strategies in collaborative groups. The teacher cohort represented seven districts, taught grades K through 8, and included varying levels of experience teaching American Indian students and English language learners. (View the archived resources.)

Enlightening, engaging, stimulating, and meaningful were just a few words teacher participants used to describe the fast-paced learning series. Teachers became so engrossed in the reflective conversations, peeling back the layers of culturally responsive practice for American Indian learners and applying those practices to explicit vocabulary instruction, that the discussion often ran past the 90 minutes allocated. One participant noted, "Group discussion and small group sessions were helpful including the sharing of resources, strategies, and ideas." Another emphasized, "It was good to have that real practice instead of [just] theoretical."

While this project addresses a specific need to support AI English language learners, it also addresses a wider need for professional learning focused on the needs of AI learners. The recently released National Indian Education Study 2019 reveals that nearly half of fourth (42 percent) and eighth grade (47 percent) teachers in schools with AI populations greater than 25 percent report never having participated in professional learning aimed at developing culturally specific instructional practices for AI/AN students in the past two years.10 Looking to the future, REL Southwest will debrief with NMPED about lessons learned working with the first teacher cohort and share the learning series materials broadly with New Mexico teachers.


1 Rampey, Faircloth, Whorton, & Deaton, p. 3.

2 OELA, March 2020.

3 New Mexico Public Education Department, 2016.

4 Carjuzaa & Ruff, 2016.

5 Bilingual Education Act, 1968; Indian Education Act, 1972; Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, 1975; Native American Language Act, 1990.

6 Every Student Succeeds Act, 2015, Sec. 1111(a).

7 Every Student Succeeds Act, 2015, Sec. 1111(a).

8 In addition to AI/AN students being historically underserved and understudied, several factors may contribute to the lack of rigorous studies, including difficulty employing comparison groups due to small populations; the diversity of Native languages spoken across families and communities; and issues with identifying AI English learners. Carjuzaa & Ruff, 2016.

9 One of the studies was found to meet What Works Clearinghouse Standards Without Reservations:
Kisker, E., Lipka, J., Adams, B., Rickard, A., Andrew-Ihrke, D., Yanez, E. & Millard, A. (2012). The potential of a culturally based supplemental mathematics curriculum to improve the mathematics performance of Alaska Native and other students. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 42(1), 75-113 Two studies met promising evidence standards: (1) Hilberg, R. S., Tharp, R. G., & DeGeest, L. (2000). The efficacy of CREDE's standards-based instruction in American Indian mathematics classes. Equity & Excellence in Education, 33(2), 32–40. (2) Lipka, J., & Adams, B. (2004). Culturally-based math education as a way to improve Alaska Native students' math performance (Working Paper No. 20). Athens, OH: Appalachian Collaborative Center for Learning, Assessment, and Instruction in Mathematics.

10 Rampey, Faircloth, Whorton, & Deaton, p. 30.

For more information on our work supporting American Indian English learners and other projects of the Southwest English Learners Research Partnership:

REL Southwest videos:

REL Southwest webinars:

REL Southwest blogs:


Bilingual Education Act of 1967, Pub. L. No. 90-247  81 Stat. 816 (1968). Retrieved from:

Carjuzaa, J., & Ruff, W. G. (2016). American Indian English Language Learners: Misunderstood and under-served. Cogent Education, (3)1.

Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 reauthorized as Every Student Succeeds Act (2015) 20 U.S.C. Chapter 70 Sec. 1111(a) (2015).

Indian Education Act of 1972 reauthorized as Title VI, of the ESEA, as amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act,20 U.S.C. Sec. 6102  Et seq., (2015). Retrieved from:

Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975, 25 U.S.C. Chapter 14, Sec. 5301 Et seq. (1975).

Native American Language Act of 1990, 25 U.S.C. Chapter 20, Sec. 2901 Et. seq. (1990).

New Mexico Public Education Department. (2016). Bilingual multicultural education annual report: 2015–2016. Santa Fe, NM: Author. Retrieved July 13, 2019 from

Rampey, B.D., Faircloth, S.C., Whorton, R.P., and Deaton, J. (2021). National Indian Education Study 2019 (NCES 2021-018). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics.

U.S. Department of Education, Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA) (Mar 2020). English Learners Who Are American Indian/Alaska Native (Fact Sheet).


Traci Maday-Karageorge

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