Language Policy

, Volume 9, Issue 4, pp 313–334

Working within the system: teachers of English learners negotiating a literacy instruction mandate


    • Education DepartmentUniversity of California, Santa Cruz
  • Katharine Davies Samway
    • College of EducationSan José State University
  • Carrie Cifka-Herrera
    • Education DepartmentUniversity of California, Santa Cruz

DOI: 10.1007/s10993-010-9180-5


In an effort to reverse the reading crisis purported to plague public education, schools and districts are mandating prescriptive reading programs and teacher-centered instructional practices in hopes of improving the academic achievement of minority students, including English learners (ELs). The wide-spread implementation of these programs in schools and classrooms serving ELs is particularly striking in California, where there are large numbers of ELs, as these programs were developed for monolingual, English-speaking children, not ELs. Drawing on interviews with 32 teachers in four Northern California elementary schools serving primarily ELs from Latino backgrounds, we found that most teachers required to use one such program, Open Court Reading (OCR), did not think that it addressed the needs of ELs or tapped into their interests and/or understandings. That is, the top-down, one-size-fits-all policy mandate was not grounded in an understanding of ELs’ language and literacy instructional needs. In light of our findings, we support policies that enable teachers to provide quality instruction that addresses the needs, interests, and understandings of all students, particularly ELs, who are often the, most underserved. This includes policies that promote the development of reflective, inquiring, and knowledgeable teachers who, in collaboration with colleagues and other educational stakeholders, play a key role in the policy making process.


English language learners Mandated policies No Child Left Behind Teacher expertise


This research was supported in part by a grant from the University of California Language Minority Research Institute (LMRI). We would like to thank Kendall King, an editor of Language Policy, and the anonymous reviewers for their feedback and suggestions.

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© The Author(s) 2010