Language Policy

, Volume 9, Issue 4, pp 313–334 | Cite as

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

  • Lucinda Pease-Alvarez
  • Katharine Davies Samway
  • Carrie Cifka-Herrera
Open Access
Original Paper


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.

Open Access

This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial License which permits any noncommercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited.


  1. Achinstein, B., & Ogawa, R. T. (2006). (In) Fidelity: What the resistance of new teachers reveals about professional principles and prescriptive educational policies. Harvard Educational Review, 76(1), 30–63.Google Scholar
  2. Achinstein, B., Ogawa, R., & Spiegalman, A. (2005). Are we creating separate and unequal tracks of teachers? The impact of state policy, local conditions, and teacher characteristics on new teacher socialization. American Educational Research Journal, 41(3), 557–603.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Altwerger, B., Arya, P., Jin, L., Jordan, N. L., Laster, B., Martens, P., et al. (2004). When research and mandates collide: The challenges and dilemmas of teacher education in the era of NCLB. English Education, 36(2), 119–133.Google Scholar
  4. Alvarez, L., & Corn, J. (2008). Exchanging assessment for accountability: The implications of high-stakes reading assessments for English learners. Language Arts, 85(5), 354–365.Google Scholar
  5. Apple, M. W. (1988). Teachers and texts: A political economy of class and gender relations in education. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  6. August, D., & Shanahan, T. (Eds.). (2006). Developing reading and writing in second language learners: Lessons from the report of the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Google Scholar
  7. Bloch, C., Guzula, X., & Nkence, N. (2010). The ongoing struggle to implement mother-tongue based bilingual education. In K. Menken & O. García (Eds.), Negotiating language policies in schools: Educators as policymakers (pp. 88–106). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  8. Clay, M. M. (1993). An observation survey of early literacy achievement. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.Google Scholar
  9. Coburn, C. E. (2001). Collective sensemaking about reading: How teachers mediate reading policy in their professional communities. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 23(2), 145–170.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Coburn, C. E. (2004). Beyond decoupling: Rethinking the relationship between the institutional environment and the classroom. Sociology of Education, 77(3), 211–244.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Creswell, J. W. (1994). Research design: Qualitative and quantitative approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.Google Scholar
  12. Cummins, J. (2007). Pedagogies for the poor? Realigning reading instruction for low-income students with scientifically based reading research. Educational Researcher, 36(9), 564–572.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Datnow, A., & Castellano, M. (2000). Teachers’ responses to success for all: How beliefs, experiences, and adaptations shape implementation. American Educational Research Journal, 37(3), 775–799.Google Scholar
  14. Datnow, A., Hubbard, L., & Mehan, H. (2002). Extending educational reform: From one school to many. London and New York: Routledge/Falmer.Google Scholar
  15. Davis, K. (in press). Ethnographic approaches to second language acquisition. In A. S. Ohta (Eds.), Social/interaction and complexity theory approaches to SLA. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.Google Scholar
  16. Dudley-Marling, C., & Paugh, P. (2005). The rich get richer; The poor get direct instruction. In B. Altwerger (Ed.), Reading for profit: How the bottom line leaves kids behind (pp. 156–171). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.Google Scholar
  17. Duncan-Owens, D. (2009). Scripted reading programs: Fishing for success. Principal, 88, 26–29.Google Scholar
  18. Evans, B., & Hornberger, N. H. (2005). No child left behind: Repealing and unpeeling federal language education policy in the United States. Language Policy, 4, 87–106.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Fang, Z., Fu, D., & Lamme, L. L. (2004). From scripted instruction to teacher empowerment: Supporting literacy teachers to make pedagogical transitions. Literacy, 35(1), 58–64.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Fountas, I. C., & Pinnell, G. S. (1996). Guided reading: Good first teaching for all children. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.Google Scholar
  21. Freeman, J. (2010). Reforma, lenguaje y cultura escolar: Un estudio etnográfico de la relación entre la cultura y la enseñanza de la lecto-escritura durante la implementación de una reforma educativa en un jardín de niños público. Tesis de Doctorado Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.Google Scholar
  22. Galdames, V., & Gaete, R. (2010). Chilean literacy education policies and classroom implementation. In K. Menken & O. García (Eds.), Negotiating language policies in schools: Educators as policymakers (pp. 232–246). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  23. Gándara, P. (2000). In the aftermath of the storm: English learners in the post-227 era. Bilingual Research Journal, 24(1–2), 1–13.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Gándara, P., & Baca, G. (2008). NCLB and California’s English learners. The perfect strom. Language Policy, 7(3), 201–216.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Gándara, P., Maxwell-Jolly, J., & Driscoll, A. (2005). Listening to teachers of English learners. Santa Cruz: Center for the Future of Teaching/Learning.Google Scholar
  26. García, O., & Menken, K. (2010a). Moving forward: Ten guiding principles for teachers. In K. Menken & O. García (Eds.), Negotiating language policies in schools: Educators as policymakers (pp. 262–267). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  27. García, O., & Menken, K. (2010b). Stirring the onion: Educators and the dynamics of language education policies (looking ahead). In K. Menken & O. García (Eds.), Negotiating language policies in schools: Educators as policymakers (pp. 249–261). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  28. Gerstl-Pepin, C. I., & Woodside-Jiron, H. (2005). Tensions between the “science” of reading and a “love of learning”: One high-poverty school’s struggle with NCLB. Equity and Excellence in Education, 38(3), 232–241.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Gitlin, A., & Margonis, F. (1995). The political aspects of reform: Teacher resistance as good sense. American Journal of Education, 102, 377–405.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Gutiérrez, K. D., Asato, J., Santos, M., & Gotanda, N. (2002). Backlash pedagogy: Language and culture and the politics of reform. The Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, 24, 335–351.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Gutiérrez, K. D., Baquedano-López, P., & Asato, J. (2000). “English for the children”: The new literacy of the old world order, language policy and educational reform. Bilingual Research Journal, 24(1 & 2), 87–112.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Hall, K., Ozark, C., & Valla, Y. (1999). Curriculum reform, with particular reference to primary literacy, in contemporary English and Norwegian official documents. European Journal of Intercultural Studies, 10(1), 85–104.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Handsfield, L., Crumpler, T., & Dean, T. R. (2009). “Is this legal?” Curricular spaces, tactical positioning, and literacy instruction in a fourth-grade classroom. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association.Google Scholar
  34. Hargreaves, A. (2003). Teaching in the knowledge society: Education in the age of insecurity. NY: Teachers College Press.Google Scholar
  35. Hargreaves, A. (2005). Educational change takes ages: Life, career and generational factors in teachers’ emotional responses to educational change. Teaching and Teacher Education, 21(8), 967–983.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Harper, C. A., de Jong, E., & Platt, E. J. (2008). Marginalizing English as a second language teacher expertise: The exclusionary consequence of No Child Left Behind. Language Policy, 7, 267–284.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Hassett, D. D. (2008). Teacher flexibility and judgment: A multidynamic literacy theory. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 8(3), 295–327.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Hélot, C. (2010). “Tu sais bien parler Maîtresse!”: Negotiating languages other than French in the primary classroom in France. In K. Menken & O. García (Eds.), Negotiating language policies in schools: Educators as policymakers (pp. 52–71). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  39. Hélot, C., & Young, A. (2006). Imagining multilingual education in France: A language and cultural awareness project at primary level. In O. Garcia, T. Skutnabb-Kangas, & M. E. Torres-Guzman (Eds.), Imagining multilingual schools: Languages in education and glocalization (pp. 69–90). Cleveland, England: Multilingual Matters Ltd.Google Scholar
  40. Hornberger, N. H., & Johnson, D. C. (2007). Slicing the onion ethnographically: Layers and spaces in multilingual language education policy and practice. TESOL Quarterly, 41(3), 509–532.Google Scholar
  41. Ingersoll, R. M. (2003). Who controls teachers’ work?: Power and accountability in America’s schools. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  42. Joseph, R. (2006). “I won’t stop what I’m doing”: The factors that contribute to teachers’ proactive resistance to scripted literacy programs. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association.Google Scholar
  43. MacGillivray, L., Ardell, A. L., Curwen, M. S., & Palma, J. (2004). Colonized teachers: Examining the implementation of a scripted reading program. Teaching Education, 15(2), 131–144.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. McCarthey, S. (2008). The impact of no child left behind on teachers’ writing instruction. Written Communication, 25(4), 462–505.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. McGill-Franzen, A., Zmach, C., Solic, K., & Zeig, J. L. (2006). The confluence of two policy mandates: Core reading programs and third-grade retention in Florida. The Elementary School Journal, 107(1), 67–91.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Menken, K. (2008). English learners left behind: Standardized testing and language policy. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.Google Scholar
  47. Menken, K., & García, O. (2010a). Introduction. In K. Menken & O. García (Eds.), Negotiating language policies in schools: Educators as policymakers (pp. 1–10). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  48. Menken, K., & García, O. (Eds.). (2010b). Negotiating language policies in schools: Educators as policymakers. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  49. Moustafa, M., & Land, R. E. (2002). The reading achievement of economically-disadvantaged children in urban schools using Open Court vs. comparably disadvantaged children in urban schools using non-scripted reading programs. In Yearbook of Urban Learning, Teaching, and Research. Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association, pp. 44–53.Google Scholar
  50. Oakes, J. (1985). Keeping track: How schools structure inequality. New Heaven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  51. Orellana, M., & Gutiérrez, K. (2006). What’s the problem? Constructing different genres for the study of English learners. Research in the Teaching of English, 41(1), 118–123.Google Scholar
  52. Pease-Alvarez, L., & Samway, K. D. (2008). Negotiating a top-down reading program mandate: The experience of one school. Language Arts, 86(1), 32–41.Google Scholar
  53. Pease-Alvarez, L., & Thompson, A. (in press). Teachers organizing to resist in a context of compliance. In K. Davis. (Eds.), Critical qualitative research in second language studies: Agency and advocacy on the Pacific Rim. Greenwich, CN: Information Age Publishing.Google Scholar
  54. Pérez Abril, M. (2005). Un marco para pensar: configuraciones didácticas en el campo del lenguaje, en la educación básica. In F. Vásquez Rodríguez (Ed.), La didáctica de la lengua maternal: Estado de la discusión en Colombia (pp. 47–66). Cali: Universidad del Valle.Google Scholar
  55. Rich, E. (2009). NCTE’s stance on reading bill sparks controversy within ranks. Education Week, November 25, 2009. Retrieved December 18, 2009 from
  56. Ruiz, N. T., & Morales-Ellis, L. (2005). “Gracias por la oportunidad, pero voy a buscar otro trabajo”: A beginning teacher resists high-stakes curriculum. In B. Altwerger (Ed.), Reading for profit: How the bottom line leaves kids behind (pp. 199–215). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.Google Scholar
  57. Rumberger, R. W., & Gándara, P. (2004). Seeking equity in the education of California’s English learners. Teachers College Record, 106(10), 2032–2056.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Smagorinsky, P. (2009). The cultural practice of reading and the standardized assessment of reading instruction: When in commensurate worlds collide. Educational Researcher, 38(7), 522–527.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. SRA/McGraw-Hill. (2004). Retrieved November 6, 2004 from
  60. Suárez-Orozco, C., Suárez-Orozco, M., & Todorova, I. (2008). Learning a new land: Immigrant students in American society. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  61. Sunderman, G. L., Kim, J. S., & Orfield, G. (2005). NCLB meets school realities: Lessons from the field. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.Google Scholar
  62. Swadener, B. B., & Lubeck, S. (1995). Children and families “at risk”: Deconstructing the discourse of risk. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.Google Scholar
  63. Tesch, R. (1990). Qualitative research: Analysis types and software tools. New York: Falmer Press.Google Scholar
  64. Tyack, D. (1974). The one best system: A history of American urban education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  65. Valdés, G. (2004). Between support and marginalization: The development of academic language in linguistic minority children. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 7(2–3), 102–132.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Valdivieso, L. A. (2010). “Angles make things difficult”: Teachers’ interpretations of language policy and Quechua revitalization in Peru. In K. Menken & O. García (Eds.), Negotiating language policies in schools: Educators as policymakers (pp. 72–87). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  67. Valenzuela, A. (1999). Subtractive schooling: U.S.-Mexican youth and the politics of caring. Albany: State University of New York Press.Google Scholar
  68. Willett, J., & Rosenberger, C. (2005). Critical dialogue: Transforming the discourses of educational reform. In L. Pease-Alvarez & S. R. Schecter (Eds.), Learning, teaching, and community: Contributions of situated and participatory approaches to educational innovation (pp. 191–213). Mahwah, N.J: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Google Scholar
  69. Willett, J., Harman, R., Hogan, A., Lozano, M. E., & Rubeck, J. (2008). Transforming standard practices to serve the social and academic learning of English language learners. In L. Stoops Verplaetese & N. Migliacci (Eds.), Inclusive pedagogy for English language learners: A handbook of research-informed practices (pp. 16–54). New York, NY: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Google Scholar
  70. Wilson, P., Martens, P., Arya, P., & Altwerger, B. (2004). Readers, instruction, and the NRP. Phi Delta Kappan, 86(3), 242–246.Google Scholar
  71. Woods, P. (1994). Teachers under siege: Resistance and appropriation in English primary schools. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 25(3), 250–265.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Zakharia, Z. (2010). (Re)constructing language policy in a Shi'i school in Lebanon. In K. Menken & O. García (Eds.), Negotiating language policies in schools: Educators as policymakers (pp. 162–181). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  73. Zehr, M. A. (2009). Draft literacy bill would boost funds for older students. Education Week, 28(35), 19.Google Scholar
  74. Zhang, Y., & Hu, G. (2010). Between intended and enacted curricula: Three teachers and a mandated curricular reform in mainland China. In K. Menken & O. García (Eds.), Negotiating language policies in schools: Educators as policymakers (pp. 12–142). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Lucinda Pease-Alvarez
    • 1
  • Katharine Davies Samway
    • 2
  • Carrie Cifka-Herrera
    • 1
  1. 1.Education DepartmentUniversity of California, Santa CruzSanta CruzUSA
  2. 2.College of EducationSan José State UniversitySan JoséUSA

Personalised recommendations