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Teaching English Language Learners in Rural Areas: Issues and Implications for Teacher Education

by Youb Kim, Eun-Young Jang, Elizabeth Oakley & Lee Ann Lannom - April 20, 2012

The purpose of our commentary is to address the issue of instructional resources for teaching English language learners in rural areas and its implications for teacher education under the Race to the Top Policy context.


The purpose of our commentary is to address the issue of instructional resources for teaching English language learners in rural areas and its implications for teacher education under the Race to the Top Policy context. The availability of instructional resources (e.g., books) affects the nature of teachers’ tasks in classrooms and their effectiveness in working with English language learners. This is especially true in Southern states such as Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia with rapid increase of English language learner enrollment (Zehler, Adger, Coburn, Arteagoitia, Williams, and Jacobson, 2008). To improve teaching effectiveness in U.S. schools, we believe that teacher educators need to consider the issue of instructional resources as they prepare teacher education students and make teacher preparation programs accountable to local educational needs. We focus specifically on the rural areas where instructional resources are insufficient and significantly below national average while an increasing number of English language learners are present in classrooms (The Rural School and Community Trust, 2012). We will begin with a vignette from a teacher (third author) who studied her own teaching of an ESL student with the support from a university faculty member (first author). We will then make suggestions for teacher educators to support future teachers to provide effective instruction for their English language learners (ELLs) in rural areas.


Julie [pseudonym of a 7th grade English language learner] had been mentioning that she had planned to go [to the haunted farm in the neighborhood]. However, several minutes into our writing time, I noticed that Julie wasn’t writing. I asked her if she was finished. She answered quietly that she did not know what a haunted house was for because she had never been to one. I called her to my desk. When she arrived, her jaw was clenched and there were tears in her eyes (common behavior for her when she was frustrated). I asked her to talk to me about what time of the year she had seen haunted houses, and what things she had heard about haunted houses. She grew more angry and said “Halloween” and marched back to her desk. She opened her journal and began writing. She then abruptly returned her journal to the class basket. I asked her what she wrote. She replied, “I wrote ‘I don’t know.’” I told her that it wasn’t true and that I thought she could have written more. Angrily, she took her journal back out, erased her first answer, and wrote “Halloween.”

This vignette illustrates a glimpse into the challenges that rural teachers face as they work with English language learners in their classrooms. It was written by the third author, who conducted a case study to improve her own teaching of Julie (pseudonym), the sole English language learner in her classroom. It was a part of an independent study that the teacher took in a private university in a Southern state in the fall of 2005. Inspired by the challenges of teaching an English language learner as a middle school resource room teacher, she hoped to understand thoughtful ways to resolve her instructional issue through her independent study. In order to identify specific needs and provide effective individualized instruction for Julie, she used multiple assessments including classroom observations, a home literacy survey, informal and formal literacy assessment tools, and ongoing conversations with the student. She reflected on her own teaching through recording her evolving understanding of the English language learner in her teaching journal and monthly discussions with her independent-study instructor (the first author). She used newly gained insights to inform her instruction. Upon the completion of data collection on the student and the process of designing individualized instruction, a graduate student (the second author) analyzed the data for the teacher with guidance from the independent study instructor.

Resolving the instructional challenges that the teacher faced requires adventurous teaching. The teacher needs to exert conscious efforts to meet students’ learning needs and monitor their learning success (Cohen, 1990). Appreciating the depth of the teacher’s efforts necessitates an understanding of the socio-cultural contexts of her rural school. The middle school that the teacher taught served approximately 400 students in fifth through eighth grades in a rural Southern state. The school was located in a county of approximately 48,000 residents, with a mean household income of $31,000. The population was predominantly White, with approximately 79% European-American, 20% African-American, and 1% Hispanic residents. Minority populations were generally found in clusters. Many students in the county schools came from farming families, and they eventually went to work in agriculture. The heavy reliance on agriculture in the community created some unique challenges for the school system for promoting student learning success. Some families assumed that education and literacy is not needed on a farm. Slow economic growth left many families in rural poverty, which shared similar characteristics with urban poverty, such as high teenage pregnancy rates, pockets of drug activities, crime, and physical abuse. High-school graduation steadily remained around 70 percent, and the school system struggled to meet the needs of minority students acquiring the English language while learning academic content.

The teacher made a deliberate choice to focus on Julie for her case study because she was the only English language learner, which student population she did not feel equipped to teach. Julie was a young Puerto Rican female student enrolled in her seventh grade class, and she had been in the U.S. for three years (at the time of the case study) after her family moved to the States due to her father’s work transfer during the summer before fourth grade. Her mother had been a Puerto Rican school teacher, and her father was a member of the U.S. Army in Puerto Rico, his native land. The family enjoyed financial stability both in Puerto Rico and in America. They lived in a middle-class neighborhood with many families and children nearby. Julie was supported to participate in a variety of extracurricular activities.  Her father seemed to be especially concerned with his children’s assimilation into mainstream American society. At the same time, Julie’s Puerto Rican heritage was very much a part of her home life, nurtured by her mother who spoke no English in the home, although she could read and write in English fluently. Despite a supportive home life, financial resources, and educated parents—which researchers usually link to school success—Julie struggled to make an easy transition into an English-only classroom. Although she spoke English with relative ease, Julie’s performance in school tests was lower than expected grade level competencies, and she was eligible for special education services in the school as it was the only type of support the school could provide for isolated cultural and linguistic minority students. Julie’s 7th grade schedule involved a combination of regular education and special education resource classes. She attended science, history, and physical education with her regular education class. She also participated in the middle-school band program, which met in the last hour of each school day. The other hours of the day were spent in the special education resource classes. Julie and six other peers received instruction in math, reading, and grammar in an isolated classroom on a hallway separate from the other seventh-grade classes.

There were several challenges that the teacher identified and attempted to resolve in her teaching. Julie’s perception of herself as a poor reader and writer required careful individual attention from the teacher as Julie was very dependent on others, especially the teacher, when she had to deal with challenging literacy tasks. An equally important challenge was to find culturally relevant texts for Julie. While Julie expressed her strong preference of reading materials that had a close cultural connection to her, the school did not have literacy materials that met Julie’s needs. On her literacy survey, she marked the item, “I don’t think there are any books about kids like me.” To make matters worse, Julie did not have access to materials at her age level in school because Julie was receiving third-grade-level instruction with texts of that level. To address this lack of instructional resources, the teacher changed her instructional strategy to encourage Julie to use her own self as a Puerto Rican as a linguistic and cultural resource (e.g., thinking of how a word/question had a different meaning or answer from a Puerto Rican perspective or sharing a unique dish from Puerto Rico during the class focused on the theme of international traveling and food). Julie’s limited English vocabulary also posed an important instructional challenge for the teacher. Julie’s picture vocabulary score placed her at 1.6 grade equivalency (equivalent to receiving six months of instruction in the first grade), and her word attack score placed her at 1.7 grade equivalency. To address this issue, the teacher provided thematic instruction, which involved planning instruction within a thematic unit so that Julie could naturally receive repeated exposure to word reading skills and word comprehension (Marzano, Norford, Paynter, Pickering, & Gaddy, 2001). Thematic instruction was accompanied by a list of words that the teacher created from materials across the curriculum such as grammar, reading, and math, and she clustered them by main themes. To promote reading engagement for Julie who tended to pay more attention to other media (e.g., computer or TV) than to written texts, the teacher used kinesthetic activities (e.g., having students “embody” particular vocabulary through choosing a sound or motion to accompany the definitions of words and draw a “picture” of the word) to assist Julie to learn new vocabulary words. Using motions, sounds, and pictures for vocabulary instruction seemed to encourage Julie to interact with the words and think concretely and contextually.


The issue of teaching English language learners is an unavoidable reality even in rural areas in the U.S. Among about 9.63 million students in rural areas in the 2008-2009 academic year, 3.7% of them (or about 356,300 students) are English language learners (Strange, Johnson, Showalter, & Klein, 2012). Teaching this group of students puts additional strain on teachers who are already struggling with instructional resources below the national average. In 2008-2009, for example, the national average for instructional expenditures per student was $6,966 (Johnson, Zhou, Nakamoto, & Cornman, 2011, p. 17) while the average of rural instructional expenditures per pupil was $5,657 (Strange, Johnson, Showalter, & Klein, 2012, p. 5)

Preparing future teachers in rural areas requires a thoughtful consideration of instructional resources in local educational contexts. In rural schools, teachers have diverse needs for instructional resources to teach English language learners. As the third author’s case study revealed, some of these needs are knowledge about how to work with English language learners and understanding their learning needs, knowledge of different types of tests and how to administer them, and access to culturally relevant texts and teaching materials. However, a brief review of the availability of instructional resources and their dissemination reveals a possible lack of attention to individual teachers who need these resources in order to effectively teach English language learners in rural areas.

Currently, instructional resources are created and disseminated in research centers that focus on rural education. Recently, the Institute of Educational Sciences (IES) funded two research centers located in Nebraska and North Carolina (Institute of Educational Sciences, 2012). The foci of these research centers range from professional development for teachers to development of instructional materials to improve rural education. While researchers are investigating issues related to improving rural education, however, the instructional resources from these research centers are not readily available for teachers, except those who participate in research projects in these centers. A troubling issue is that teachers may not have access to newly generated research knowledge even when these research centers complete their research. For example, one website that lists the resources requires purchases from individual users as the research findings are turned into products created by a publisher, and only a limited number of resources are available for open access (http://www.springerlink.com/content/0047-2891/40/9/). Considering that rural teachers receive less support for instructional materials for each student, teachers of English language learners in rural areas face double challenges: While they are placed to work with students without formal training, the research centers that received funding from public funds are not situated to make new research knowledge accessible to teachers who need the knowledge the most. This issue calls for new and creative thinking from teacher educators.


In the current educational policy environment that emphasizes teaching accountability, teacher education programs have responsibilities to prepare future teachers successfully to meet the learning needs of English language learners in rural areas. In order to fulfill these responsibilities, teacher educators need to be adventurous: They need to identify local educational communities where future teachers of their programs are more likely to work and understand the availability (or a lack) of instructional resources that future teachers would need once they enter their classrooms. Teacher educators also need to envision new possibilities for adapting to constantly changing educational contexts, and think deeply about improving teaching effectiveness for learners who come from linguistically and culturally diverse backgrounds.

Taking the current structure of knowledge dissemination for rural teachers of English language learners into consideration, teacher educators need to explore ways to make instructional resources available to teachers. This may involve engaging the federal government in the process of conceptualizing how to disseminate research knowledge usable to improving educational practice and providing open access to teachers who need it the most. This is a pragmatic solution to the problems with the existing structure of knowledge dissemination in teacher education and the lack of instructional resources in rural schools where teachers struggle to find ways to support a growing number of English language learners in their classrooms.


Cohen, D.K. (1990). Revolution in one classroom: The case of Mrs. Oublier. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 12(3), 311-329.

Institute of Educational Sciences. National Center of Educational Research. Retrieved from http://ies.ed.gov/ncer/RandD/

Johnson, F., Zhou, L., and Nakamoto, N. (2011). Revenues and Expenditures for Public Elementary and Secondary Education: School Year 2008–09 (Fiscal Year 2009) (NCES 2011-329). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch.

Marzano, R. J., Norford, J. S., Paynter, D. E., Pickering, D. J., & Gaddy, B. B. (2001). A handbook for classroom instruction that works. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Strange, M., Johnson, J., Showalter, J., & Klein, R. (January, 2012). Why rural matters 2011-2012: The condition of rural education in the 50 states. The Rural School and Community Trust. Retrieved from http://files.ruraledu.org/wrm2011-12/WRM2011-12.pdf.

Zehler, A. M., Adger, C., Coburn, C., Arteagoitia, I., Williams, K., and Jacobson, L. (2008). Preparing to serve English language learner students: school districts with emerging English language learner communities (Issues & Answers Report, REL 2008–No. 049). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Appalachia. Retrieved from http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/edlabs.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 20, 2012
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16762, Date Accessed: 12/6/2021 4:06:29 PM

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About the Author
  • Youb Kim
    Pennsylvania State University
    E-mail Author
    YOUB KIM is an assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the College of Education at the Pennsylvania State University. Her research and teaching focus on English as a Second Language (ESL) learning, literacy, instruction, and assessment.
  • Eun-Young Jang
    Vanderbilt University
    E-mail Author

  • Elizabeth Oakley
    Vanderbilt University
    E-mail Author

  • Lee Lannom
    Vanderbilt University
    E-mail Author

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