English as a Second Language (ESL)


Every student has the right to succeed both academically and socially, regardless of the language they speak. And Tennessee’s English as a Second Language (ESL) program was designed to serve students whose first language is not English, or who are limited in their English language skills.

ESL classes may vary, depending on the specific needs of a particular school or district. However, the state’s ESL program includes a specific ESL curriculum, which outlines basic English language standards that work together with academic content standards. These standards—which must be delivered by a qualified ESL teacher—cover the language support needed to allow English Learners (EL) to keep up with grade level content, while bridging language gaps.

Questions and Answers on the Rights of Limited-English Proficient Students

Q: What happens to English Learners (ELs) students who are not offered services to help them overcome language barriers?

A: Limited-English proficient students (also sometimes referred to as English Learners) may suffer repeated failure in the classroom. Unless they receive the proper services to overcome language barriers, these students may fall behind in grade level or even drop out of school. Otherwise qualified students who are not proficient in English are sometimes erroneously placed in special education classes, or may be denied access to high track courses or Gifted and Talented programs.

Q: What is the federal authority requiring districts to address the needs of English learners?

A: Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin. In Lau v. Nichols, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the Department of Education memorandum of May 25, 1970, which directed school districts to take steps to help English Learners (ELs) overcome language barriers and to ensure that they can participate meaningfully in the district’s educational programs. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), all ELs will exit the program using the same criteria. Currently that is a 5.0 for composite and a 5.0 for literacy on the English language proficiency assessment (ELPA).

Q: What does Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 require for English-language learner students?

A: Federal law requires programs that educate children with limited English proficiency to be:

  • Based on a sound educational theory
  • Adequately supported, with adequate and effective staff and resources, so that the program has a realistic chance of success
  • Periodically evaluated and, if necessary, revised

Q: Does the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) require districts to follow a particular educational approach, such as bilingual education?

A: No. OCR does not require or advocate a specific educational approach to the instruction of EL students. Districts have substantial flexibility when developing programs to meet the needs of EL students.

Q: What if parents do not want their child to take part in an ESL program?

A: Parents may decide not to have their children enrolled in an ESL program. However, even when a parent declines participation, the district still has a responsibility to ensure that the student has an equal opportunity to have his or her English language and academic needs met. Districts can meet this obligation in a number of ways (e.g., adequate training to classroom teachers on second language acquisition; monitoring the educational progress of the student).

Q: How long does a district have to provide special services to EL students?

A: EL students must be provided with alternative services until they are skilled enough in English to participate meaningfully in the regular program. To determine whether a child is ready to exit the program, a district must look at factors such as the student’s ability to keep up with non-EL peers in the regular education program and their ability to participate successfully without the use of adapted or simplified English materials. Exit criteria must include some objective measure of a student’s ability to read, write, speak and comprehend English. The English language proficiency exam is used in Tennessee.

Learn more about Tennessee’s ESL Program.