AZ Education Policy Analysis                                                                                                                                                    Spring 2004


A Guide to the Language Rights of Students in Arizona Public Schools


School officials have a duty to protect the language rights of all students, including the rights of English language learners (ELLs) to use the language of their home, to acquire English and to master other tongues.  As they move through the continuum of literacy development in English, ELLs who have some degree of literacy in another language may draw on that knowledge in different ways.  Although Arizona law restricts the language that some teachers may use in instruction (charter and private school teachers are exempt from such restrictions), ELLs everywhere in the United States retain the right to use their native language at any time, whether in or out of school.  At the request of parents seeking to assist their children with homework, teachers may provide the parents with native language textbooks and materials when available.  Also, federal law requires that schools provide parents with certain translation and interpretation services, and NCLB (under Title I) stipulates that reports of student assessments be provided “to the extent practicable, in a language parents can understand.”  The details outlined below are presented as a guide to parents and school officials in matters involving students’ use of languages other than English:



• Students may choose to refrain from speaking, an especially important right for ELLs in the ‘silent’ stage of English acquisition.  Unless the speech is clearly disruptive, ELLs also have a right to exercise their constitutional right to speak freely in their own tongues and without coercion.  The Supreme Court stated the case this way:


Meyer v. Nebraska: “The protection of the Constitution extends to all, to those who speak other languages as well as to those born with English on the tongue.  Perhaps it would be highly advantageous if all had a ready understanding of our ordinary speech, but this cannot be coerced by methods which conflict with the Constitution—a desirable end cannot be promoted by prohibited means.”

                                                                                                                —U.S. Supreme Court, 1923


•    Good reading strategies—such as predicting, questioning, and rereading—are effective in any language.  Practicing such techniques in the native language develops these skills for use with a second language while simultaneously accelerating the acquisition of background knowledge.  The opportunity to read broadly from a varied selection of books comprehensible to the student is vital to academic success.


•    Students often recognize cognates between English and other tongues, particularly Romance languages that share Latin and Greek roots with English words.  Teachers can build on that strength by pointing out true and false cognates whenever practicable.  Scientific and academic terms are especially rich in Latin-English cognates.


•    Even in Structured English Immersion Program classes, where the language of instruction is prescribed, bilingual dictionaries are appropriate tools to have available for students, and teachers may use a “minimal” amount of languages other than English.



•    Especially at early levels of English acquisition, students may write part or all of their compositions in a language other than English.  In assessing such work, teachers may ask students to provide an oral translation.  Arizona’s six-trait rubric is the same for all students, but the scale of letter grades should distinguish between ELLs and non-ELLs.  When an ELL is at the intermediate stage of English acquisition, a score of 3 (of a possible 6) on an essay is an achievement.  It is still only a 3, but the grade on the student’s report card should reflect the fact that the student is making excellent progress. Conversely, students indicate an advanced degree of English mastery when for artistic purposes they include non-English words in an English composition.



•    Arizona law requires that all ELLs be assessed in English but does not prohibit assessments in other languages.  In fact, NCLB (under Title I) requires ADE to “identify the languages other than English” for which “yearly student academic assessments are not available and needed” and to “make every effort to develop such assessments.”  Whether for classroom assignments or for standardized tests such as AIMS, the most valid assessment of the English writing skills of ELLs may be obtained when such students are encouraged to compose a first draft in the language they know best.  Students also should be encouraged to use accommodations that may be made available when they are taking standardized tests.


•    In assessing writing, prohibiting ELLs from using their native language as an intermediate tool eventually leading to an English composition (which itself still may include non-English words) will only diminish students’ scores and produce less valid results.


•    For ELLs, any content test in English is a test of English.  Results may not be valid.  It is inappropriate to retain ELLs in a grade or to assign them failing grades if through no fault of their own they have not received comprehensible instruction.


Click here for Tucson Unified School District Guide to the Language Rights of Students

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