English Language Learners' Legal Rights

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  • 0:04 English Language Learners
  • 1:00 Lau v. Nichols
  • 2:33 Equal Educational Opportunity
  • 3:16 Sample Program
  • 4:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Yolanda Reinoso Barzallo

Yolanda holds a CELTA Cambridge, a Juris Doctorate, and a Master of Public Administration. She is a published author of fiction in Spanish.

The legal system protects English language learners (ELLs) to ensure that schools address their language limitations. This lesson covers the basic rights of ELLs, which have a basis in civil rights.

English Language Learners

Think for a moment what it must be like to be an English Language Learner (ELL) on your first day of school. Although you can say a few things in English, you're nervous and scared because you know that there are lots of words that you don't know. You feel like you want to cry and wish you could go home to your parents where you can speak your native language.

As a teacher, you know that the ELLs in your class may be behind their English-speaking peers academically because of language limitations. You also know that if their language limitations are not appropriately addressed, your ELLs may fail to succeed in school overall. For this very reason, the legal system in the United States protects ELLs by relying on teachers to make sure the rights of ELLs are respected in schools across the country.

Let's look at a court case that clarified the rights of ELLs. Then we'll discuss how schools must design educational programs that aid ELLs.

Lau v. Nichols

Let's travel back in time to the city of San Francisco in California in 1971. There, 1,800 students of Chinese ancestry initiated legal action against the San Francisco Unified School District in a case known as Lau v. Nichols because they did not receive additional English language instruction in school. They argued that if they had received additional help in English, it would've helped them overcome their English language limitations. The Chinese students argued that they did not receive an equal educational opportunity to succeed, a right guaranteed to them under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The courts, however, found that the California Education Code already required that schools provide compulsory English classes to students, so the students took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1974 and won. Section 601 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in any program that receives federal funding, such as the San Francisco public schools. The U.S. Supreme Court also cited a legal guideline from 1970 that required schools to provide students with language deficiencies with the necessary tools for their academic success.

Lau v. Nichols served to reinforce this idea: ELLs have the same right to education as English proficient students but, given students' language limitations, schools must provide students with instruction that addresses an English language limitation.

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