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Teaching English Language Learners In Iowa

The need for ELL teachers continues to grow in Iowa, but some experts worry that there isn't enough state support for the necissary programming.

Denison, Iowa has changed a lot over the past 20 years. While many small towns have been shrinking, Denison's population has increased and the town has become far more diverse than it used to be. Over half of the students in Denison schools are English Language Learners. As Iowa towns and cities have become more diverse, teaching English language learners has become a vital part of what schools do.

Denison schools offer traditional ELL programming and dual-language programming, in which half the day is tought in half in English and half in Spanish. Dual language programming is available to native English speakers as well as English language learners. Spanish is the most common language spoken by ELL students, but the district is welcoming more students who speak other languages as well. As of last spring, there were 23 different languages spoken by students in Denison.

David Cassels Johnson, an associate professor of Foreign Languages and ESL Education at the University of Iowa, says Iowa is well below the national average for ELL, but there has been a significant increase over the years.

“20 years ago, there was about 1.8 percent of the student population classified as English Language Learners, that number had grown to 6.5 percent of the student population last year,” he says. “ That doesn’t seem like a lot, in fact, Iowa still is well below national norms in terms of linguistic diversity in its school, but there has been an increase of about 250 percent over the past 20 years.” 

On this episode of Talk of Iowa, host Charity Nebbe talks with educators about the ever-expanding role of ELL teachers in Iowa and how well ELL programs are serving students.  


  • Ana Fix, ELL teacher at George Washington Carver Academy in Waterloo 
  • David Cassels Johnson, associate professor of Foreign Languages and ESL Education at the University of Iowa.
  • Heather Langenfeld, Director of Elementary School Improvement and Director of ELL Services at Denison Community School District.
Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa
Katelyn Harrop is a producer for IPR's River to River and Talk of Iowa