UNI Department of Languages & Literatures awarded more than $1 million grant for ESL teacher preparation project

UNI Department of Languages & Literatures awarded more than $1 million grant for ESL teacher preparation project

Students in a college classroom

The United States Department of Education has awarded two University of Northern Iowa professors a $1.48 million grant to launch a new project to improve English as a second language (ESL) instruction for both pre-service and in-service teachers.

Aliza Fones and Carmen Durham, both assistant professors of TESOL (teaching English to speakers of other languages)/applied linguistics, were awarded the grant to carry out Project UNITED (University of Northern Iowa Teacher Education for Diverse Learners). 

Project UNITED will provide research-based ESL teacher preparation and professional development to current and future teachers.

Together with UNI’s Office of Research and Sponsored Programs and the Central Rivers Area Education Agency, Fones and Durham worked to craft a grant proposal for Project UNITED which was selected for funding by the Department of Education’s Office of English Language Acquisition.

Project UNITED is a five-year plan to address a shortage of teachers prepared to teach ESL. Iowa has seen an increase of nearly 60% in English learners over the past decade, and almost one-third of school districts in Iowa do not employ an endorsed ESL teacher.

To improve academic outcomes for English learners, Fones and Durham, along with their team and other partnering agencies, will gather data and use research to create and enhance coursework, field experiences and professional development to improve instructional practices. New technologies and options in distance learning will expand the reach of the program, making it easier for in-service teachers to gain ESL credentials.

The plan also includes scholarships to help TESOL recruits with the added costs of gaining ESL endorsements and collaboration with community agencies that will increase family engagement, improving outcomes beyond the classroom.

UNI is strongly positioned to develop this education framework as their teacher preparation program is in the top one percent largest in the United States.

Jim O'Loughlin, department head of Languages & Literatures, is excited about the potential the grant provides.

"Project UNITED is going to be a transformative initiative,” O’Loughlin said. “It will fund scholarships for dozens of students, undergraduate and graduate, to acquire an ESL endorsement, allowing UNI's TESOL program to reach new students who might never have considered further higher education because of financial hurdles. Equally important is the research component of this project, through which our faculty will be able to develop new instructional methods and curriculum in order to ensure that the education students receive prepares them for success."

The knowledge and resulting best practices gathered at the completion of Project UNITED can be used across Iowa and other states with similar needs for more ESL teachers and to improve the implementation and effectiveness of ESL instruction.

“We’re building an infrastructure with the work that is accomplished through the grant,” Fones said. “We’re putting things in place so there is a more sustainable pipeline of teachers who are prepared to support English learners.”


Aliza Fones, assistant professor, Department of Languages and Literatures, aliza.fones@uni.edu, 319-273-6911

Carmen Durham, assistant professor, Department of Languages and Literatures, carmen.durham@uni.edu, 319-273-3775