What is an English Language Learner?

ELL is an acronym for English language learners. The term refers to individuals who have limited proficiency in the English language and includes children and adults of all ages. English language learners live all across the globe, but this article focuses primarily on K-12 ELL students living in the United States.

The term “English learner” or EL is also used interchangeably with ELL. English learners live in every state across the United States and speak many different native languages, including Spanish (the most common native language), Arabic, Chinese, Nepali, Somali and Vietnamese. It’s more common for English-language learners to reside in Western states and urban areas, according to the Pew Research Center.

The number of English language learners in schools has swelled during the last 15 years. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports there were 4.8 million ELL students in the U.S. public school system in the fall of 2015, up from 3.8 million in 2000 (9.5 percent vs 8.1 percent).

Some states are home to many ELL students, while others include only a small population. In 2015, only 1% of public students in West Virginia were English-language learners compared with 21% in California, according to NCES. That year, California public schools enrolled more than 1.3 million ELL students — 21% of the students in the state’s elementary and secondary schools.

The Pew Research Center reports that English learners made up 10 percent or more of the student body in 2015 in these states:

Nevada (17%)

Texas (17%)

New Mexico (16%)

Colorado (12%)

Alaska (11%)

Kansas (11%)

Washington (10%)

Literacy Instruction for English-Language Learners

The educational experience of English language learners varies by state and by school. Of ELL students, 67 percent are in elementary school (grades K-5), according to the Pew Research Center. Most schools identify their students who are English learners early on, in kindergarten. Many young students who start out as English language learners become proficient in English by 12th grade. In fact, by senior year of high school, only 4 percent of students are identified as English learners.

Public schools are required “to take affirmative steps to ensure that limited English proficient (LEP) students, now more commonly known as English learner (EL) students or English language learners (ELLs), can meaningfully participate in educational programs and services, and to communicate information to LEP parents in a language they can understand,” as per the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which provides extensive resource materials for educators, students, and parents of EL students on their website.

Programs for ELL students are often referred to as English as a Second Language (ESL) programs, in which teachers use techniques, methodology and special curriculum designed to teach ELL students English-language skills.

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When providing literacy instruction to English-language learners, teachers usually speak in English with very little use of a student’s native language. They may use a variety of strategies, including listening, speaking, reading, writing, study skills, content vocabulary and cultural orientation, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Glossary for Developing Programs for English language learners.

Effective Literacy and English Language Instruction

The education website Scholastic.com recommends the following tips for those who teach English language learners:

Use plenty of visual elements. Try videos, pictures, photos and real-life objects.

Clearly communicate goals for your students. Write them down where all can see and review them at the beginning and end of class.

Create a safe space. Let students make mistakes and try again.

Teach commonly used key words. Be sure your EL students know words such as student, teacher, principal, cafeteria, lunch, homework, recess, playground and bathroom (try teaching these with photos or flashcards).

Build confidence. Model correct vocabulary using a simple and slow style, instead of correcting students in front of peers or interrupting them.

Be flexible. If a student learns more visually, let them draw and label a picture of a word.

Encourage connections a student makes with their native language. If the student sees similarities between an English word and the word in their native language, commend their ability to link the two.

English Language Learners’ Strategies

An additional strategy that helps English language learners is to include their parents in the educational experience. Scholastic’s website recommends the following to TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) teachers:

Meet your student’s parents in person. Show them their child’s work, give them a school tour or invite your school (or school district’s) translator to help with communication.

Don’t let the student be a translator between you and parents. It can cause imbalance in the family’s hierarchy.

Send home a parent survey at the beginning of the year. Ask about the family’s languages and preferences. Never assume a parent can’t speak English.

Provide materials in a parent’s native language. Items like school meeting and event communications, class trip notes and forms in a family’s native tongue will ensure better communication with parents. However, be sure the translation is checked by someone who knows the language well—not just a translation website or app, which can muddle messages.

Additional ELL resources:

New York Times: The Learning Network — English language learners

Scholastic: Success for ESL Students — 12 practical tips

NPR: English language learners — How Your State Is Doing

Marginalization of U.S.-Born English language learners through English-Only Policies: Myths, Reality and Implications. Journal of Education & Social Policy, June 2017

Limited English Proficiency (LEP) — a Federal Interagency Website

The Atlantic: Charter schools are especially good for ELL students

The Atlantic: The Cost of English-Only Education

Citation for this content: USC Rossier's online master's in TESOL