English-language learner

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An English language learner (often abbreviated as ELL) is a term used in some English-speaking countries such as the US and Canada to describe a person who is learning the English language in addition to their native language or any other languages they may speak. Some educational advocates, especially in the United States, classify theses students as non-native English speaker or emergent bilingual.[1]The instruction and assessment of students, their cultural background, and the attitudes of classroom teachers towards ELLs have all been found to be factors in ELL student achievement. Several methods have been suggested to effectively teach ELLs, including bringing their home cultures into the classroom, involving them in language-appropriate content-area instruction from the beginning, and integrating literature into their learning programs.


The term "English Language Learner" was first used by Mark LaCelle-Peterson and Charlene Rivera in their 1994 study. They defined ELL students as students whose first language is not English, including both limited and higher levels of language proficiency. The term ELL emphasizes that students are mastering another language, something many monolingual students in American schools do not do. In adopting the term, LaCelle-Peterson and Rivera gave analogies of other conventional educational terms. The authors believed that just as we refer to advanced teaching candidates as "student teachers" rather than "limited teaching proficient individuals," the term ELL underscores what students are learning instead of their limitations.[2]

Since 1872, an English-only instruction law had been in place. However in 1967, the legislation was later overturned by SB53, signed for California public schools to allow other languages in instruction. A year later, after SB53 garnered support by the immigrant community, the Bilingual Education Act (Title VII) was passed. Nationally, public schools were then provided funding for programs that met the educational needs of ELL.[3]

Not long after the installment of Title VII, the "taxpayers revolt" came to fruition and California's Proposition 13 was drafted. It proposed funding cuts for large portions of California's public schools, backed by upset over immigrant progress. In opposition to this, cases like Castaneda v Pickard fought for educational equality and standards focused on developing ELL students, as well as an overall sound plan for school districts. [4] Setbacks in ELL progress happened in California in 1998 when Proposition 227 passed, banning bilingual education again.  To combat this, education advocates in the Bay Area began to open all-inclusive schools to promote the acceptance of ELL students.[5]

Various other terms are also used to refer to students who are not proficient in English, such as English as a Second Language (ESL), English as an Additional Language (EAL), limited English proficient (LEP), Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CLD), non-native English speaker, bilingual students, heritage language, emergent bilingual, and language-minority students. The legal term that is used in federal legislation is 'limited English proficient'. [6]


In a five-week study by Huang, research showed that "classroom instruction appeared to play an important role in integrating language skills development and academic content learning," This study showed that the "students acquire linguistic/literacy skills and scientific knowledge hand in hand as they assume various communicative and social roles within carefully planned language activities".[7] By tying in written texts with the science content the students were able to improve their language development between drafts and build on their science content knowledge as well. There are various forms of ELL instruction. Fast-track to English programs encourage students to use English as quickly as possible and offer little to no native language support. In transition-bilingual programs, instruction begins in the student's native language and then switches to English in elementary or middle school. In dual language programs (also known as two-way bilingual or two-way immersion programs), students become fluent simultaneously in their native language and English. [8] Sheltered instruction is another approach in which integrates language and content instruction in the mainstream classroom environment.[9]

Push-in program versus pull-out program[edit]

Two specific models of instruction include the push-in program and the pull-out program. The push-in program includes the English teacher coming into the classroom to help the English language learner. The benefit of this method is that students remain integrated in the classroom with their native English speaking peers. This method does not isolate or single out ELL students. However, this method can present challenges in co-teaching, as the educators must work together to collaborate in the classroom. [10] In schools using a push-in style of teaching, educators disagree over whether ELL students should be encouraged or permitted to participate in additional foreign language classes, such as French. Some educators argue that learning another additional language while learning English might be too challenging for ELLs, or that ELLs should focus on their English proficiency before attempting further languages. Other educators insist that foreign language classes are the only classes that put ELL students on a level playing field with their peers, and furthermore that research may suggest that ELL students perform better in foreign language classes than their peers.[11]

The push-out program entails the ELL student learning in a separate classroom with the English teacher. The benefit of such a method is that ELL students receive individualized, focused training. However, this method can isolate ELL students from the rest of their peers, leaving them feeling left out from the community.[12]


Scaffolding theory was developed in 1976 by Jerome Bruner. Bruner adapts Lev Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development theory to child development. In the context of aiding ELL students, scaffolding is seen as a way to offer more support to ELL students initially through additional strategies and approaches, which are gradually removed as the student gains independence and proficiency. Different scaffolding strategies include associating English vocabulary to visuals, drawing back to a student’s prior knowledge, pre-teaching difficult vocabulary before assigning readings they appear in, and encouraging questions from students, whether they be content-related or to ensure comprehension. All of these additional areas of support are to be gradually removed, so that students become more independent, even if that means no longer needing some of these associations or seeking them out for themselves.

Issues in schools[edit]


The federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) requires all ELLs attending public schools from grades K-12 to be assessed in multiple language domains, such as listening, reading, writing, and speaking. The NCLB Act also requires ELL students to partake in statewide standardized testing. However, there is an achievement gap between ELLs and their native English-speaking peers. [13] This achievement gap persists not only in language-based disciplines, but also in the math, science, and social science subjects. Research in this area suggests that ELL students' content-based assessment outcomes might be confounded by language barriers, since they are not only being exposed to new material, but they are learning this new material in a language that they may still be gaining proficiency in.[14]


Attitudes of educators play a major role in the ESL classroom. Estimates suggest that approximately 45% of teachers in America have ELL students in their classrooms;[15] however, many teachers have negative perceptions of ELL students in their classrooms. These negative perceptions are informed by a bias that ELL students are not adequately trying or that they are personally at fault for their language barrier.[16] Research shows that teachers negative attitudes may stem from lack of time to address unique ELL student classroom needs,[17] added teacher workload when working with ELL students in mainstream classrooms,[18] and personal feelings of professional insufficiency to work with ELL students.[19][20] Research indicates that only 12% of K-12 teachers in United States have training in working with ELL students.[15]

"Teachers' language-acquisition misconceptions may color their attitudes towards ELLs and ELL inclusion, leading educators to misdiagnose learning difficulties or misattribute student failure to lack of intelligence or effort".[20]By providing a good learning environment, this will have a positive effect on the students' overall success in terms of linguistic, social, cognitive, and academic developments. In terms of teacher preparation, Garcia, O. & Menken, K. suggest that it is necessary for the ELL Teacher to engage in inward self-reflection before acting outwardly. In their piece "Moving Forward: Ten Guiding Principles for Teachers", they propose that because Language Teachers often act as informal policymakers, it is imperative that they first understand their own "ways of languaging" and preconceptions about languages and language learners. It could be detrimental, they conclude, for a language teacher to enter the classroom without the necessary reflection and self-awareness, as these teachers could unknowingly impose systems of linguistic discrimination (linguicism).[21]


A study to examine anti-racist pedagogy within predominantly white versus predominantly Mexican classrooms concluded that Mexican elementary-level students had a firmer grasp on cultural inequalities [22].  According to the findings, the social and cultural maturity of the Mexican students is a direct result of having faced the inequalities themselves.  Another study on Caucasian first-grade teachers versus their E.L.L. students indicated biases that ultimately affected their desire to learn. A combination of misinformation, stereotypes, and individual reservations can alter teachers' perception when working with culturally diverse or non-native English speakers.  Teachers are placed in the position to teach English learning students, sometimes without the necessary training. From a Walden University study, a handful of teachers at an elementary school expressed not having the energy, training, or time to perform for these students[23].

An ESL teacher, in a study called "Losing Strangeness to Mediate ESL Teaching", "connects culture to religious celebrations and holidays and the fusion invites students to share their knowledge".[24] This has encouraged students to open up and talk about their cultural backgrounds and traditions. "Teachers who encourage CLD students to maintain their cultural or ethnic ties promote their personal and academic success".[25]:90 Students should not lose their identity but gain knowledge from their culture and the world around them. It have been proven to be beneficial to bring culture into the ESL classroom in order for the students to feel a sense of worth in school and in their lives.

Another reason that an ESL student may be struggling to join discussions and engage in class could be attributed to whether they come from a culture where speaking up to an authority figure (like a teacher or a professor) is discouraged. This makes classes that are graded based on participation especially challenging for these students.

Outside of the classroom, ELL students are otherwise institutionally marginalized, as well. They often sit at separate lunch tables and are under-recognized in school assemblies.[16]

Prompts and Expectations[edit]

Aside from linguistic gaps, the adjustment to American scholarly expectations, writing genres, and prompts can all be jarring and even contradictory to ELLs academic experiences from their home country. An example of this is how American writing prompts tend to be multiple pages long, with extensive details and examples. Many collegiate ELLs can be overwhelmed and confused by all of the additional information, making it difficult to decipher all of the different parts that their writing needs to address. Another example is found in how students from other countries may be unfamiliar with sharing their opinions,[26] or criticizing the government in any form,[27] even if this is a requirement for an essay or a speech. According to a survey by Lin (2015), “Many [ELL students] indicated that they had problems adjusting their ways of writing in their first language to American thought patterns. Students still thought in their first language and used the rhetorical patterns of their first language to write English essays… Because writing patterns or styles are not only cognitively but also culturally embedded, many ELL writers in this study found it takes a significant amount of time to adapt to different thinking patterns when communicating through written English.”[28]

Enriching the Classroom Environment[edit]

In order to have an environment that is beneficial for the teacher and the student culture, literature, and other disciplines should be integrated systematically into the instruction. "Postponing content-area instruction until CLD students gain academic language skills widens the achievement gap between the learners and their native-English speaking peers".[25]:173 Relating to culture, teachers need to integrate it into the lesson, in order for the students to feel a sense of appreciation and a feeling of self-worth.

By integrating literature into the instruction students will benefit substantially. "Reading texts that match learner interests and English proficiency provide learners with comprehensible language input—a chance to learn new vocabulary in context and to see the syntax of the language".[29] Students will be motivated and will make learning more enjoyable. Lastly, by integrating other disciplines into the lesson it will make the content more significant to the learners and will create higher order thinking skills across the areas. By integrating language into other contents, it focuses not only on learning a second language, but using that language as a medium to learn mathematics, science, social studies, or other academic subjects".[30] When language and content areas are integrated ESL students become aware "that English is not just an object of academic interest nor merely a key to passing an examination; instead, English becomes a real means of interaction and sharing among people".[31] Therefore, students will be able to communicate across the curriculum, acquire higher level skills, and be successful in their daily lives.

ELL and International students benefit their domestic classmates as well. Not every student has the accessibility of travel, and integrating ELLs into mainstream classrooms can teach students about cultures that they are unfamiliar with and countries that they may never visit themselves.

Strategies for Supporting English language Learners in the Classroom[edit]

  • Incorporating technology

The internet makes it possible for students to view videos of activities, events, and places around the world. Viewing these activities can help English Language Learners develop an understanding of new concepts while at the same time building topic related schema (background knowledge).[32]

  • Experiential learning

The teacher can provide opportunities for English Language Learners to acquire vocabulary and build knowledge through hands-on learning.[33]

  • Connecting learning to prior knowledge

In order to make learning more meaningful, connect a new topic to an experience or event from the English Language Learner's background. This can support the English Language Learner in making connections between vocabulary in their L1 (first language) and English.[citation needed]

  • Incorporate culture into the classroom

As teachers help bring culture into the classroom, English Language Learners will feel more support within the classroom. This will help push to work harder towards their academics and progression with the English language.[34]

  • Supporting the students outside of school

To respond to deficiencies in the public school system, educators and student activists have created spaces that work to uplift ELL and their families.  Labeled as family-school-community partnerships, these spaces have sought out cultural and linguistic responsiveness through encouraging participation and addressing needs outside of school.  It is an interpretation of growth through art and community bonding meant to prime student development.[35]


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