What do teachers need to know about students who are learning to speak English?
Page 1: English Language Learners
The term English language learners (ELL), or English learners (EL), refers to students whose first language is not English but who are learning English. Note that in some states—California, for example—the preferred term is EL, which in the future might become more widely adopted. The term limited English proficient (LEP) is generally considered to be outdated, but is still used by the federal government.
Although as a group, English language learners attending schools in the United States speak more than 400 languages, the majority of them, some eighty-five percent, are native Spanish speakers. In fact, just five languages—Spanish, Vietnamese, Hmong, Chinese, and Korean—account for ninety-five percent of the language variance. Because the number of ELLs continues to increase in schools across the country, it is likely that every teacher at one time or another will work with them.
Though English language learners may have good conversational English skills, they may lack the vocabulary and academic language that is central to success in school. Because of this, ELLs generally score lower on academic achievement tests than do their English-speaking peers:
- Seventy-one percent of fourth-grade English language learners scored below basic (“Partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade level”) in standardized reading assessments. This was the case for thirty percent of their non-ELL peers.
- Forty-three percent of fourth-grade English language learners scored below basic in math, whereas sixteen percent of their non-ELL peers did so.
- Seventy-four percent of eighth-grade English language learners scored below basic on reading achievement tests and similarly on math, compared to approximately a quarter of their non-ELL peers.(U.S. Department of Education, 2009)
In order to improve the educational outcomes for English language learners, it is important that teachers know how to work effectively with them. To begin, teachers should avoid making generalizations about the ability of ELLs based on their backgrounds. In fact, ELLs are a diverse group with distinct characteristics that include their:
- Familiarity with English
- School experiences
- Socioeconomic status
We’ll look at each of these distinctions in more detail below.
Familiarity with English
Teachers sometimes assume that all of their English language learners have similar language needs; however, ELLs have a wide diversity of familiarity and comfort with English. Some are recent immigrants with little or no knowledge of the English language. Others are born in the United States yet might still be learning English. Some ELLs have a strong first language and are learning English, and others are trying to learn both their primary language and English at the same time. Inspect the graphic below to get a sense of some of the language distinctions among English language learners.
of English skills
a second language
As with their familiarity with English, ELLs also have a broad range of school experiences. In some cases, recent immigrants may have had little previous schooling. For example, they may have spent years in a refugee camp. Others might have received a quality education in their home country, including instruction in English, and arrived in the United States prepared to continue their education. The graphic below depicts a few examples of the kinds of school experiences these students might have had.
Socioeconomic status (SES) is another factor that distinguishes students from one another and can affect a student’s school performance. Some ELLs are from wealthy or middle-class backgrounds, while others live in poverty. Regardless of their SES, all students have valuable experiences that both contribute to the classroom and should be used as a basis for their learning.
Leonard Baca, Director of the BUENO Center for Multicultural Education, summarizes the distinctions among English language learners (time: 0:56).
Leonard Baca, EdD
School of Education
University of Colorado at Boulder
For Your Information
In addition to understanding their English language learners’ distinct backgrounds, it is important for teachers to recognize that family support is another factor that affects ELL students’ chances for academic success. Fostering a welcoming atmosphere in the school and, whenever possible, communicating with parents in their native language is critical. Doing so, teachers can develop a relationship with these families and gain an understanding of the families’ goals and values for their children.
Adults are better at learning a second language than are young children.
Math is easy for English language learners because numbers are universal.
Immersion is the best way to learn a second language.
A student’s first language interferes with his or her ability to learn a second language.
It takes between five to seven years to become proficient enough in a second language to succeed in an English-only classroom.