What Defines an English Language Learner?

Tahlea Jankoski | Published  June 09, 2018


ELL teacher in a classroom

English Language Learners (ELL) represents a growing population of U.S. students. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, approximately 9.5 percent of students in U.S. public schools are English-Language Learners, meaning English is not their first language. These students rely on classes that teach English along with fundamental academic studies to help them develop stronger language skills. 

A number of English-language terms are used to describe ELL which can cause confusion among educators, including limited English proficient students, non-native English speakers, or language-minority students. While a variety of terms may be used  throughout different school districts, these terms generally describe any student who has limited proficiency in English. 

What obstacles do ELL students face?

For many ELL students, they face a variety of challenges outside of school that can influence their academic progression, such as living in poverty or moving and changing schools. These students may also enter school with little or no formal education previously, or have their schooling interrupted because of family circumstances outside of school. 

ELL students may struggle to keep up in regular classroom studies because of their lack of exposure to English within their homes. Without ELL classes, or dual-language courses, to help them improve their language skills, ELL students fall behind in their academic studies. 

What does this mean for teachers?

Since non-English speaking students come from varied educational backgrounds, this can make it challenging for teachers to support individual learning needs. As ELL students apply language learning with their academic studies, they will more easily become familiar with educational terms and topics that will help them be more prepared for integration into regular academic studies. 

Programs being implemented into schools

A variety of education models have been integrated into classrooms to help English-Language Learners including English as a second language, sheltered instruction, and dual-language education. 

English as a second language uses learning materials that are tailored to help ELL students receive language lessons and academic coursework at the same time. Sheltered instruction provides language and academic coursework within a regular school or separate academy where ELL students are "sheltered" in the same class to learn together. Dual-language education, also known as bilingual education, focuses on improving English fluency by teaching in two different languages. 

Can STEM programs benefit ELL?

Hands-on learning and STEM programs can provide ELL students an opportunity to more clearly understand how the world around them works. Teachers can explain the steps that are needed to complete a task and help coach students to understand a process that requires critical thinking that can be applied to the real-world. 

Not only do students learn new vocabulary through STEM, but they see the relation of what a new term or idea means as they work through hands-on projects. STEM can provide an all-in-one education for ELL students and support their development of English proficiency. 


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