Ray Williams
Material Type:
Case Study
High School
English, Language
Creative Commons Attribution

English Language Learner?


An English Language Learner is anyone, of any age, whose first (or native) language is not English and is currently learning English. Usually, this term is used in the US for students (K-12 and post-secondary) whose first language is not English

What is an English Language Learner?


An English Language Learner is anyone, of any age, whose first (or native) language is not English and is currently learning English. Usually, this term is used in the US for students (K-12 and post-secondary) whose first language is not English.

Other Terms Describing English Language Learners

Here is a list of terms used either for English Language Learners (ELLs) or to describe them:

  • emergent bilinguals.
  • Limited English Proficient (LEPs)
  • language minority.

Who Is an English Language Learner?

Anyone whose first, also called native, language is not English, and who is learning to use English in his or her life, is an English Language Learner. In the United States, this term is applied to all students at the pre-Kindergarten through Grade 12 (preschool, elementary, middle or junior high and high school), as well as college and university levels. It also applies to adult learners.

Learning Formulaic Expressions in Another Language

Formulaic expressions, expressions that do not change much, such as greetings, are usually acquired first by learners of a second language. These are expressions, in any language, that learners can group into chunks and store in their memory. This is a process called chunking and it also occurs, for example, when we memorize phone numbers. The numbers 4-8-1-1-2-3-4 are more easily retained when grouped into larger "chunks," such as 481-1234.

Social Language Is the Next Level Acquired

Social language, the language that we need and use in our everyday lives, is called Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) by language acquisition researchers and professionals. These are the language skills that we use daily, usually in informal situations. For school-age children, this is the language used for interactions with friends or classmates in the school yard, on the school bus, in the lunch room or cafeteria, talking on the phone. These interactions do not require specialized or complicated language nor is it very cognitively demanding. Because these situations are context embedded, that is, these conversations are often face-to-face which offers the listener cues like facial expressions, gestures and concrete objects of reference (things to point to), and occur in a meaningful social context, these language skills develop the fastest for an English Language Learner; usually ELLs develop BICS between six months to two years after arrival in the United States.

Academic Language Is the Last Level to Develop

Academic language is the last layer of language, or discourse, to develop. Language acquisition experts and researchers call this Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency or CALP. It is language acquired through formal academic study or learning and includes all the domains of language: listening, speaking, reading and writing. CALP is developed by studying all of our core content subject areas. Learning academic discourse, though, is not just limited to learning content area vocabulary. It includes all of Bloom's Taxonomy, a hierarchy of learning (and learned) skills and tasks: comparing, classifying, synthesizing, evaluating, inferring. These tasks are context reduced, which means information is more abstract, read from a textbook or presented by a teacher. The older a student gets, the more in-depth the material becomes, the more reduced the context becomes and the more complex and cognitively demanding learning becomes as new (abstract) ideas, concepts, language, are presented to the students simultaneously.

Development of CALP, therefore, is essentially to success in school. Research has shown that it takes at least between five to seven years to develop CALP. For students who have had no or limited prior schooling in their native language, Thomas and Collier's research has shown that it may take seven to ten years for them to catch up to their native-speaking peers.

Different Methods of Instruction for ELLs

Here is a list and description of a few instructional methods for ELLs in use in the United States:

“English-Only,” English Immersion or Sheltered Immersion: 100% of instruction is delivered in essay in english. In Sheltered Immersion or Sheltered English Immersion (SEI) programs, content lessons use simplified college english essay in order to help students learn the language (from social to academic discourse) as well as the academic subjects. This is a method that embeds language learning with content learning across all academic subjects (Science, Math, etc.). Immersion, therefore, is a program-level term.

English as a Second Language (ESL) or English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL): ESL classes are similar to the Immersion classes in that they are conducted predominantly in English. Typically, however, the ESL class is the equivalent of an English Language Arts class – that is, it is a course on language and literature. ESL, therefore, may also be one component of an entire English Immersion or Sheltered English Immersion program. If students in the class share a common first language, that language may be used to support learning. However, increasingly, students in an ESL class speak many different first (or native) languages, so English immersion becomes the default method of instruction in an ESL course. ESL or ESOL are instruction-level terms.

Transitional Bilingual Education (TBE): This is a program-level term. Instruction for part of the day (usually for the core academic subject courses) is in students’ native language. The other part of the day is dedicated to English language skill building, usually through an ESL method course. This type of program works when students in the program all share a first (or native) language).

Two-way bilingual education: Also called dual immersion or dual language education, this is a program-level term. The goal of this type of program/instruction is to develop bilingual proficiency and content mastery throughout the entire student body, regardless of whether a student is a native speaker of English or not. In this type of program, students are taught content in both English and another language. Typically, the other language is that of the non-native English speakers in the program. (For example, in a community with many Spanish-speaking immigrants, a two-way bilingual program would teach core subject courses, such as Math, in English and in Spanish whereas in a community with many Mandarin Chinese-speaking immigrants, a two-way bilingual program would teach those academic core content courses in English and in Mandarin Chinese.) The students in these classes are mixed; that is, for example, if there are two Kindergarten classrooms in a two-way bilingual elementary school, there would be a mix of native English-speaking and English Language Learners in each classroom. One classroom teacher, however, would be a native speaker of English and the other a native speaker of the non-English language. These two teachers would teach the same curriculum for part of the day and then swap for the other part of the day so that students in both classrooms receive the same content in both languages. In this way, the goal of creating bilingual proficiency for all students in the school/program is achieved.

Total Physical Response (TPR): TPR is an instruction-level method for teaching language. Similar to playing a game of charades, it uses the body (the physical response) to teach the context for vocabulary and some grammar. This is usually used as one of several methods within an entire language learning lesson, course, or program.