English-language learners, or ELLs, are students who are unable to communicate fluently or learn effectively in English, who often come from non-English-speaking homes and backgrounds, and who typically require specialized or modified instruction in both the English language and in their academic courses.
Educators use a number of terms when referring to English-language learners, including English learners (or ELs), limited English proficient(LEP) students, non-native English speakers, language-minority students, and either bilingual students or emerging bilingual students. The proliferation of terms, some of which may be used synonymously and some of which may not, can create confusion. For example, the term English-language learner is often used interchangeably with limited English proficient student, but some school districts and states may define the terms differently for distinct classifications of students. Nonetheless, the federal government and many state governments have acknowledged that both terms refer to the same group of students—those with limited proficiency in English. When investigating or reporting on English-language learners, it is important to determine precisely how the term, or a related term, is being defined in a specific educational context. In some cases, for example, the terms are used in a general sense, while in others they may be used in an official or technical sense to describe students with specific linguistic needs who receive specialized educational services.
Generally speaking, English-language learners do not have the English-language ability needed to participate fully in American society or achieve their full academic potential in schools and learning environments in which instruction is delivered largely or entirely in English. In most cases, students are identified as “English-language learners” after they complete a formal assessment of their English literacy, during which they are tested in reading, writing, speaking, and listening comprehension; if the assessment results indicate that the students will struggle in regular academic courses, they may be enrolled in either dual-language courses or English as a second language (ESL) programs.
English-language learners may also be students who were formerly classified as limited English proficient, but who have since acquired English-language abilities that have allowed them to transition into regular academic courses taught in English. While assessment results may indicate that they have achieved a level of English literacy that allows them to participate and succeed in English-only learning environments, the students may still struggle with academic language. For this reason, the federal government requires schools and programs receiving federal funding for English-language-learner programs to monitor the academic progress of students and provide appropriate academic support for up to two years after they transition into regular academic courses.
English-language learners are not only the fastest-growing segment of the school-age population in the United States, but they are also a tremendously diverse group representing numerous languages, cultures, ethnicities, nationalities, and socioeconomic backgrounds. While most English-language learners were born in the United States, their parents and grandparents are often immigrants who speak their native language at home. In addition, English-language learners may face a variety of challenges that could adversely affect their learning progress and academic achievement, such as poverty, familial transiency, or non-citizenship status, to name just a few. Some English-language learners are also recently arrived immigrants or refugees who may have experienced war, social turmoil, persecution, and significant periods of educational disruption. In some extreme cases, for example, adolescent-age students may have had little or no formal schooling, and they may suffer from medical or psychological conditions related to their experiences (the term students with interrupted formal education, or SIFE, is often used in reference to this subpopulation of English-language learners).
On average, English-language learners also tend, relative to their English-speaking peers, to underperform on standardized tests, drop out of school at significantly higher rates, and decline to pursue postsecondary education. In school, they may also be enrolled—at significantly higher rates than their English-speaking peers—in lower-level courses taught by underprepared or less-experienced teachers who may not have the specialized training and resources needed to teach English-language learners effectively.
The increase in the number of English-language learners in public schools, coupled with the significant educational challenges faced by this student population, has led to numerous changes in curriculum, instruction, assessment, and teacher preparation. For example, states and national organizations have developed standards to guide curriculum and instruction in English-as a second language programs, while customized teaching and learning materials for English-language learners are now routinely introduced into regular academic courses. In addition, assessments and standardized tests have also been adapted to more accurately measure the academic achievement of English-language learners, and the majority of states now use the same large-scale assessment—the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment consortium’s ACCESS assessment (Assessing Comprehension and Communication in English State-to-State)—to identify English-language learners, place them into appropriate programs, and measure their academic progress and English acquisition. Teacher-preparation programs and certification requirements have also been modified to address relevant skills and training, and many states and national accrediting associations require formal training in the instruction of English-language learners. And in schools with significant populations of English-language learners, relevant experience, credentials, and training are often given priority during hiring and employment.
While there are a wide variety of instructional models and academic-support strategies for English-language learners being used throughout the United States, the following represent the three dominant forms:
- Dual-language education, formerly called bilingual education, refers to academic programs that are taught in two languages. While schools and teachers may use a wide variety of dual-language strategies, each with its own specific instructional goals, the programs are typically designed to develop English fluency, content knowledge, and academic language simultaneously.
- English as a second language refers to the teaching of English to students with different native or home languages using specially designed programs and techniques. English as a second language is an English-only instructional model, and most programs attempt to develop English skills and academic knowledge simultaneously. It is also known as English for speakers of other languages (ESOL), English as an additional language (EAL), and English as a foreign language (EFL).
- Sheltered instruction refers to programs in which English-language learners are “sheltered” together to learn English and academic content simultaneously, either within a regular school or in a separate academy or building. Teachers are specially trained in sheltered instructional techniques that may require a distinct licensure, and there are many different sheltered models and instructional variations.
Given the culturally sensitive and often ideologically contentious nature of the peripheral issues raised by the participation of non-English-speaking students in the American public-education system—including politicized debates related to citizenship status, English primacy, immigration reform, and employment and social-services eligibility for non-citizens—it is perhaps unsurprising that English-language learners, and the instructional methods used to educate them, can become a source of debate. For example, a significant number of states have adopted “English as the official language” statutes, and citizen referendums have passed in other states prohibiting dual-language instruction except in special cases.
The issues of citizenship status and fairness tend to be at the center of debates about English-language learners and the best ways to educate them. Critics often argue that the use of the non-English languages in public schools (outside of world-language courses) deemphasizes the role of English as a source of linguistic and cultural unification. While critics generally do not object to bilingualism—the ability to speak two languages—they often contend that non-English instruction inhibits or delays the acquisition of English fluency (yet there is a growing body of research indicating that increasing reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills in their native languages can facilitate English acquisition among English-language learners).
While there is widespread agreement that English-language learners should become proficient in English, debates often center on issues related to cultural assimilation. Those who favor assimilation into American society tend to emphasize English-only policies and instruction, while those who favor acculturation tend to argue for the importance of maintaining bicultural identity and bilingual development. In addition, since English-language learners and dual-education programs may require additional funding, training, and staffing, debates about fairness and resource allocation may also arise.
For more detailed discussions, see dual-language education (for debates related to non-English instruction), multicultural education (for debates related to cultural education and assimilation), and test accommodations and test bias (for debates related to the assessment of English-language learners).