The Diversity of English Language Learners

English language learners (ELLs) come to school with a wide variety of background knowledge, language, and literacy skills. The schooling experience of ELLs is impacted by many factors such as time in school, quality of instruction, transiency, home environment, and past emotional experiences in school. The following vignettes illustrate some of these differences.

Luis

Luis is a new arrival and is entering the 3rd grade in a U.S. school for the first time. He attended pre-kindergarten through second grade at a private school in Juárez, México and has a high literacy background in Spanish. His math is at an equivalent to 5th grade in the U.S.

Luis would benefit from an accelerated intervention that teaches him some basic sentences and function words in English so that he can understand what the teacher is asking students to do (such as: open your books, ask your partner, listen to the story on the tape). With a focus on function words and sentences, Luis will be able to understand and read English by the middle of the year, and be quite fluent by the end of the year. Spending some quality time after school with him will help him move quickly through the lessons and the English language.

Marla

Marla has been in the U.S. since kindergarten, but she is still identified as Limited English Proficient in second grade. Her parents are from Puerto Rico and do not speak English very well. Teacher and parental pressure to move her quickly into English resulted in subtractive bilingualism where she wasn't able to develop her literacy skills in Spanish. She struggled with reading all through first grade.

Marla needs an intensive intervention of phonics and English vocabulary that goes beyond basic words. She would benefit from formal intensive tutoring by a reading specialist. Once she reviews the sounds of English, teaching her comprehension skills (main idea, details, cause and effect) will help her improve her oral and reading skills.

Alberto

Alberto is in the second grade and has great difficulty understanding English. He can decode in Spanish, but has difficulty answering questions about what he read. His parents are migrant workers who spend only a few months a year in three different states. That means that Alberto attends three different schools with three different literacy programs. One is bilingual and the other two are English-only. He did not attend kindergarten and his difficulties began in first grade where most students were far ahead of him in social skills and language.

Alberto needs first of all to feel comfortable in the new classroom setting. Partnering him with a friendly bilingual boy will help his self-esteem. He will also need to develop basic reading skills in Spanish with the help of a bilingual teacher or a first-grade reading program in English that can be delivered intensely before he moves on to his other schools.

Characteristics of English language learners

The chart below illustrates various characteristics of English language learners. ELLs can fall into a number of different categories. ELLs have a better opportunity to develop literacy skills early in their school careers (pre-kindergarten to second grade) if the appropriate programs are offered. Students in categories 2 and 3 will have more probability of success because they bring a background in Spanish literacy. Students in categories 1 and 4 will need additional assistance. They will most likely need tutoring, extra help with oral language development, and development of background knowledge and content area concepts.

CategoryOral English ProficiencyLiteracy in SpanishLiteracy in English
Pre-K to second grades
1
NO
NO
NO
2
YES
YES
NO
3
NO
YES
NO
4
YES
NO
NO
Third to eighth grades
5
NO
NO
NO
6
YES
YES
NO
7
NO
YES
NO
8
YES
NO
NO

Students in grades 3 to 8 come to school fitting into any of the categories from 5 to 8. They will need various types of assistance that are more intensive and individualized, for it is typically around the third, fourth, fifth, and middle school grades when ELLs are expected to take high-stakes tests in English.

By far, the most challenging literacy interventions are for ELLs in middle schools. Students who come to the U.S. for the first time at this age have great difficulty catching up without intensive vocabulary and reading instruction integrated with content instruction.

At the other extreme, there are students who come extremely well educated in their country from private or public schools and ready to accelerate their learning of English. These students should not be placed in the slow-paced, low-level ESL classes. This would be detrimental to their educational and personal development.

In order to quickly address each student's needs, it will be important to ask the school to administer tests in the home language and in English in order to determine proficiency levels in both language and literacy and to implement an intervention.

Learn more about assessing and placing ELLs.

References

Adapted from: M. Calderón (2001) Curricula and methodologies used to teach Spanish-speaking limited English proficient students to read English. In Slavin, R.E. & M. Calderón (Eds.) Effective programs for Latino students. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates (p. 251-305).

And from: Walki, A. (1996). Access and engagement: Program design and instructional approaches for immigrant students in secondary school. Washington, D.C. Center for Applied Linguistics.

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Share My Lesson. For teachers, by teachers.

National Education Association. How Educators Can Advocate for English Language Learners.

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