Instructional Programs for English Language Learners

One of the major decisions in the field of teaching English language learners (ELLs) is which program of instruction to use. These programs range from bilingual education to English-only immersion.

The purpose of Colorín Colorado is not to advocate one program of instruction over another. Many experts and policy makers are now suggesting that the focus of the program debate shift from how much time to spend on each language of instruction to the quality of instruction. Although there is no quick and easy solution for closing the gap between ELLs and native English speakers, there are a number of instructional program models which, when well implemented, can improve the quality of education for ELLs.

Listed below are different programs of instruction for English language learners. Your options and decisions will depend upon your state, district, school, faculty, and individual ELLs. Different situations will require different programs.

English language instructional programs

ESL (English as a second language) programs (rather than bilingual programs) are likely to be used in districts where the student population represents many different languages. ESL programs can accommodate students from different language backgrounds in the same class, and teachers do not need to be proficient in the home language(s) of their students.

ESL pull-out

Students spend part of the school day in a mainstream classroom, but are pulled out for a portion of each day to receive instruction in English as a second language.

Content-based ESL programs

These programs include structured immersion, sheltered English, and Specially Designed Academic Instruction in English (SDAIE). They all share the goal of teaching English language learners both English language and academic content. Teachers use a variety of strategies – such as the use of gestures, visual aids, and simplified English – so that students can access content.

Bilingual instructional programs

There is a common misconception that all instructional programs serving ELLs are bilingual programs; however, bilingual programs actually refer only to programs that conduct instruction in two languages.

All bilingual program models use the students' home language, in addition to English, for instruction. These programs are most easily implemented in districts with a large number of students from the same language background. Students in bilingual programs are grouped according to their first language, and teachers must be proficient in both English and the students' home language. Another popular format is for two teachers (mainstream and first language) to co-teach the standards-based curriculum.

Transitional Bilingual or Early-exit bilingual programs

These programs are designed to help children acquire the English skills required to succeed in an English-only mainstream classroom. These programs provide some initial instruction in the students' first language, primarily for the introduction of reading, but also for clarification. This method is most common in the early elementary grades, with instruction in the first language usually phased out after two or three years in the program.

Maintenance Bilingual or Late-exit programs

These programs, also called developmental, are similar to early-exit programs, but they continue for a longer period of time. Students remain in late-exit programs for several years, often throughout elementary school and continue to receive 40% or more of their instruction in their first language, even when they have been reclassified as fluent-English-proficient.

Two-way bilingual programs

Also called paired bilingual and dual language, these programs group English language learners from a single language background in the same classroom with native English speakers. Ideally, there is a nearly 50/50 balance between ELLs and native English speakers. Instruction is divided equally between English and the other language. Students serve as native-speaker role models for their peers. Two-way bilingual classes may be taught by a single teacher who is proficient in both languages or by two teachers, one of whom is bilingual. Students remain in these programs throughout elementary school, and in some locations these programs exist in middle and high schools.

Successful program models for promoting the academic achievement of language minority students are those that enable these students to develop academic skills while learning English. The best program organization is one that is tailored to meet the linguistic, academic, and emotional needs of students; provides language minority students with the instruction necessary to allow them to progress through school at a rate commensurate with their native-English-speaking peers; and makes the best use of district and community resources.


List of program models adapted from: Rennie, J. (1993). ESL and Bilingual Program Models. ERIC Digest. ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics. Digest based on an article in (August, 1993) Streamlined Seminar (vol. 12, no.1). National Association of Elementary School Principals.


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