Program Models for Teaching English Language Learners

Children from families in which English is not the language of the home represent a rapidly increasing percentage of students enrolled in U.S. schools. Language minority students can be found in schools across the country, not just those in large cities or in areas near the U.S.-Mexican border. All schools must be prepared to meet the challenge of an increasingly diverse student population, including many students who are not proficient in English.

The effectiveness of various program models for language minority students remains the subject of controversy. Although there may be reasons to claim the superiority of one program model over another in certain situations (Collier 1992; Ramirez, Yuen, and Ramey 1991), a variety of programs can be effective. The choice should be made at the local level after careful consideration of the needs of the students involved and the resources available.

ESL program models

ESL programs (rather than bilingual programs) are likely to be used in districts where the language minority population is very diverse and 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
  • This is generally used in elementary school settings. 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.

  • ESL class period
  • This is generally used in middle school settings. Students receive ESL instruction during a regular class period and usually receive course credit. They may be grouped for instruction according to their level of English proficiency.

  • The ESL resource center
  • This is a variation of the pull-out design, bringing students together from several classrooms or schools. The resource center concentrates ESL materials and staff in one location and is usually staffed by at least one full-time ESL teacher.

Bilingual program models

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.

  • Early-exit bilingual programs
  • These 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. Instruction in the first language is phased out rapidly, with most students mainstreamed by the end of first or second grade.

  • Late-exit programs
  • These differ from early-exit programs "primarily in the amount and duration that English is used for instruction as well as the length of time students are to participate in each program" (Ramirez, Yuen, & Ramey, 1991). Students remain in late-exit programs 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 developmental bilingual programs, these group language minority students from a single language background in the same classroom with language majority (English-speaking) students. Ideally, there is a nearly 50/50 balance between language minority and language majority students. Instruction is provided in both English and the minority 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.

Other program models

Some programs provide neither instruction in the native language nor direct instruction in ESL. However, instruction is adapted to meet the needs of students who are not proficient in English.

  • Sheltered English or content-based programs
  • These group language minority students from different language backgrounds together in classes where teachers use English as the medium for providing content area instruction, adapting their language to the proficiency level of the students. They may also use gestures and visual aids to help students understand. Although the acquisition of English is one of the goals of sheltered English and content-based programs, instruction focuses on content rather than language.

  • Structured immersion programs
  • These use only English, but there is no explicit ESL instruction. As in sheltered English and content-based programs, English is taught through the content areas. Structured immersion teachers have strong receptive skills in their students' first language and have a bilingual education or ESL teaching credential. The teacher's use of the children's first language is limited primarily to clarification of English instruction. Most students are mainstreamed after 2 or 3 years.


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 affective 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.


Excerpted 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.


Collier, V. P. (1992). A Synthesis of studies examining long-term language minority student data on academic achievement. Bilingual Research Journal, 16, p. 187-212.

Garcia, E. (1991). Education of linguistically and culturally diverse students: Effective instructional practices. Educational practice report number 1. Santa Cruz, CA and Washington, DC: National Center for Research on Cultural Diversity and Second Language Learning. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 338 099)

Lucas T., Henze, R., & Donato, R. (1990). Promoting the success of Latino language minority students: An Exploratory study of six high schools. Harvard Educational Review, 60 (1), 315-340.

McKeon, D. (1987). Different types of ESL programs. ERIC Digest. Washington, DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics.

Pease-Alvarez, L., Garcia, E., & Espinosa, P. (1991). Effective instruction for language minority students: An early childhood case study. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 6, 347-361.

Ramirez, J. D., Yuen, S. D., & Ramey, D. R. (1991). Longitudinal study of structured English immersion strategy, early-exit, and late-exit transitional bilingual education programs for language-minority children. San Mateo, CA: Aguirre International.

Tikunoff, W., Ward, B., van Broekhuizen, D., Romero, M., Castaneda, L.V., Lucas, T., & Katz, A. (1991). A Descriptive study of significant features of exemplary special alternative instructional programs. Washington: U. S. Department of Education, Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Languages Affairs.

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