ell class

What Is ELL? The Essential Guide to Teaching English Language Learners

What is ELL, and who are English Language Learners?

Why do they want and need to learn to speak English fluently?

There are different definitions floating out there, but one thing we can all agree on is that English Language Learners require additional support to help boost their English skills.

If you are planning lessons for ELL students, this guide will fill you in on what ELL is all about, including types of programs and effective teaching techniques.


How did ELL Start?

kids speaking different languages

English as a Second Language (ESL) is one of the most common terms you’ll hear in English educator circles. This refers to students who have a different native language from English, but who need to learn it because they live in a mainly English-speaking place.

But in a 2011 conference in Canada about immigrant and refugee students, it was suggested that ESL students be referred to as ELL instead, or English Language Learners. 

The reason given for changing the term ESL to ELL was that many ESL students already speak more than one language. For example:

  • Children in northern Nigeria speak their village language first. Next they learn the regional language and add a third language, Hausa, when they start school. So English, in fact, would be their fourth—not second—language.
  • Many people in Europe speak three or four languages from birth or early childhood, so calling them second-language learners is denying them their polyglot status.

The term ESL is still widely used, but in some circles, ELL is edging in and being used by educators. Think of the evolution of Miss and Mrs. to Ms. as a parallel example.

What is ELL? 

Not everyone agrees, though, with the definition of ELL being students who already speak more than one language.

The Glossary of Education Reform, for example, classifies ELL students as those who cannot communicate effectively in English. Consequently, there are some who use limited English proficiency (LEP) and ELL interchangeably. 

Based on this definition, these are the most common types of ELL students:

  • Many ELL students come from immigrant or refugee backgrounds. English is not spoken in their homes, so they need additional support at school to help them achieve success in their English-language education, where the majority of their peers are native speakers and classes are all conducted in English.
  • ELL students can also include those who are technically native English speakers, but cannot yet communicate proficiently in the language. Often these students come from lower socio-economic backgrounds and the level of language spoken at home is low. 

Others instead take ESL and ELL to mean the same thing, and use it to refer to almost anyone who is actively learning English.

What are the Goals of ELL?

asian teenage girl reading

The main goal of ELL is to get students proficient in English as quickly as possible. This allows ELL students to communicate effectively and integrate into classrooms and social settings.

Additional objectives for ELL students include:

  • Doing well academically and being successful in post-secondary education
  • Developing critical thinking skills and test-taking skills along with English language skills
  • Improving skills in grammar, vocabulary development, listening, speaking, pronunciation, reading and writing

Ultimately, ELL aims to help students become active, participating citizens who are comfortable in both English and their native language(s).

What are ELL Standards and Requirements?

According to Diane Staehr and John Segota, when it comes to ELL, standards are important. Students who do not have English as a first language have to work harder than their classmates to function and communicate in a language that is not their own.

Consequently, standards provide a measurable benchmark for defining language acquisition and proficiency.

The first ESL standards were set in 1991—and subsequently revised in 2006—by TESOL International. Each state in America has the option to decide on ESL/ELL programs and standards. However, at least 27 states have adopted the criteria put forward by TESOL International.

In New York, for example, schools generally provide bilingual education programs, with a certain number of required units for English proficiency classes. 

The province of Ontario in Canada also prefers a bilingual approach. Given the multicultural mix of students there, the schools in Ontario try to integrate the ELL students into mainstream English classes while encouraging them to keep speaking their first language.

What are the Types of ELL Programs?

ell class

Given the wide variety of courses and materials, the initial decision is “Which ELL program to use?” This is at the discretion of each educational institution, with some limitations or guidance given by the region where it is established.

The ESL Pull-out Program

Students spend most of the day in a regular classroom, but are then “pulled out” for additional English language instruction at specific times of the school day.

The English Language Instruction Program

This is generally used in areas where the students have a variety of language backgrounds. As there is no common language other than English, this approach tries to get all students into mainstream classes as quickly as possible. The language of instruction in this program is 100% English, as no one teacher will know all the various native languages spoken by the students.

The Content-based ESL Program

This uses the Specially Designed Academic Instruction in English (SDAIE) or Sheltered English Instruction methodology. The goal is to merge academic content with English language skills. Teachers use strategies that include simplified English, gestures and visual aids to teach concepts and vocabulary.

The Bilingual Instructional Program

Rather than focusing entirely on English, students are taught in two languages: their native tongue and English. To be effective, teachers must be bilingual and or able to co-teach with someone who is fluent in the native language.

This program works best in areas where students all have the same native language—such as a predominantly Hispanic immigrant community in a region of the United States—and can communicate well in their mother tongue.

The Transitional Bilingual Program / Early-exit Program

This program aims to prepare students to succeed in mainstream English-only schools and classrooms as soon as possible, but with a unique approach. It’s still based on the theory that putting students in English-only situations will accelerate their proficiency, but there is emphasis on helping students achieve total fluency in their native language(s) as well.

The program will transition from bilingual instruction to full-on English language instruction once the students have made considerable progress in their native language(s). The idea is that mastering the native language(s) will help students learn critical skills for language acquisition that they can apply to learning English.

This program moves over to English as quickly as possible for students.

The Maintenance Bilingual / Late-exit Program

Juxtapose early-exit with the maintenance bilingual or late-exit program and there is yet another consideration to be made. Unlike the early-exit, students in this program will spend several years continuing to speak their native language even when they are classified as fluently proficient in English. The goal is to maintain fluency in both languages at the same time.

The Two-way Bilingual Program

Programs that fall under this designation, also known as dual language or paired bilingual programs, are another choice. This kind of program is ideal for a situation where there is a 50/50 balance between native English speakers and ELL students.

The students are taught in both languages, and the ELL students serve as role models and work with their peers. The teachers must be bilingual, and if the program works well, so should all the students.

How Can I Teach ELL Students Effectively?

young ell students

No matter which program you opt for, it is important to keep the ELL students motivated and involved.

Remember that even the best of programs cannot stand on their own without dedicated and committed teachers who understand student learning styles.

We have put together the list of learning strategies below based on professional experience, research (including White, Schramm & Chamot (2007) and Rubin, Chamot, Harris & Anderson (2007)) and also with ELL students in mind.

You can read the most recent research on learning strategies on Google Scholar.

With these, you’ll be able to create autonomous learners, waste less time on strategies that don’t work, and plan your lessons more effectively: 


Your students need to see how to put concepts into practice. Therefore you should model whatever concept you wish to teach by walking your students through it. It’s important to do this within the context of a normal lesson, so that the students can see how they can put it into practice in future lessons.


Explain clearly what you’re doing, how a learning technique works and in what situations it’s an appropriate technique. Ensure the students understand each stage of the technique and why it makes their learning experience easier.

Give Examples

This one speaks for itself. If you’re teaching students to observe grammar rules, walk them through various examples of this and check at each stage that they understand the rules you have made. Better yet, get the students to keep a copy of the work they’ve produced, so that they can refer back to it the next time they want to use it.


Once you have helped the students to familiarize themselves with a concept, you should then begin to “fade” your assistance, giving the students the chance to implement it themselves. This helps your students to take responsibility for their own learning and become much more autonomous!


If you see one of your students struggling with applying a concept after you have faded your assistance, you should give them as much chance as possible to succeed, but provide personalized assistance if you feel that this student is becoming demotivated or if the teaching strategy doesn’t suit their individual needs. Ask them what they feel works better for them and help them work towards this.

For more ELL teaching strategies, you can check out this detailed list:

What are the Benefits for ELL Students?

motivated students

With the strategies above, students feel more empowered to:

  • Take responsibility for their own learning.

    Once your students become aware of how they learn best, they’ll be able to put this into practice, both in your classes and in their autonomous learning time. They’ll be empowered to learn faster and more accurately, which in turn will motivate them to continue learning. They’ll finally get to realize that, hey, what they like best really makes a difference!

  • Play to their strengths.

    Remember how frustrating it was in school to be sitting in your worst class, say Math, struggling while everyone else around you seemingly understood exactly what they were doing? You’d much rather have been in your favorite class, like English, where you could excel with very little effort, right?

    Well, that’s how students can feel when they’re employing learning strategies that don’t suit them: bored, frustrated and powerless. Students are much more comfortable playing to their strengths, and once they’ve found their strongest learning strategies, they’ll soon excel where they previously floundered.

  • Monitor their own goals and achievements.

    Ideally, your students will be able to see their own progress and will have the tools to monitor it themselves. It’s obviously essential that teachers are able to monitor progress too, but if this progress is a secret to your student, they’re in danger of becoming demotivated and frustrated.

  • Learn English more quickly!

    This, surely, is the biggest plus for both you and your students. When students stick to methods that actually work for them, they’ll find that they can learn just about any aspect of the language much faster than they could when using the strategy that works for the person next to them!

Where Can I Find More Resources for Teaching ELL Students?

Rebecca Oxford published a book in 1990 called “Language Learning Strategies: What Every Teacher Should Know.” Reading this will help you become more familiar with the research surrounding language learning strategies.

You can also encourage your students to complete Oxford’s Strategy Inventory for Language Learning (SILL) in order to gain an idea of what learning strategies they are already using, and what types of strategies they may want to try.


Just as English is a constantly evolving language, the debates continue within the ESL/ELL/LEP community. That is a sign of healthy development, as being complacent is the first sign of disinterest. As educators, we cannot allow that to happen.

So wade in the ELL forum and make your views known, as it will help strengthen the community.

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