What Is ELL? The Complete Introduction to ELL Students, Objectives and Program Types

What is ELL, and who are English Language Learners?

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

Before we dive into the definition of ELL students, it is important to establish that English is constantly evolving. New words and terms are approved by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) every year. In 2015, for instance, over 500 words were added, including twerk, yarn-bombing and crowdfunding.

The abbreviation of “ELL” is no exception to the rule of change in the English language. There are different definitions floating out there in the community of professional English educators. One thing we can all agree on, however, is that English Language Learners require additional support to help boost their English skills.

However, if you are planning or adjusting lessons for ELL students, it is important to be aware of the choices of definitions and to be aware of the context in which they are used.

A Review of ELL Literature

In keeping with becoming more progressive, it was suggested that students of English as a Second Language (ESL) be referred to as English Language Learners (ELL) at the Fresh Voices from Long Journeys: Immigrant and Refugee Students conference in British Colombia, Canada in 2011.

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.

Similarly, 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.

So although the term ESL is still widely used, 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.

An alternative view, however, is that ELL students are those who need extra help to get to fluency faster, especially those who need to improve their English in order to perform well in English-language subject classes at an English-language school. Consequently, the overlap of the term ELL with ESL can be confusing.

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Definitions of ELL

Not all educators, students and parents, however, agree 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.

Under the rubric of this definition, ELL students often 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.

However, there are also those who were born in an English-speaking culture, but who have not learned to use the language properly. Often these students come from lower socio-economic backgrounds and the level of language spoken at home is low. Even though they are technically native English speakers, they cannot yet communicate proficiently in the language.

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

Objectives of ELL

Although the objectives of ELL vary from country to country and from program to program, there are some core values.

The overall primary objective is to get ELL students proficient in English as quickly as possible. This will allow ELL students to be integrated into classrooms and social settings, and to be able to communicate effectively.

Additional goals include having ELL students succeed academically and be successful in their post-secondary educational aspirations. In order to achieve these objectives, the ELL students must develop critical thinking skills and test-taking skills along with their English language skills.

Perhaps the ultimate objective is to have ELL students become active, participating citizens who are comfortable in both English and their native language(s).

Specific objectives include improving skills in the areas of grammar, vocabulary development, listening, speaking, pronunciation, reading and writing.

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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, 27 states have adopted the criteria put forward by TESOL International.

In Vermont, for example, students must be between the ages of 3 and 21 and have limited English proficiency (LEP) to qualify for an ELL program.

The province of Ontario in Canada 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.

7 Types of ELL Programs

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.

1. 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 designated times of the school day.

2. The English Language Instruction Program

This is generally used in areas where the students have a variety of different 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 represented by the students in attendance.

3. The Content-based ESL Program

This approach is to use 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 help them teach concepts and vocabulary.

4. 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, for instance—and can communicate well in their mother tongue.

5. The Transitional Bilingual Program / Early-exit Program

This program of two names operates with the goal of preparing students to succeed in mainstream English-only schools and classrooms as soon as possible, but with a different approach. The theory that putting the students in English-only situations will accelerate their learning and proficiency is still held, but here there is a particular 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 will apply to their English learning.

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

6. 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.

7. 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.

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.

The Debate Will Continue

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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