ell class

ELL Students: What Teachers Need to Know About Them

What is ELL, and who are English Language Learners?

You’ll find different definitions floating out there.

One thing we can all agree on, however, is that English Language Learners require additional support to help boost their language skills.

If you’re 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?

English as a Second Language (ESL) is one of the most common terms you’ll hear in English educator circles. This usually refers to students who have a different native language from English and want to learn the latter.

However, in a 2011 conference in Canada about immigrant and refugee students, it was suggested that ESL students be referred to as ELL (English Language Learners) instead. The reason given 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 would, in fact, 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 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 English Language Learners:

  • Those who come from immigrant or refugee backgrounds. English is not spoken in their homes. Consequently, they need additional support to help them achieve success at school, where the majority of their peers are native speakers and classes are all conducted in English.
  • 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. 

Still others take ESL and ELL to mean the same thing and use them to refer to almost anyone actively learning English.

What are the Goals of ELL?

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

Additional objectives for these students include:

  • Doing well academically and in post-secondary education
  • Developing critical thinking and test-taking skills along with English language skills
  • Improving 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, standards are important when it comes to ELL. Students who don’t have English as a first language have to work harder than their classmates to function and communicate in a tongue that’s 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 the United States has the option to decide on ESL/ELL programs and standards.

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 English Language Learners into mainstream English classes while encouraging them to keep speaking their first language.

What are the Types of ELL Programs?

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’s no common language other than English, this approach tries to get all students into mainstream classes as quickly as possible.

This program is taught entirely in 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

As the program name implies, 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 fluent in the students’ 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, albeit there’s emphasis on helping them achieve total fluency in their native language(s) as well.

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

The Maintenance Bilingual / Late-exit Program

Unlike in the early-exit approach, students in this program will spend several years continuing to speak their native language even when they’re classified as proficient in English. The goal is to maintain fluency in both languages at the same time.

The Two-way Bilingual Program

Also known as dual language or paired bilingual programs, two-way bilingual programs are ideal in contexts where there’s a 50/50 balance between native English speakers and ELL students.

The students are taught in both languages and the English Language Learners serve as role models and work with their peers. Therefore, it’s crucial that the teachers be bilingual in this case.

How Can I Teach English Language Learners Effectively?

No matter which program you opt for, it’s important to keep these 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’ve put together the list of learning strategies below based on professional experience and research—including White, Schramm & Chamot (2007) and Rubin, Chamot, Harris & Anderson (2007).

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. This way, the students can see how they can put it into practice in future lessons.


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

Give Examples

If you’re teaching students to observe grammar rules, walk them through various examples of such and check at each stage whether they’ve understood the rules. Better yet, get the students to keep a copy of the work they’ve produced so they can refer back to it.


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


If you see one of your students struggling with a concept after you’ve faded your assistance, you should do what you can to help them succeed. However, if you feel that this student is becoming demotivated or the teaching strategy doesn’t suit their individual needs, you may want to provide personalized assistance. 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:

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 their own 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. For example, visual learners might benefit from pictures with words, while audio learners may learn best from listening to podcasts. The closer the strategies are to their individual learning styles, the faster they’ll pick up the language. 
  • Monitor their own goals and achievements. Ideally, your students will be able to see their progress and have the tools to monitor it themselves. Otherwise, they’ll become demotivated or frustrated if they’re not sure where they are and what areas they need to improve on. 

Additional Resources for Teaching English Language Learners


Just as English is a constantly evolving language, the debates continue within the ESL/ELL/LEP community. In the meantime, you can employ any or all of the strategies outlined above to ensure your students get the most out of their education. 

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