An English language learner (often capitalized as English Language Learner or abbreviated to ELL) is a person who is learning the English language in addition to his or her native language. The instruction and assessment of students, their cultural background, and the attitudes of classroom teachers towards ELLs have all been found to be factors in ELL student achievement. Some ways that have been suggested to assist ELLs include bringing their home cultures into the classroom, involving them in language-appropriate content-area instruction from the beginning, and by integrating literature into the learning program. Some educational advocates, especially in the United States, prefer for a student learning any second language the term emergent bilingual.[1]


Various terms are used to refer to students who are not proficient in English, such as English Language Learner (ELLs), English learner, limited English proficient (LEP), non-native English speaker, bilingual students, heritage language, emergent bilingual, and language-minority students. "English Language Learner" was first used by Mark LaCelle-Peterson and Charlene Rivera in 1994 (LaCelle Peterson and Rivera, 1984). Even though English language learner is a better term than others, it causes controversy. Native English speakers are also English language learners. Native English-speaking students also learn about new vocabulary. Language minority students is also commonly used to describe this population. But according to Wright, "There is some concern about the use of the term minority because, in increasing numbers of schools and communities across the United States, the majority of students are speakers of 'minority' languages." The legal term that is used in federal legislation is limited English proficient.[2]

Issues in the classroom

There are various issues within a classroom that contains a considerable number of ESL students (English as a second language), causing a strong need for additional support, programs, and services. Oftentimes, the issues arrive because of differences amongst the students, teachers, and other peers within the school who are culturally and linguistically diverse. ESL students are often expected to do the same work as all the other students, which causes frustration, low self-esteem, anxiety, and eventually leads to behavioral problems.[3] Teachers must realize that not every student learns the same and that not all students have received the appropriate schooling to perform at the same level as their counterparts. If teachers become culturally aware and actually get to know their students and the world they come from it becomes easier for the teacher to develop a relationship with the student, gain the student's respect, and ultimately spend more time on the instructional framework opposed to constantly correcting students behavior. In 2010–2011 the U.S. Department of Education gathered data making aware that nearly half of the states graduated less than 60 percent of ESL students.[4] However slightly, the achievement gap is progressively decreasing between their white counterparts as more minorities are taking a hold of high school diplomas. If teachers genuinely care for each of their ESL students and it becomes apparent to the students through their lessons, 1 to 1 interactions, etc., graduations rates are going to continue to increase while dropout rates substantially will decrease. Four critical issues that are found in today's classrooms, but are not limited to, are the following: instruction, assessments, culture within the classroom, and teacher's attitudes.


The first critical issue is focused on instruction of the ESL students within the classroom and how it is related to standards-based content and ESL instruction. Some teachers may feel that ESL instruction may be a separate entity from standards-based instruction. On the contrary, we need to acknowledge the fact that they are intertwined with each other. TESOL Standard 3a states that teachers should "know, understand, and use evidence‐based practices and strategies related to planning, implementing, and managing standards‐based ESL and content instruction".[5] In a five-week study by Huang, research showed that "classroom instruction appeared to play an important role in integrating language skills development and academic content learning". This study showed that the "students acquire linguistic/literacy skills and scientific knowledge hand in hand as they assume various communicative and social roles within carefully planned language activities".[6] By tying in written texts with the science content the students were able to improve their language development between drafts and build on their science content knowledge as well.

Push-in program versus pull-out program

Two other models of instruction include the push-in program and the pull-out program. The push-in program includes the English teacher coming into the classroom to help the English language learner. Many classroom teachers welcome the English teacher into their classrooms and view this as a positive experience for all children. However, other teachers have not viewed it as a positive choice of instruction because the two teachers may not see eye to eye within the teaching and learning in the classroom. The English teacher also is not able to focus on the basic language skills which is important for English language learners. The pull-out program consists of the English teacher pulling the ELL out of the classroom to learn English language skills. The pull out program means that the child will miss out on what happens within their classroom and this can provide a disadvantage for that student because they are missing out from having the community feeling and being left out of some activities as a class. Also, the teacher might be frustrated that the child is being pulled out at important times such as at a test or literacy activity. However, the pull out program can help the student to gain more individualized time in smaller groups. English language learners can also have one on one time to learn more basic English language skills with no interruptions from the teacher or students within the class. The English teacher also does not need to co plan with the classroom teacher on what activities the class will be learning. The teacher will have their own time to plan their lessons accordingly.[7]


The second critical issue is focused on fair and balanced assessment within the ESL classroom. Some teachers may come across being biased without even recognizing it. "All too often, though, these students are either asked to participate in tests that make unfair assumptions about their English-language proficiency in order to assess their content knowledge or conversely, are totally excluded from any testing until their English-language proficiency has reached a certain level".[8] TESOL standard 4a states that teachers need to "demonstrate understanding of various assessment issues as they affect ELLs, such as accountability, bias, special education testing, language proficiency, and accommodations in formal testing situations".[9] When the teachers are capable of understanding the various assessment issues they will be able to execute reasonable, consistent, and balanced assessments. "When visual tactile, kinesthetic, intrapersonal, and interpersonal skills are equally recognized avenues of learning and intellect, CLD students have increased access to the curriculum and opportunities to demonstrate authentically internalized knowledge".[10]:208 By having a variety of assessments students will be able to perform to the best of their knowledge. Therefore, it is vital to have alternative methods of assessing ESL students.


According to Contiga (2015), culture is the third issue that may not always be recognized in a mainstream classroom. Many teachers overlook culture and try to jump right into English and content knowledge without knowing their students' backgrounds. Teachers need to be open to learning new cultures and having their students embrace all cultures in the classroom. By making efforts to learn about each other's values and beliefs, the teacher and student would not only maximize the effectiveness of ESL but make it a successful learning experience for all involved. A student who is shy or reluctant to answer questions may be more outspoken when talking about their own values that tie in with their home life. An ESL teacher, in a study called "Losing Strangeness to Mediate ESL Teaching", "connects culture to religious celebrations and holidays and the fusion invites students to share their knowledge".[11] This will encourage students to open up and talk about their cultural backgrounds and traditions within their family. "Teachers who encourage CLD students to maintain their cultural or ethnic ties promote their personal and academic success".[10]:90 Students should not lose their identity but gain knowledge from their culture and the world around them. Therefore, it is beneficial to bring culture into the ESL classroom in order for the students to feel a sense of worth in school and in their lives.

Teacher attitude

The fourth critical issue is the attitudes of the teachers which plays a major role in the ESL classroom. Some teachers may have a negative, unwelcoming attitude. Research shows that teachers negative attitudes may stem from "chronic lack of time to address ELLs' unique classroom needs",[12] "intensification of teachers workloads when ELLs are enrolled in mainstream classes",[13] and "feelings of professional inadequacy to work with ELLS".[14][15]:136 Also, the lack of training will have a huge impact on their teaching practices and professional development. The teachers will then be stressed and nervous to go about a lesson. Their anxiety will roll over into the classroom and have a negative impact on the ESL students' performances. "Teachers' language-acquisition misconceptions may color their attitudes towards ELLs and ELL inclusion, leading educators to misdiagnose learning difficulties or misattribute student failure to lack of intelligence or effort".[15]:139 By providing a good learning environment, it will have a positive effect on the students' overall success in terms of linguistic, social, cognitive, and academic developments. In terms of teacher preparation, Garcia, O. & Menken, K. suggest that it is necessary for the ELL Teacher to engage in inward self-reflection before acting outwardly. In their piece "Moving Forward: Ten Guiding Principles for Teachers", they propose that because Language Teachers often act as informal policymakers, it is imperative that they first understand their own "ways of languaging" and preconceptions about languages and language learners. It could be detrimental, they conclude, for a language teacher to enter the classroom without the necessary reflection and self-awareness, as these teachers could unknowingly impose systems of linguistic discrimination (linguicism).[16]

Enriching the classroom environment

In order to have an environment that is beneficial for the teacher and the student culture, literature, and other disciplines should be integrated systematically into the instruction. "Postponing content-area instruction until CLD students gain academic language skills widens the achievement gap between the learners and their native-English speaking peers".[10]:173 Relating to culture, teachers need to integrate it into the lesson, in order for the students to feel a sense of appreciation and a feeling of self-worth.

By integrating literature into the instruction students will benefit substantially. "Reading texts that match learner interests and English proficiency provide learners with comprehensible language input—a chance to learn new vocabulary in context and to see the syntax of the language".[17] Students will be motivated and will make learning more enjoyable. Lastly, by integrating other disciplines into the lesson it will make the content more significant to the learners and will create higher order thinking skills across the areas. By integrating language into other contents, it focuses not only on learning a second language, but using that language as a medium to learn mathematics, science, social studies, or other academic subjects".[18] When language and content areas are integrated ESL students become aware "that English is not just an object of academic interest nor merely a key to passing an examination; instead, English becomes a real means of interaction and sharing among people".[19] Therefore, students will be able to communicate across the curriculum, acquire higher level skills, and be successful in their daily lives.

Strategies for supporting English language learners in the classroom

  • Incorporating technology

The internet makes it possible for students to view videos of activities, events and places around the world. Viewing these activities can help English language learners to develop an understanding of new concepts while at the same time building topic related schema (background knowledge).[20]:219

  • Experiential learning

Teacher can provide opportunities for English language learners to acquire vocabulary and build knowledge through hands-on learning.[21]

  • Connecting learning to prior knowledge

In order to make learning more meaningful, connect a new topic to an experience or event from the English language learner's background. This can support the English language learner in making connections between vocabulary in their L1 (first language) and English.[20]:218


  1. ^ García, Ofelia; Kleifgen, Jo Anne; Falchi, Lorraine (2008). "From English Language Learners to Emergent Bilinguals". Campaign for Educational Equity. 
  2. ^ Wright, Wayne (2010). Foundations for Teaching English Language Learners. Philadelphia: Caslon. pp. 3 and 4. 
  3. ^ 1.Wilson, R. (n.d.). 84.03.10: The Bilingual Students: Understanding Language Imagery. Retrieved September 21, 2015, from http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/1984/3/84.03.10.x.html
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  10. ^ a b c Herrera, Socorro; Murry, Kevin; Cabral, Robin (2007). Assessment Accommodations for Classroom Teachers of Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon. ISBN 978-0-205-49271-8. 
  11. ^ Rowsell, J.; Sztainbok, V.; Blaney, J. (2007). "Losing Strangeness: Using Culture to Mediate ESL Teaching" (PDF). Language, Culture and Curriculum. 20 (2): 140–154. doi:10.2167/lcc331.0. Retrieved July 4, 2011.  p147.
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  13. ^ Gitlin, A.; Buendia, E.; Crosland, K.; Doumbia, F. (2003). "The Production of Margin and Center: Welcoming-Unwelcoming of Immigrant Students". American Educational Research Journal. 40: 91–122. doi:10.3102/00028312040001091. 
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  16. ^ Garcia, O. & Menken, K. "Moving Forward: Ten Guiding Principles for Teachers"
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