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July 7, 2022

Teaching & Education

What Is an ELL Student

women teaching english

English language learners, or ELLs, are students who are not yet able to communicate fluently or learn effectively in English. They often come from non-English-speaking homes and backgrounds and require specialized or modified instruction in both their academic courses and the English language itself  

ELLs are the fastest-growing population of students in the United States K-12 school system. According to the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition (NCELA), it’s predicted that by 2025, one in four public school students will be an ELL. As this learner population continues to grow, it’s important to understand ELL students and how to meet their diverse needs.

This article will explore the different kinds of ELL programs and their objectives, ways to support ELL students in the classroom, and the steps you need to take to become an ELL-certified teacher. 

How ELL Has Evolved

The term “ELL” originated as “ESL,” which stands for “English as a Second Language.” In 2011, that term was changed to ELL as it was recognized that, for some English language learners, English isn’t their second language. Although “ESL” is still widely used, “ELL” is considered by educators to be the more correct term to refer to these students.

Types of ELL Learners

ELL students typically fall into one of two categories:  

  • ELLs born in the U.S. These students have likely attended school in the U.S. for several years but still struggle with speaking English. They may have mastered social language but are lacking in academic language and vocabulary. 
  • ELLs who have immigrated to the U.S. These students possess academic language and content knowledge in their native language but may have little to no knowledge of English.

Among the five million ELL students in today’s classrooms, more than 75% speak Spanish. The next most commonly spoken non-English languages are Arabic, Chinese, and Vietnamese. However, these languages are spoken much less commonly than Spanish, representing about 2% each.

Types of ELL Programs

ELL programs are designed to give students special instruction while learning and practicing English so that they can integrate the language into a regular classroom. While there are a variety of instructional models and academic support strategies for English language learners, the following are the most used in today’s classrooms:

  • ESL Pull-Out Program: Students spend half of their day in a mainstream classroom and are pulled out for the other part of the day to learn English. This approach is typically used in elementary school settings. 
  • Content-Based ESL Program: This program integrates language instruction with content areas. The goal is to help students meet academic achievement standards while gaining proficiency in English.  
  • Bilingual Instructional Program: In this model, classes are taught in the student’s native language and English. 
  • English-Language Instruction Program: With this approach, teachers instruct only in English. This is typically used in situations where students possess a variety of language backgrounds. 
  • Transitional Program: The program transitions from bilingual instruction to English instruction once the student has mastered critical skills and concepts in their native language. 
  • Late-Exit Program: Also called a “maintenance bilingual program,” students in these programs are taught in their native language and English until they become fluent in English. The goal is for students to maintain fluency in both languages at the same time.
  • Two-Way Bilingual Program: Students work alongside their peers and are instructed in both English and their native language. This program is ideal for classrooms where there’s an equal combination of native English speakers and ELL students.

What Is the Purpose of ELL Programs?

The goal of ELL programs is to help students become proficient in English so that they can meet the same academic standards as their English-speaking peers. This allows students to become more integrated into social settings, better prepares them for a college environment, and even helps as they’re building their careers.  

scrabble word learn spelled out

Ways to Help ELL Students in the Classroom

Teachers—specifically those with ELL certification and training—play a major role in ensuring ELL students succeed academically and have the support they need to thrive. WGU’S English Language Learning Endorsement Preparation program prepares licensed teachers with the knowledge required to teach in ELL settings.  

In addition to training and certifications, there are many ways teachers can help ELL students in the classroom, including: 

  • Fostering collaboration across academic departments to support linguistic and academic development simultaneously.
  • Allowing students time to process questions and answers.
  • Developing non-verbal ways for students to demonstrate their knowledge (interactive games, role-playing, drawing, etc.).
  • Taking time to address new students on a one-on-one basis each day.
  • Utilizing assigned peers or “buddies” for new ELL students.
  • Encouraging students to discuss academic topics at home in their first language.
  • Finding ways to value ELL’s home culture and language.
  • Using instructional methodologies that are active and focus on learning by doing.
  • Focusing on the meaning and the development of concepts, rather than correct grammatical form.
  • Implementing consistent teaching and learning strategies. 

How to Become an ELL Teacher

If you’re interested in a career as an ELL teacher, you’ll need to have at least a bachelor’s degree that licenses you to teach—plus, an ESL/ELL certification so that you’re specifically licensed for an ELL classroom.  
This certification works best for: 

  • Licensed teachers with bachelor’s degrees who are interested in ELL or ESL certification. 
  • District instructional personnel and curricula leaders. 
  • "Emergency credentialed" ELL or ESL teachers who need a certificate program to be considered highly qualified.

There are a lot of good reasons to consider earning the ESL/ELL certification. It can help you increase your marketability and stability in a teaching career. Plus, in some cases, educators who have ELL training can take on additional courses and earn a higher salary as a result.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is an ELL student?

An ELL student is anyone who doesn’t learn English as their first and primary language. They often come from non-English-speaking homes and backgrounds, and require specialized or modified instruction in both their academic courses and in the English language itself.  

What does ELL stand for?

“ELL” stands for “English language learners” and refers to students for whom English is not their first or primary language.  

Do I need to speak multiple languages to become an ELL teacher?

While you don’t have to be bilingual in a second language, it may help you communicate with students with very little English exposure.

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