Don’t Walk Into a Classroom Without Knowing This About Non-English Speakers

Let’s have a brief discussion about English Language Learners and Limited English-Proficient students.

Students who are not proficient in English are referred to as English language learners (ELLs) or limited English-proficient (LEP) students. There are more than 5 million ELL students currently enrolled in American schools. That’s more than 10% of the total school enrollment. Most ELL students reside in the states of Texas, California, New York, and Florida. Most of these students speak Spanish.

Surprisingly, nearly two thirds of all ELL students were born and raised in the United States, while the other third are recent immigrants. In 2008, 24% of 5- to 17-year-olds in the United States spoke a language other than English language at home. This situation creates a major disadvantage for these students at school. Far too often, ELL students drop out of school.

What are we doing about this?

Well, the Bilingual Education Act, which passed in 1968, was the U.S. government’s solution to the problem posed by the education of ELL students. This act has been amended several times over the years to ensure federal funding is available to develop programs. The Lau v. Nichols case (1974) was the prime factor in the decision to fund and develop programs for ELL students, and a series of other cases throughout the 1970s helped to push this development along.

Today, most schools have implemented a language program for non-English speakers. These programs follow a variety of approaches and employ a variety of terminology. Here’s some basic information you’ll need to understand the following acronyms associated with English language learning programs:

  • ESOL: English for speakers of other languages
  • ESL: English as a second language
  • LEP: limited English proficiency
  • ELLs: English language learners

It is also important to know the difference between acquiring language and learning language.

Acquiring a language means you actually gain language. You use it and speak it fluently. Language acquisition is subconscious and happens through opportunities for natural communication and learning. For example, interacting with school friends helps with language acquisition.

Learning a language is recognizing isolated sentences or copying words out of context and memorizing them.  It is not communicative. Students are taught the rules of the language in a less natural way. As a result, students who merely “learn” a language can lack strong speaking and writing skills in their second language.

Because the goal is to prepare students to learn in an English-speaking classroom, acquiring language is the goal. Fortunately, most school programs are designed to serve the language acquisition process.

The use of different approaches to teaching English demonstrates that educators do not agree about which method is most effective to address the needs of both the language learner and the school. Regardless of the teacher’s personal ideology about an official national language, teachers must be aware that it is not the learner’s goal, and should not be the school’s goal, to replace the native tongue with English.

What are your thoughts on helping students with limited English proficiency learn English? Leave a comment below.

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