How Do You Define ELL?

Over the last several years of teaching ELL students, I’ve often struggled with the definition of what makes an English language learner.  Obviously we can qualify those first generation students who have just arrived to our country as ELLs.  However, what about those students who are second or even third generation citizens?  Sources from my last post estimate that more than half of the U.S. ELL population in public schools is composed of these later generation learners who presumably should be able to speak English well enough not to be in an ESL program.

Let me illustrate this with a fictional student.  Jessica was born in the United States.  Her parents were brought to the United States at a very young age when her grandparents immigrated here.  This means that Jessica’s mother and father attended public school in this country starting in kindergarten.  While Jessica’s grandparents still speak mostly Spanish, her parents are bilingual.  Before Jessica started school, she would often spend time at her grandparents’ house while her parents were at work.  Jessica can understand some Spanish but speaks very few words because her parents have always spoken to her in English.  What this means for Jessica is that technically her home language is English.  However, she was exposed to Spanish at a young age, and her parents’ first language is not English.

Should Jessica be tested for the ESL program?  Her parents will likely fill out the home language survey with some percentage of both Spanish and English exposure in her background.  This would mean that she would be flagged for language testing.  If Jessica scores low on the language proficiency test, then she can be enrolled in the ESL program even though her first language is technically English.  This is the fuzzy gray area of identifying ELL students that I’ve always struggled with.  Classroom teachers and secretaries will tell you “Oh, that family speaks English.  They don’t qualify for ESL.”  I’ve even had an ESL program director tell me before that a student like Jessica should be considered Title 1, not ELL.  I disagree.

As a dedicated ESL teacher, I believe that students who have such a mixed language background may be at a disadvantage in our school system and should be eligible for ESL services if necessary.  This scenario also applies to some Native American students who don’t speak their heritage language, but still struggle with academic English as well as the difference in culture between home and school.  I would love to hear from others on this topic.  What has your experience been with this?  How do you or your school deal with this fuzzy gray area of ELL students?  What do you think should be done for these students?  Thanks for the input!


About Heidi Casper

Heidi Casper
Heidi Casper has been teaching in the ESL field for about 15 years. She’s had the privilege of teaching all ages of language learners, from kindergarten to seniors in high school. She speaks Spanish, which has been invaluable in building relationships with Spanish-speaking families between home and school. That skill also provided her with the opportunity to spend a short time teaching at a private school in Mexico, as well as to present at an early childhood conference in Costa Rica. What she loves about this field is the opportunity to meet so many fascinating students and families from around the world. She’s certain that she’s learned more from her students over the years than she could have possibly taught them. She is currently working on a master’s degree in ESL and looks forward to sharing her thoughts and experiences with others in the field.
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6 Responses to How Do You Define ELL?

  1. Claudia I Rodriguez says:

    ESL and ELL is very common connection English Second Language and English Language Learners. If you look up the definition of both they are very similar if not the same.

  2. Kataline says:

    So ELL or ESL are people just cant learn english very well and was exposed to a new launguage at a very young age what if they were not exposed to a new lauguage at all.

  3. tino says:

    I think this will give more power to the students because they can understand both cultures. But they can’t never feel one hundred percent Mexican because they think like an American. I came here when I was seven years of age and part of my life was with people who speak spanish I even joined a musical group in spanish but I always face a problem that I did not understand their spanish because even if the meaning of a word gets translated it can come with a different meaning . My spanish that I speak here is not the same as the spanish from Mexico. If I speak English I have to think like an American If you keep translating you never will make your point across . If you are a small kid I think theres not need for ESL but if you are an adult this will be a perfect program.

    • Heidi Casper Heidi says:

      Thanks so much for the insight, Tino! It is great to get your perspective. I am always amazed at how adept my ELL students are at manuevering through two cultures while learning English and maintaining a home language. It is an awesome accomplishment!

  4. Heidi Casper Heidi says:

    Thanks for the comment, Angela. I guess you could say I’m preaching to the choir here! What I find most frustrating is that I end up having to constantly defend my position to enroll these students in ELL. Administration, secretaries, other teachers, are all free with their opinions about how “Jessica” speaks English fine, she is just lazy. I end up having to advocate for Jessica throughout the year just to get her the support she deserves, but I find that I always end up questioning myself about my decision. As the only ELL teacher for grades 6-12 in a very small district, I have no support network of my own. It chips at your confidence when the ESL resource coordinator for the region tells you that maybe this student should be in Title 1 instead of ESL. Of course, how much knowledge can the resource coordinator have if she doesn’t even realize there is no Title 1 at the secondary level? When it comes down to it, I do as all good ESL teachers do; advocate for those students and provide them as much support as possible.

  5. Angela Holland says:

    I’ve come across this type of problem before. I agree with your position. If a second language is an interference in the child’s English language development, I believe they should qualify as ELL.

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