Language learners and proficiency levels: Who are they?
By Erick Herrmann

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This is the first of a two-part article on language learners.

Are you a fluent English speaker? Do you speak another language? If so, how well? It has been said that we are all language learners; we never learn all of the words in a given language. Our vocabulary continually expands as we learn new concepts and skills or integrate new technology in our lives.

For our students, the demands of the Common Core State Standards and increased rigor in instruction demand that students develop academic language. This is true for native English speakers, English learners and students learning another language in bilingual programs.


How would you describe the number of English learners in your school?
  • 1. Increasing
  • 2. Staying the same
  • 3. Decreasing

Given that, how do we know what the language proficiency levels of our students are? While we may not be able to officially assess the level of every student we have, there are some tools that can help us. By exploring the identification of English learners — and how we assess their proficiency — we can apply our knowledge to all students and help each child in our classrooms more deeply develop the language skills they need to be academically successful.

English learners currently account for about 1 in 9 children in U.S. schools, and by the year 2025 they will number 1 in 4. There are few teachers who are not impacted by the English language learner (ELL) population. Indeed in the last several years, some states have seen an increase of 300 percent in the ELL population. All the while the overall student population in the United States has grown only 20 percent.

Which states have had such dramatic growth? The answer, surprisingly, is not California, New York, Texas, New Mexico or Arizona. Rather it is in states such as North and South Carolina, Indiana, Alabama and Georgia. With such dramatic growth across the U.S. in the English learner population, it is important that we understand who these students are.

The terms English (language) learner, ESL student, limited English proficient (LEP) student, etc., are often used interchangeably to describe a very diverse group of people. English learners — my preferred terminology for this group of students — come from many different countries in the world and speak one of more than 350 languages represented in the United States.

The majority of English learners in our schools — about 75 percent in elementary grades and over 50 percent in secondary schools — were born in the U.S. to parents who speak a language other than English. Over 75 percent of English learners in the U.S. come from Spanish-speaking homes. That brings up to the definition of an English learner: an English learner is generally defined as a student who is not achieving academically due to the level of English language proficiency. According to the federal government, LEP means an individual:
  1. who is aged 3 through 21
  2. who is enrolled or preparing to enroll in an elementary or secondary school;
    - AND -
    1. who was not born in the United States or whose native language is a language other than English; or
      1. who is an American Indian or Alaska native, or a native of the outlying areas; and
      2. who comes from an environment where a language other than English has had a significant impact on the individual's level of English language proficiency; or
    2. who is migratory, whose native language is a language other than English and who comes from an environment where a language other than English is dominant;
      - AND -
  3. whose difficulties in speaking, reading, writing or understanding the English language may be sufficient to deny the individual
    1. the ability to meet the State's proficient level of achievement on state assessments described in section 111(b)(3);
    2. the ability to successfully achieve in classrooms where the language of instruction is English; or
    3. the opportunity to participate fully in our society.
Now that we know who English language learners are in the U.S., we will take a look at their different proficiency levels in Part 2 next week.

Erick Herrmann is an educational consultant specialized in teaching English learners, and he runs Educating English Learners. Erick has worked with thousands of teachers across the nation to help them improve their instructional practice and increase academic achievement for all students.