English Learner Alphabet Soup

Slide60Have you ever been at a social event where people are talking about something with which you’re not familiar, like fintech, but you’re a little embarrassed to admit you don’t know what it is?

Or worse, when you’re at work and colleagues are using an acronym or educational term that everyone seems to know…except you. You think, As an educator, I should know what he’s talking about so I’m not going to ask. Embarrassing, right? I’ve been there, believe me.

A friend told me the other day that she went through the interview process for her first teaching job. After college she served in the Peace Corps and is bilingual in English and Spanish. She returned to the US and got her teaching credential. She was near tears after an interview for her job of choice because she felt like she blew the interview. “They threw so many terms and acronyms at me that I didn’t know! It was really uncomfortable,” she exclaimed with audible tension in her voice.

We do have a lot of terminology and acronyms in education, and new terms seem to crop up regularly. When it comes to English learners, different terms are used in different geographical regions, certain terms are preferred over others by some groups or organizations, and some terms lack universal agreement on their meaning.

By the way, she got the job. Apparently even educators realize that it takes time and experience to master Educationese.

In this blog, I will attempt to create a primer for those of you who find yourselves perplexed by the wide variety of terms used for students who are not yet fully proficient in academic English and qualify for language support services. (Notice how I had to work hard not to use one of the terms below?!) I’ll do my best to define terms as I understand them; terminology is ever-evolving.

English learners (EL), or English language learners (ELL). These terms are currently most commonly used and are straightforward descriptors of students who are learning the English language used in schools. The terms imply that another language is spoken at home and that these students are in the process of becoming English-proficient.

Limited English proficient (LEP). No longer used because of its connotation that students having the gift of more than one language are somehow “limited.” However, it is an artifact of the past and as such is in federal law, so the exception is that it is used for reporting/accountability purposes.

English for speakers of other languages (ESOL), and English as a second language (ESL). These terms refer to programs but are sometimes applied to students, as in “She is ESOL” or “We have 37 ESL students in fourth grade.”

Second language learner. Used widely internationally and in the literature to indicate a student who is learning the mainstream, or official, language used in a country’s schools. In the U.S., it is English.

Ever-ELL. This term is used typically for research purposes. It is assigned to a student who has been designated as an English learner at some point in his or her school career. The category accounts for students who become English proficient but at some point were English learners. They are distinct from native English-speaking students.

Never-ELL, English only (EO), or native English speaker. These terms all refer to students whose home language is English and English is the student’s first or native language. Some concern about English Only as a designation is that it connotes monolingualism when that may not be accurate.

Emergent bilingual (EB). Becoming more widely used as another term for a student who is not yet proficient in English but is learning English. The term has an aspirational connotation, implying that these students will end up as bilingual individuals.

Dual language learner (DLL). Yet another term that is aspirational, however may be confusing because definitions vary. According to the Office of Head Start (OHS), “Dual language learners (DLLs) are children learning two (or more) languages at the same time, as well as those learning a second language while continuing to develop their first (or home) language.” In some places, DLL is used for to identify students in a dual language/dual immersion/two-way immersion program, although such use is not consistent with the official OHS definition

Speakers of languages other than English (LOTE) or Primary home language other than English (PHOLOTE). These terms accurately depict students who have the asset of one or more languages in their repertoire. Not used widely at this point.

Linguistically diverse. A broader term that includes students who are not yet proficient in academic English and also those students who speak a non-standard form of English such as speakers of African American vernacular English (AAVE), Creole, or Hawaiian Pidgin English.

Long-term English Learners (LTEL). These students have been enrolled in U.S. schools and designated as English learners for six or more years, many since kindergarten. Definitions and classification criteria vary by state and district. Some specify fewer years as EL or differ on criteria regarding levels of progress toward English proficiency and academic levels.

Students with interrupted formal education (SIFE) and Students with limited or interrupted formal education (SLIFE). These terms are used specifically with Newcomer students who have had interruptions in their educational backgrounds of more than two years or, in the case of SLIFE, may have had limited formal education before enrolling in U.S. schools.

The last two terms are useful for labeling students in particular circumstances so that schools can provide appropriate programs and services for them.

As you can see, we’ve outdone ourselves with the number of terms for students learning English as an additional language. It would be helpful to educators and researchers – and students and their parents – to use one universally agreed-upon term for these students. But when it comes to acronyms and terminology, if past practice in education is an indicator….I won’t hold my breath.



3 thoughts on “English Learner Alphabet Soup

  1. This is not quite accurate. The term ‘dual language learner’ is being used officially by the Office of Head Start and many other national organizations, publications, states and programs to refer to young children who are growing up with two or more languages during the period when they are young enough to be developing language overall, or to be still developing their first language. The term does not imply that these children are participating in any particular type of program – it is just misused or misconstrued that way at times. Here is the official definition from OHS https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/hslc/tta-system/cultural-linguistic/Dual%20Language%20Learners/DLL_%20Resources/OHSDefinitionof.htm

    Other terms to consider: England’s “English as an additional language” or EAL, and “other language proficient” which is not actually in use, but I heard it suggested at a symposium and it gave people plenty to talk about.

    1. Karen, thanks so much for your informative response. My “primer” was intended to give a brief definition of the way terms are being used. As I said for DLL, the way it is being used in some places is misleading. For a fact DLL is being used in some districts for students in dual language programs, however erroneous that may be. Appreciate your input!

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