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The Limited English Proficient Student

English Language Learners are students with limited English proficiency. ELLs are individuals who, by reason of foreign birth or ancestry, speak a language other than English, and either comprehend, speak, read or write little or no English, or who have been identified as English Language Learners by a valid English language proficiency assessment approved by the Department of Education for use statewide.

Many different terms have been used to describe or characterize children whose second language is English. For example, students with Limited English Proficiency (LEPs), students for whom English is a Second Language (ESLs), or Second Language Learners (SLLs). Currently educators refer to these children as English Language Learners (ELLs). This shift in language represents a more accurate reflection of the process of language acquisition. It should be noted that the No Child Left Behind Act (Public Law 107-110) uses the term EL for English Learner, rather than ELL (English Language Learner). For that reason, the term EL is used throughout this document.


The term "English Learner" or EL, as defined in the No Child Left Behind Act describes an individual

  • who is aged 3 through 21; AND
  • who is enrolled in an elementary school or secondary school; AND
  • who has a native/home language other than English whether born in the U.S. or another country,AND
  • whose difficulties in speaking, reading, writing, or understanding the English language may impact the ability to meet the State's proficient level of achievement on State assessments, OR to successfully achieve in classrooms where the language of instruction is English.


EL students represent many different native/home languages of families who are living in the United States. The families may come to join other family members or to seek improved economic opportunities or university degrees. Others are seeking refuge from political repression or persecution in their home countries. EL students may be from families that have been in the United States for many years but speak languages other than English at home. American families are also adopting children from other countries who have no previous experience in English. Some EL students have a strong educational background while others had had little or no prior formal educational experiences.

A student's previous experiences with education significantly affect the ease and rapidity with which the student learns English and other academic material. Students might go through a "silent period" where they listen but do not speak in the classroom as it might cause personal embarrassment. During this time, they are acquiring the sounds and patterns of their new language, but are not willing to share their voices in a classroom setting. They may be willing to try out the new language in a non-threatening situation with a peer. The child's personality and English background influence the speed with which s/he is willing to speak and gain language competency.

Researchers have found that, although EL students can develop peer-appropriate basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS) in two to three years, developing academic proficiency in cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP) may require five to seven years of instructional time to reach academic parity with that of the native English speaker (Cummins, 1984; Baker & Jones, 1998). According to the California Educational Research Cooperative (CERC), seven years may not be enough time to gain English fluency. The researchers estimate that the path to fluency for students with limited formal schooling may require ten years or more (University of California Riverside Study by CERC, 1997).

The student might also experience a period between BICS and CALP which is referred to as "threshold." This is the time when many students and teachers believe that the student can function in a regular classroom without any other intervention. The standard teacher comment is, "The student speaks very well and can read orally better than many of my other students." The real questions to ask are: Can the student comprehend what s/he pronounces? Can the student comprehend all that occurs during instruction, e.g., textbook, activities, instructions, lectures, tests? If the student cannot, then the needed English language skills for the content area (CALP) have not been mastered.

Many EL students also experience culture shock, especially when there is a marked difference between their native way of life and that of life in the United States. Their frustrations may cause them to act out physically due to their inability to express themselves verbally.

EL services are structured to present opportunities for the student to gain cultural knowledge as well as English language skills and content knowledge – all of which are needed to succeed in U.S. schools.