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At first glance, the terms ESL and ELL may seem quite similar. ESL stands for “English as a Second Language,” whereas ELL stands for “English Language Learner.” Clearly, both are closely related to learning the four integrated skills: reading, writing, listening, and speaking.

At the same time, it is worth noting that ESL and ELL are not synonymous. In fact, there are some substantial differences between ESL versus ELL—especially in terms of teaching models. By having a better understanding of the similarities and differences between ESL and ELL as well as some key models for English Language Learners, you could better serve your own students (or future students) with their language acquisition needs.

The Need for ESL and English Language Teachers (ELTs)

Before diving any deeper into ESL versus ELL, it is important to make one thing clear: These professionals play a critical role in helping both native and non-native English speakers improve their reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills. Through their efforts, ESL and ELTs help bridge literacy gaps while assisting students of all ages in strengthening their communication and becoming more confident people.

Understanding ESL and ELL: Key Definitions

So, what exactly is the difference between an ESL learner and an ELL learner? It is actually helpful to begin with an explanation of what makes these terms so similar and why they are so often used interchangeably.

Both ESL and ELL have to do with learning the English language. ESL and ELL teachers support language learners in reading, writing, and speaking the language. Additionally, it is crucial to understand that every ESL learner is also an ELL learner. However, not all English language learner students are ESL learners.

English as a Second Language (ESL)

More specifically, ESL refers to students who are learning English exclusively as a second language. This means they may have been raised to speak and write a different language and are now trying to learn English in addition to their native language.

The term ESL can be confusing because, depending on their backgrounds, students may not be learning English as a second language but as a third, fourth, or fifth language.

Those who teach ESL, then, specifically work with students who were not raised to speak or write English. As a result, students are learning the language later in life when it is less of an acquired skill and something that requires a lot more effort. ESL teachers are trained to help students of all ages learn about the challenges and nuances of the English language, often serving as advocates for students who may require more specialized instruction and help.

English Language Learners (ELL)

English language learners, on the other hand, refer more generally to anybody who is learning how to read, write, and speak the English language for the first time. This may include young children learning how to read and write English in grade school as well as other classifications of English learners (such as ESL learners).

With this in mind, it is easier to understand some of the key differences between ESL and ELL. Compared to ESL, ELL tends to be more of a lifelong endeavor. ELL students may take several English classes throughout their lives, whereas ESL programs tend to be short-term and focused on making a student proficient in the language.

It is also worth noting that although ELL programs may be required or mandated by the states (such as in K-12 public schools), ESL programs are typically voluntary.

Evolution of English Language Learning

While it may seem very commonplace that English is taught in all schools across the country these days, English language learning in schools was not always so straightforward. In reality, there have been quite a few changes and shifts in the ways the English language has been taught in the United States, particularly as it relates to the shift from teaching ESL to ELL.

Historical Overview

It may be hard to even imagine a time when learning to write and read the English language was not a primary focus in American schools. However, it was not until the 1900s that English language learning first became part of the formal education sector.

The current model of English teaching and learning in the U.S. is largely based on the work of Noam Chomsky, a linguistic philosopher who documented a wide range of strategies and processes related to language acquisition. During this time, the topics of ESL and ELL were explored for the first time.

Following Chomsky’s lead, other linguists began researching and publishing linguistics studies into the 1970s and beyond, with such topics including Total Physical Response and Task-Based Learning Approaches. Many of these ideas were implemented in ESL programs and classrooms across the country.

In more recent years, the push for more comprehensive ESL and ELL programs in schools has come to a head—especially as the country has seen higher rates of immigration and, thus, more people coming in with limited knowledge of the English language.

Shift From ESL to ELL

Before ELL became a more mainstream term, ESL was used to describe all English language instruction for non-native speakers. In recent decades, however, the term has gradually evolved to include not just language instruction but also academic and cultural support along with educational advocacy.

In fact, the shift in our description of English learners dates back to before ESL was even readily used. In the 1970s, the term “Limited English Proficient (LEP)” was used to describe people who knew some English but still needed help developing their language skills. From there, the term ELL was coined—but there is still some controversy as to which terms should be used.

Diverse Models of English Language Instruction

Just as terminology describing English learners has shifted over the years, so have the models of teaching English to students of all backgrounds. From push-in and pull-out programs to the scaffolding in English language learning, different models are constantly being tried and tested to determine which are most effective.

“Push-In” Programs vs. “Pull-Out” Programs

In most U.S. schools offering ESL programs, students (and their families) have an option between “push-in” and “pull-out” programs. With a push-in program, all resources needed for the student to work on their English learning skills are brought directly into the classroom. This might mean that during regular reading time in the class, an ESL reading specialist is brought in to work specifically with students learning English as a second language. These students receive specialized and tailored instruction without having to leave their classrooms, which could improve inclusion.

With a pull-out ESL program, the student is removed from the general classroom and receives language instruction in another class or context. This setup could allow students to receive more direct instruction that is tailored to their needs. Because these students are removed from the general education class, they may learn with less potential for distractions. Being taught in an exclusive and separate environment could also help build trust between ESL/ELL teachers and students.

Ultimately, both push-in and pull-out programs come with their inherent pros and cons. It is up to students and their families to determine which type would best suit their needs.

Role of Scaffolding in English Language Learning

Another key concept for educators to master in ESL and ELL is that of scaffolding. Scaffolding in English language learning refers to a method where an ELL teacher provides temporary support, presenting concepts in small segments to enhance student learning. From there, as students master concepts, they may build upon them with teachers providing less support as time goes on.

For many ESL and ELL teachers, scaffolding is an essential part of the curriculum because it allows instruction to be adapted and cater to all students’ needs while meeting them where they are. Likewise, scaffolding is highly personalized and could work with individualized instruction or group instruction.

Challenges and Solutions in English Language Learning

Those who want to get into teaching ELL or ESL should also understand the share of challenges that could arise in this field.

Common Issues Faced by ELLs

For language learners of different backgrounds, the biggest obstacles are often related to advocacy and getting into the right programs. All too often, students who need to learn English as non-native speakers are unable to advocate for themselves and must rely on family to get them the programs they need to succeed.

How Can These Issues Be Addressed Effectively?

This is where ELL teachers could make all the difference, providing a voice and support for these students. Of course, ELL teachers need support as well. Oftentimes, lack of funding or lack of administrative support is pervasive throughout school systems. ESL teachers may find themselves having to advocate not just for their students but for their own programs, communicating with administrators and policymakers to get the funding they need.

Interested in Teaching ELL?

ELL teachers play a vital role in preparing future generations for a lifetime of literacy and success. If you are interested in working as an ELL teacher, a graduate certificate in teaching English language learners could offer the opportunity to build on essential skills needed in the classroom.

Post University’s Graduate Certificate in Teaching English Language Learners (TELL) is offered entirely online for your convenience, so reach out to request more information or start your application today.

The Graduate Certificate in Teaching English Language Learners is not designed to fulfill the educational requirements for any educational credential, such as a state teacher’s license or TESOL certification.


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