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What are English Language Learners?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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English language learners are individuals who are learning English, usually students who are acquiring it as a second language. A significant number of students in the US are learning English as a second language, and many schools are starting to rethink their training and curricula to address the issue.

Teachers all over the United States are dealing with English language learners, who can come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Some are recent immigrants, and they may be older and extremely proficient in their native languages. Others are young immigrants who have not had a chance to learn English, or children who have grown up in households where English is not spoken. Because the primary language of instruction in most American schools is English, schools try to catch these students early, so that their reading, writing, and comprehension skills can be improved before they get frustrated with school.

Schools in areas with large numbers of people who do not have English as their native language may have English Language Development (ELD) programs to address their special needs students. A strong ELD program empowers students to communicate more effectively in English while also improving their comprehension and listening skills so that they can understand what is going on around them. Most programs build on native language skills to help the student bridge the gap into English, and many teachers are starting to receive special training so that they can help their students more effectively.

By the time they enter kindergarten, most English-only students have a basic grasp of the language. For them, school is an opportunity to hone their skills, improve their vocabulary, and learn more about the complex grammar rules that govern the language. For English language learners, school can be an intimidating experience, and it can also be humiliating in a poorly managed classroom. Some learners have the advantage of a basic grasp of English, because they are being raised in bilingual households. Others, however, have no English skills, and teachers must start from scratch with them, helping them to quickly learn so that they can function in the classroom.

The growing number of English language learners in the American school system has led to efforts to reform American education to address their needs. Most school programs now recognize their already existing native language skills, rather than trying to suppress them, for example. Some schools also provide special intensive programs, or a classroom environment that is particularly conducive to learning English skills as well as providing general education. While education may be only provided in English, it is often offered in a way that promotes learning rather than merely frustrating students who are new to the language. Some schools also offer bilingual education, which also encourages students to help each other learn new language skills.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By BostonIrish — On Dec 14, 2010


English has not always been the native language of this area; it was once a variety of Native American languages. English is helpful to know, but should not be imposed, in my opinion.

By arod2b42 — On Dec 13, 2010


I would disagree with you concerning the idea that immigrants must be permitted to continue speaking their language and not learn English. English has historically been the language of the US and is necessary for citizenship.

By Leonidas226 — On Dec 12, 2010

English is the national language of the US, but it should never be assumed that it is necessary for all the citizens to speak it. It is certainly helpful, but throughout history people have spoken multiple languages. Today, there are more monolingual people than ever, reflecting a negligence on the part of Americans to explore other cultures and languages.

By Armas1313 — On Dec 09, 2010

It is generally easier for people to learn English at a younger age than when they are grown and accustomed to speaking another native language. Often this is because there is a necessary translation block: the person learning another language relates the terms of that language to the word in their native language, and then to the concept it represents. Children relate words directly to concepts, making the step simpler.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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