What Is ESL? A Guide for Educators

Help all learners succeed.

What text that says What Is ESL on yellow background.
We Are Teachers

One of our most important jobs as educators is to make sure all learners have access to the curriculum. To truly do this, we have to understand where our students come from and what they already know. And more and more, students are coming to us speaking many different languages with varying degrees of English proficiency. Students who are English language learners (ELLs) are those who are learning the English language and whose native language is not English. It’s important to properly identify these students so we can provide the extra learning support they need to be successful at school. One way we can do this is by implementing ESL programs, which stands for “English as a second language,” as part of the school experience. So, what is ESL exactly? And how can we ensure we are offering equal opportunities for learning? Read on as we define what ESL is and how to support ELLs in the classroom and beyond.

What is ESL?

Simply put, ESL are programs that teach non-native English speakers English language skills. ESL can also refer to a methodology or curriculum specifically for teaching English language skills to ELLs. Elements can include vocabulary, speaking, reading and writing, and other skills important for success in school.

ESL instruction is almost always done in English, and not in any other language. These programs are also federally funded and typically involve pulling students out of the classroom. Teachers are typically required to hold a special certificate to qualify to teach ESL classes. TESOL refers to Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages. Here are some other important concepts to know about ESL:

Key terms to help explain what is ESL
Jillian Marshall

There are two key elements of ESL instruction: BICS and CALP. BICS stands for basic interpersonal communication skills. This refers to the language ability required for verbal face-to-face communication. CALP is short for cognitive academic language proficiency, which is what is required for academic achievement. ESL programs use both components as part of the curriculum. They also focus on grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation to enhance English language skills. BICS are easier to learn and often develop first, while CALP takes much longer to learn.

Who qualifies for ESL instruction?

It’s important to remember that there is no such thing as a typical English language learner. Students may be immigrants or they may have been born in the United States. In fact, according to a survey from 2016, 72% of school-age students who qualified as English language learners were born in the United States. They also come from various cultural backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses.

ADVERTISEMENT

While ELL students are all unique, there are specific ways we can support them. Learning as much as we can about our students helps facilitate connection and can increase student buy-in as a result. Understanding a student’s family and background is vital too. Just like all students, ELL students want to belong and have fun in school, but they might need some extra support to do so. And rather than think of them as starting from a deficit, it can be helpful to reframe our perspective and focus on the gifts they can bring to our classroom. This video from Colorín Colorado reminds us of just how much ELL students can offer.

s

It’s also important to note that students may be learning English as a third or fourth language. Since the term ESL refers to learning English as a second language, it doesn’t encompass all English learners. We can use the term ESOL, English for Speakers of Other Languages, to incorporate all students learning English.

Ways to support ELL students

Whether ELL students are in a specified ESL classroom or not, we can all find ways to help support their language development and increase their chances of academic and social success. Here are our top suggestions for how to support ELLs, no matter what type of language instruction they receive.

Build relationships and celebrate diversity

Of course, building strong relationships with all students is one of our most important jobs as teachers. For students to grow both socially and academically, they must feel comfortable and secure in the classroom. One way to support ELLs in this way is to recognize and honor cultural identities. Finding ways for students to feel seen and connected with us and each other is essential. Creating an environment for all students to feel seen and appreciated for who they are helps establish a strong classroom community and fosters connection and engagement.

The video below from Colorín Colorado offers a helpful reminder of why it’s so important to build strong relationships with ELLs.

One great way to establish these types of successful relationships is to offer home visits. Seeing students in their home environments can be so helpful for establishing connections and honoring students’ unique backgrounds. The better we know and understand our students, the more they will invest in the classroom community and be motivated to learn.

Offer plenty of time and practice

Developing language skills takes time, and we can’t rush it. Nevertheless, we can offer a variety of opportunities for our students to support their emerging skills. The more peer interactions we can provide, the better. Partner or small-group work is great for facilitating oral language skills and gives us a better sense of how ELLs are progressing in their language development.

Continue to emphasize native language

Our overarching goal for students learning English is that they become bilingual. Encouraging ELLs to continue to speak in and use their native language is important too. One way to do this is to use tools for learning in students’ native languages. Larry Ferlazzo, an ELL educator and popular blogger, suggests using an instructional strategy called “preview, view, review.” The idea is to introduce new topics to students in their home languages by using different online resources. Then, teach the lesson in English, and finally, summarize the content again in the native language.

Offer extra wait time

When we pose a question to the class, it’s important to give all students sufficient wait time before calling on them. This is easier said than done, however. We tend to overestimate how long we’re actually waiting. Studies show that we typically wait just one or two seconds before calling on students! But for ELLs, this wait time is even more critical. When we offer extra time, students have more space to process and translate their thoughts into English. Considering all of what’s required for students to do this, we have to be extra mindful of how we are asking them to participate, while not expecting them to just sit quietly and listen.

Engage families

Every parent is eager to hear positive feedback about their child and learn about what’s happening in the classroom. The more communication you can have with families, the more likely they are to get engaged in their child’s learning. When you reach out to them and make them feel comfortable, chances are they will in turn ask you questions and feel safer bringing concerns to your attention.

The video below suggests that families may have varying availability and accessibility, so we might have to get creative with how we communicate with them.

Differentiate and extend learning

Engaging with material in a variety of ways benefits all learners. For ELL students, it gives them multiple opportunities to learn a concept through different modalities. They may be stronger in one area than another and it also helps reinforce concepts through repetition. Incorporating a variety of activities like listening, writing, and speaking can be tremendously helpful for ELLs.

Try one thing at a time

So much is new for ELLs. The following video is a helpful reminder to take things slowly and focus on one new concept at a time.

https://youtu.be/PGfk00rLqpc

Books and Resources

Colorín Colorado

This website is a fantastic resource for everything you need to know about how to teach English language learners.

Learn more: Colorín Colorado

Literacy Foundations for English Learners

Author Elsa Cárdenas-Hagan is a wealth of knowledge on the topic of ELLs and using research-based practices to support their learning. She has many resources available online as well. Check out this podcast featuring tips specific to literacy and the science of reading for ELL students.

Buy it: Literacy Foundations for English Learners at Amazon

Activities to boost language skills

Readers Theater

Using Readers Theater in the classroom is a great way to support ELL students’ literacy and language skills. Rereading a text many times, especially aloud, increases understanding, vocabulary development, and fluency. It can help students visualize what’s happening in a story as they act it out. All students can benefit from Readers Theater, and it’s easy to differentiate learning by giving bigger or smaller parts to students based on their language skills. As students increase their skills and can showcase them, it can be a great confidence booster! For more tips and suggestions, check out these helpful steps for creating scripts and how to use them for younger students.

Quick Write

Writing can be overwhelming for ELL students. An activity like a quick write, where students try to write as much as they can for five minutes, might help alleviate some of the anxiety. The goal is to write on a specific topic for five minutes, not worrying about spelling or if they run out of things to say. At the end, have students jot down how many words they wrote and keep track of their progress over time. Check out this post for more ideas on how to improve writing skills for ELL students, which will in turn improve their language skills.

Circle Chat

Check out this fun, interactive activity where students take turns talking with partners. It’s a great way to boost communication skills and get everyone engaged.

Graphic Organizers

KWL chart as an example of a helpful instructional strategy to support ELL students
Facing History/K-W-L charts via facinghistory.org

Graphic organizers are great tools for helping illustrate concepts visually and making topics more concrete for ELL students. They can also help support vocabulary development. We like this K-W-L chart from Facing History, but there are so many options for all types of graphic organizers out there.

Do you teach ESL? Come share your experience in the We Are Teachers HELPLINE group on Facebook.

Plus, check out Ways To Build ELL Vocabulary Skills.

Definitions and explanations of important ESL/ELL terms, plus ways to support language development in the classroom and activities to try.