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Immigrant Student vs. English-Language Learner?


Despite the teaser for this blog on the home page saying I will tackle the "complexities and nuances" of teaching English-language learners, I admit I have already missed at least one nuance.

Claude Goldenberg, the executive director of the Center for Language Minority Education and Research at California State University-Long Beach, pointed out I'm not being accurate when I say my blog is about "immigrant students" when it's really about English-language learners. He's right that most English-language learners are born in the United States and therefore aren't immigrants.

I see now that it's a weak defense, when you have sharp researchers reading your blog, to say I was trying to lighten up on the language by occasionally referring to English-language learners as immigrants. I'll use English-learners or ELLs for short from now on.

But this gave me an excuse to look up figures on how many ELLs, in fact, are born in the United States. Researchers from the Urban Institute found that 77 percent of ELLs in prekindergarten to 5th grade and 56 percent of ELLs in grades 6 to 12 are U.S.-born. Scroll down to figure one in the November 2005 article from the Migration Policy Institute to find the figures.

Mr. Goldenberg kindly provided a glossary for some terms I'll use in future blog entries.

English-language learner (ELL), or English-learner (EL): A student who speaks a language other than English, is limited in his or her English proficiency and is learning English (usually) as a second language. The student might have from zero to advanced proficiency in English, but the key characteristic is that the student does not know enough English to be able to participate fully in the mainstream all-English instructional environment. Formerly known as limited English proficient (LEP), non-English speaking (NES), limited-English speaking (LES), or English-as-a-second-language (ESL) students.
Immigrant: Anyone who is born outside of the United States and territories. Virtually all immigrants from non-English-speaking countries are English-learners: some remain ELs longer than others. Although almost all immigrants are ELs, not all ELs are immigrants. In fact, most of the ELs in the United States are U.S.-born.
Language-minority student: A student who comes from a home where a language other than English is spoken. Language-minority students are not necessarily English-learners.

Why is someone in the 10th grade, born in the US, still consided as an ESL student?? There is another issue going on other than 2nd language aquisition

Hi Mary,

I’ve just read your posting on the expectation that US born ELLs should be able to read on grade level by the time they’re in third grade, and there’s actually a very logical reason that many don’t reach the reading proficiency we’d like to see them attain.

When an ELL enters a US school as a non-native speaker of English, they begin the process of learning English, of course. However, guess what everyone else is doing while this child is learning English--learning to read. Native speakers of English come to school with a large vocabulary of English words that they can immediately put to the task of learning to read. So, native speakers of the language can jump into those waters quickly and are immediately taking advantage of instruction in the task of HOW to read. This instruction usually goes on in 1st and 2nd grade. In the meantime, our ELL is learning social English and probably doing a really good job of it. However, the ELL is not as able to immediately take advantage of instruction in reading because he/she is still figuring out nuances of the language itself.

By the time that the ELL is able to fully take advantage of actual instruction in the process of reading (say end of 2nd or 3rd grade), the teacher has moved on and is probably no longer teaching that. In fact, by the 3rd grade, most teachers have made an important instructional transition, from ‘learning to read’ to ‘reading to learn’. So, many of our ELLs are just getting to dock only to watch the boat sail without them. Not only are they missing out on essential reading instruction, but many are also getting exited from ESL services based on their social proficiency. So, some end up shuttled over into special education since they end up in 4th grade with ‘persistent reading comprehension issues’ after they’ve been exited from ESL.

Something to think about,


Dr. N. Eleni Pappamihiel

Watson School of Education

601 S. College St.

University of North Carolina at Wilmington

Wilmington, NC 28403

910-962-3192 (office)

910-962-3988 (fax)

As someone who has worked for almost two decades with English language learners in public schools, I'd like to point out the obvious -- that ELLs are not a homogeneous group -- which makes establishing education policies for them extremely complex. Ms. Zehr discussed a comment pointing out that some ELLs are natives of the U.S. and some are immigrants. Those that are immigrant vary from having no previous school experience to being highly literate in their first language requiring a very different instructional approach. The average teacher and the average politician don't have the background or training to understand how diverse our ELLs are. Hence, these students are often inappropriately grouped or assumed to have learning deficits. Teachers need to be trained to find out more about their ELLs than their level of English language proficiency. Politicians need to listen to those of us who have many years of experience working with ELLs before they develop policies and, in addition, adequately fund programs for ELLs.

Hi Everyone. I have just published an article in Heritage Language Journal that deals with just this issue of US-born English Language Learners.

In fact, the whole issue is devoted to matters of Heritage Language and TESOL.

located at: www.heritagelanguages.org

I'd love to hear some feedback and responses.

Debra Suarez, Ph.D.
Associate Professor,
TESOL, Education Dept.
College of Notre Dame of Maryland
[email protected]

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