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Knowledge is Power: Understanding Diverse English Learners

Teaching English learners (ELs) requires a bit of finesse and a lot of differentiation. We tend to think of English learners as one homogenous group, but in reality one EL is not like the other. English learners are an incredibly diverse group and have wide-ranging needs in the classroom. All students with the “English learner” label are similar in that they are all in the process of acquiring academic English skills. However, that’s where the similarities end. Even though all ELs are acquiring English, they are probably at very different stages on the continuum of academic English fluency. A newcomer with beginning English skills has different needs from a 2nd generation immigrant student who is perfecting academic English skills.

The differences amongst the students in the EL population only increase from here. These students come from different cultural backgrounds and have different home language experiences. Some ELs may be immigrants while other ELs were born in the U.S. into multilingual families. English learners come from different socio-economic backgrounds, some experiencing extreme poverty and all of the learning challenges that go along with it, while others come from affluent families with all the accompanying economic supports. Some ELs have lived in the same place their whole lives, while others experience quite a bit of mobility. Some ELs are simultaneous bilinguals and have been exposed to multiple languages since birth; other ELs are sequential bilinguals, speaking only the home language with family and community members until enrolling in school in the U.S. and starting to learn English. Some English learners may have had a strong and consistent education in the home language, either in the home country or in the U.S. through a bilingual or dual language program. Other students have not had the opportunity to develop strong skills in the home language. This could either be because of interrupted education in the home country or because their education in U.S. schools did not promote home language development.

It is this last difference that can be especially perplexing to educators trying to best serve the various needs of language learners in the classroom. I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the value of home languages for our language learner students. The truth is that as a classroom teacher, as I observed student performance in my classroom, it quickly became fairly apparent whether a student had strong or developing academic skills in the home language. Those students with strong home language skills usually demonstrated stronger skills in English as well. Those students who struggled academically usually had weaker skill development in the home language. My suspicions of adequate home language development, or lack there-of, were usually confirmed through a look at student cumulative folders, or conversations with the student or their family about past educational experiences.

Students with consistent, strong education in the home language transfer skills relatively easily from the home language to English. These students have an arsenal of learning strategies that they readily apply to their new learning contexts in English. These students have academic background knowledge and prior learning that they can use to help them navigate new learning in English. In short, students with highly developed home languages hit the ground running when it comes to acquiring academic language in English.

Students with developing academic skills and emerging academic language in both the home language and English generally belong to one of two subgroups within the language learner population: Students with limited or interrupted formal education (SLIFE), or long-term English learners.

Students with limited or interrupted formal education are students who have experienced gaps in education for any number of reasons. These students might be refugees, have experienced war or civil strife, come from geographically isolated regions of the home country without access to many schools, had to leave school to help provide income for their families, or come from places where the school day and year were defined differently than in the U.S. And these are only some of the reasons for which students may have had limited educational opportunities; in reality there are a myriad of situations in which students may not have been enrolled in school at one time or another.

Long-term language learners are a bit more of a puzzle for schools, and teachers. These students are often U.S. citizens, having been born in the United States and enrolled in U.S. schools their entire lives. However, their academic language development has languished, even though they appear bilingual on the surface and have well developed social skills in both languages. These students often have had inconsistent language education, either because of inconsistent programming in one school or because of having moved to several different schools with different language programs. Many long-term ELs have not had the opportunity to develop their skills in the home language, and their performance in English has suffered as a result.

Teachers need to know what background each of their language learners has because ELs are so different from one to the next. It is not enough to say with finality, “This student is an English learner,” as if that explains everything any teacher needs to know about the student. There is so much more behind the “English Learner” label.

Teachers and schools need to know their students and the assets that they bring to the classroom in order to make adequate instructional and programmatic decisions for them. For English learners, some of these assets include cultural and linguistic assets. For ELs with limited education, it is easy to erroneously jump to the conclusion that these students have no assets to speak of, but this is not true. No student is a zero! Their personal histories and past experiences can provide context for new learning, and it is important to recognize the experiential assets that these students have.

Questions that we can ask to better know our students:

●Where is this student from and what does their cultural background tell us about how they will respond in the classroom?

●Has this student experienced mobility? What types of language assistance programs has this student been enrolled in previously?

●When did this student start to acquire English? At what age or grade level? Is this student a sequential or a simultaneous bilingual?

●Has this student experienced consistent education or have there been gaps in schooling? What were this student’s grades in the home country or in prior U.S. schools?

●Where is this student in the process of acquiring academic English skills?

●Where is this student in the process of acquiring academic language skills in the home language?

●What prior content learning or skills does this student have in both English and the home language? What prior experiences does this student have that can be connected to new content?

Through asking some of these questions, we can better understand our students, their full backgrounds, and their prior content achievement and language skill development. We can then better reach them where they are to differentiate for their needs and build stronger scaffolds for them in the classroom. After all, in the words of Francis Bacon, knowledge is power! In the case of our English learners, it’s not just about what teachers know about their students, but also how they use that knowledge to make better instructional decisions in the classroom. Did you ever change a lesson plan after learning more about your students’ backgrounds? Do you tailor instruction to your students’ needs? Are you asking, “How do I accomplish all of this?”

Stay tuned for a future blog post on putting what we know about our students to work for us in the classroom.


Freeman, Y., Freeman, D., & Mercuri, S. (2002). Closing the achievement gap: How to reach limited-formal-schooling and long-term English learners. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Menken, K. & Kleyn, T. (2009). The difficult road for long-term English learners. Educational Leadership. 66(7).

Menken, K., Kleyn, T., & Chae, N. (2012) Spotlight on long-term English language learners: Characteristics and prior schooling experiences of an invisible population. International Multilingual Research Journal. 6(2),121-147.

WIDA Focus on SLIFE: Students with limited or interrupted formal education. (2015, May). WIDA Focus Bulletin. Retrieved from

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