Immigrant Student vs. English-Language Learner?

By Mary Ann Zehr — February 12, 2007 1 min read
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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 Institutefound 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 articlefrom the Migration Policy Instituteto 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.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.