The terminology used to describe students in need of English-language support in schools has evolved over time, with the goal of emphasizing multilingualism as an asset.
Since the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, the U.S. Department of Education has focused on using English learner in its policy communications. But when it comes to state agencies implementing English-language services for students, EL is not the only term present.
Researchers say that which terms are used matters. Terminology and its connotations can drive policy, which, in turn, drives practice. A deficit-based term such as limited English proficient, for instance, could send the message that students’ ability to speak a language other than English is a challenge to learning.
SupportEd, an education consulting firm, tracked what terminology states usein classifying students who are legally eligible for English-language support.
The report found that a majority of 30 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico use only English learners consistently on their state education web pages. Three states (Colorado, Maine, and South Carolina) opt for the use of multilingual learners, a relatively newer term in policy, research, and practice meant to more clearly highlight students’ abilities to speak multiple languages, including indigenous languages and dialects.
To learn more about why the different terms are more than just changes in semantics, click here.
To learn more about the history behind the major terms used, click here.