English Learners

The Debate Over English Learner Terminology, Explained

By Ileana Najarro — March 30, 2023 8 min read
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The terminology used to classify students in need of specialized support to acquire the English language in public schools has shifted over time, gradually embracing more positive connotations of multilingualism.

Historically, these students—who make up about 10 percent of the U.S. public school population, according to the latest federal data—have faced barriers to accessing quality language and academic content instruction. The very language used to describe them in the past, such as limited-English proficient, has reflected the negative expectations and experiences these students have endured.

“Why is it that in 2023, in many school systems in our country, we treat our English learners as students with deficits—rather than assets in a globally competitive world?” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona at a National Association for Bilingual Education conference in February. “Bilingualism and biculturalism is a superpower—and we at the Department of Education will work to help our students become multilingual.”

As educators work to provide a better, more culturally inclusive educational experience for all students, Education Week took a look at the evolution of terms used to classify students acquiring the English language in public schools, and explored why specific terms matter, especially when it comes to the implications on classroom instruction.

“Attached to these terminologies, there is history, and there’s policy around it, and it is that reason why we are constantly thinking and redefining what we mean by the labels,” said Mariana Castro, the deputy director of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Evolution over time—including at EdWeek

The change over time in both official and informal terms classifying students as legally eligible for English-language support services has not necessarily been linear. Generally speaking, the U.S. Department of Education has relied on two main options: limited-English proficient through the early 2000s, and English learner, officially starting in 2015 through today.

Just those two terms reflect a notable shift in focusing less on what students lack in terms of English proficiency and more on the fact that, as students labeled English learners, they are in the process of acquiring another language on top of their home language.

EdWeek, which has covered English learners through the lens of policy, research, and instruction for decades, has gone through its own evolution of terminology.

The internal newsroom style guide, which dictates terminology for use in coverage, was updated in September 2002 to specify that “‘English-language learners’ is now the preferred term for what we’ve long called ‘limited-English-proficient (LEP) students.’ You may still have occasion to use limited-English-proficient and LEP if the older term appears in a law, policy, or document.”

Most recently, in September 2022, the entry notes: “‘English learners’ is now preferred to ‘English-language learners’ when referring to students in programs where they learn the English language.”

The entry also allows for the use of “multilingual learners” on second reference, as well as"emergent bilingual learners,” “English-language learners,” and “bilingual learners’’ when used by sources in quotes.

EdWeek’s style guide is periodically revised by a team of editors, reporters, and visual journalists, who draw on Associated Press guidelines, resources from professional journalism organizations, and interviews with researchers to develop the guidance.

This updated entry also adds the context that “labels such as ‘limited English proficient’ can promote harmful deficit thinking by defining these students by what they are lacking. Terms such as multilingual learners take a more asset-based approach acknowledging the language skills students already possess. When writing about this student population, keep an asset-based framing in mind.”

Multilingual learners is one of the newest umbrella terms used by advocates and researchers alike, though several agencies and EdWeek continue to prefer English learners to better align with the legal terminology set at the federal level.

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Stephanie Shafer for Education Week

Why the terminology isn’t just semantics

At their essence all three terms—LEP, EL, and MLL—essentially work in the same way: they denote students who, according to English-language proficiency assessments, require English-language acquisition support in school to ensure access to an equal education per their civil rights.

But the evolution toward terminology that emphasizes students’ linguistic assets as a net positive guides policy that in turn guides practice. Focusing on deficit-based language sends an implicit negative message for instruction, Castro said.

“These are labels that we’re using for policy purposes, to provide support, but we need to be careful in how that translates into me as a teacher seeing someone who speaks multiple languages coming to my classroom and thinking, ‘Oh, they might have trouble learning,’” Castro said.

To better understand how labels and their connotations can impact classroom experiences, researchers look to gifted and talented programs.

The gifted and talented label tends to carry a positive connotation compared to the generally more negative connotation tied to the English learner label.

That could be because one gives a student access to advanced coursework, while the other has been known to create barriers to those things, said Leslie Villegas, a senior policy analyst with the left-leaning think tank New America. Anecdotally, she has heard of families concerned over their children being labeled as English learners, fearful that the students would essentially receive a remedial education.

“Language learning broadly, in the United States, is looked down upon for some populations and not others,” Villegas said.

Yet language learners are gifted and talented, especially given they must process grade-level academic content rapidly in a second or third language, said Kathleen Leos, former assistant deputy secretary and director of the Education Department’s Office of English Language Acquisition.

The issue at hand, then, isn’t about the students themselves; it’s about longstanding challenges in the public education system. Such issues include insufficient training for general classroom teachers; insufficient staffing of specialized language instructors; a lack of insufficient funding for English-language-support programs; and instructional models that do not adequately prioritize English learners’ needs.

Take the classification of long-term English learners, which emerged out of the Education Department’s need to track the impact of federal funding for English learner support. The term describes students who have remained in an English learner program for five or more years. But to researchers such as Villegas, the classification is a sign of a failed system of instruction, not students’ difficulty learning English.

That’s why researchers say asset-based terminology matters.

“If I’m using a term like [multilingual learner] that means that I’m valuing the [home] language,” Castro said. “ But if in my classroom, all my instruction is just again centering English and giving value to English through assessments, then we haven’t changed anything. It’s just semantics, we’re using a word.”

“So what we’re trying to make through these changes in labels is not just semantics. We’re trying to change practice.”

See also

English Learners Interactive Map: How States Describe Their English Learners
Ileana Najarro, March 30, 2023
1 min read

The hope in the term ‘multilingual learner’

Generally speaking, the term multilingual learner is more asset-based because it highlights students’ existing language abilities while they develop another language.

It’s also more inclusive in that students fluent in English seeking to acquire a second language would also fall into the multilingual learner category, not just peers in need of English-language support. That said, researchers including Lisa Hsin, a senior researcher at the American Institutes for Research, caution that there still needs to be a clear distinction between these two types of students for legal purposes.

“The assets and strengths that accompany the multilingualism of both groups can and should be celebrated, but we mustn’t let that celebration get in the way of ensuring that all students receive the supports they need to meaningfully access education,” Hsin said. “English learners have a right to language-focused supports. And if that group is not distinguished using some specific term, it will be harder to convey the importance of providing those supports to the policymakers and practitioners responsible for doing so.”

There are also concerns of a sort of appropriation in the works.

Debates have raged over the merits of bilingual education for English learners to support both English learning and as a way to develop their home language. But when researchers found it helps with cognitive development, and a host of other benefits, the priority shifted from dual-language programs are needed for English learners, to dual-language programs are needed for all students, Castro said.

“Some people feel like by the idea of multilingualism, you are watering so much down, that you’re not recognizing all the work that has been done around policy, and research,” she added.

A shortage of educators prepared to properly educate students in multiple languages at a time remains a key challenge to scaling up access nationally to programs that would truly encompass multilingual education, Hsin said.

It’s partly why Cardona announced at his February appearance that boosting the number of bilingual and multilingual educators is a department priority.

A version of this article appeared in the May 03, 2023 edition of Education Week as The Debate Over English Learner Terminology, Explained


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