English-Language Learners

The Evolution of Terms Describing English Learners: An ELL Glossary

By Ileana Najarro — March 30, 2023 8 min read
Illustration of teacher art whiteboard point to ELL terms.
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Students acquiring the English language are one of the fastest growing populations of K-12 public school students in the country. Legally, districts are required to provide them with adequate English-language support, while also teaching them grade level academic content.

But historically, these students have faced challenges in accessing quality education, whether due to funding limitations; state policies falling behind on best practices; or a lack of specialized instructors and insufficient training among general classroom teachers.

Educators, researchers, advocates, and policymakers continue to push for a better, more culturally inclusive future for these students. U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona has—in multiple public appearances this year, for instance—promoted bilingual and multilingual education as priorities for his agency.

One way to track the evolution of how the U.S. public education system has treated students acquiring English is by looking at the terms used to classify them, and their evolution over time.

To date, there are numerous terms and variations used by researchers, agencies, and individual school districts, and the evolution hasn’t necessarily followed a linear path. For the purposes of this glossary, Education Week focused on the umbrella terms used by state agencies and the Department of Education; the most recent terms present in policy and research; and other prominent terms seen in the field.

To learn more about the implications of these terms on policy and practice, and how Education Week has used them, click here.

For a look at which states use which terms, click here.

Limited English Proficient (LEP)

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in the 1974 Lau v. Nichols case that language cannot be a barrier that prevents access to regular school programs offered to every other student and higher academic achievement. In other words, non-English-speaking students, attending schools that received federal funding must be provided English-language acquisition support in school so as not to infringe on their civil right to access to an equal education.

The term non-English proficient (NEP) came out of this case, and out of that also came the term limited-English proficient (LEP) to acknowledge that students knew some English but still needed English-language services, said Sam Aguirre, director of the WIDA Español program out of WIDA, an agency that provides multilingual learner services, including managing language proficiency assessments.

Limited-English proficient became the preferred term used by state agencies and later was also used in policy communications by the U.S. Department of Education to identify students legally eligible for English-language support. It remained the preferred term among state agencies for decades.

Even so, advocates and researchers early on noted how LEP connoted a view of students as having a deficit.

“The emphasis is on the limitations of the students,” Aguirre said. “So instead of valuing the students for their linguistic assets … we’re focusing on the need, the area that they need to grow.”

At one point bilingual educators in Illinois pushed back by using PEP, or potentially English proficient, instead, said Diep Nguyen, director of WIDA educator learning, research, and practice.

Advocates sought terminology that didn’t view the ability to speak more than one language as a detriment to learning. And even though researchers and educators adopted and coined more asset-minded terms for students receiving English-language support in the intervening years, policymakers didn’t start to shift gears until the 2000s.

LEP is still used today in particular by researchers citing federal data sets such as U.S. Census data, said Leslie Villegas, a senior policy analyst with the left-leaning think tank New America.

English Learner (EL)

When the Department of Education’s Office of English Language Acquisition was created in 2002 as part of the No Child Left Behind legislation, the agency’s original guidance was to use “English-language learner” to classify students who needed English-language instruction based on an assessment that determined their level of English-language proficiency, said Kathleen Leos, former assistant deputy secretary and director of OELA who was there for the agency’s start.

Similarly to LEP, the term is specifically used to identify those students who are legally eligible for English-language acquisition support in public schools.

The term English learner became the official label at the federal level under the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act and remains the preferred term used in the Department of Education’s policy communications.

But some agencies and organizations, including WIDA, use the variation of EL: English-language learner (ELL). WIDA includes the word “language” in the label because it conveys that these students are not just learning English, but they are understanding a second or third language, said Mariana Castro, deputy director of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. After all, technically, every student in the United States is an English learner in the sense that they all take grammar, reading, and writing classes.

Compared to LEP, EL does a better job of portraying students in an asset-minded way, researchers said. It emphasizes how they are acquiring English to add to whatever language they speak at home.

However, “English learner as a term doesn’t emphasize the diversity and the richness of the language experience that multilingual learners have and bring to their schooling,” said Lisa Hsin, senior researcher at the American Institutes for Research.

(AIR’s research on students acquiring English in schools is housed in its Center for English Learners. The naming convention is meant to align with federal terminology, just as New America uses EL.)

Attempts to acknowledge those cultural and linguistic assets has led some to use the term culturally linguistically diverse students, Aguirre with WIDA said. That evolved into bilingual learners, with some arguing these students weren’t fully bilingual because they still needed to attain English proficiency. There was also the term emergent bilingual, coined back in 2008 by academics. But these conversations eventually led to the newest umbrella term.

Multilingual Learner (MLL)

The term multilingual learner (MLL) is meant to note that students speak many languages. It’s one of the newer terms used by researchers and agencies. Cardona, the education secretary, has also used the term multilingual education when speaking of federal priorities for the Education Department.

“Cardona, he’s paying attention to the research, he’s saying, ‘Look, kids out here, it doesn’t matter what your first language is,’” said Leos, formerly of OELA. “Everybody here should be learning more than one language, because that’s how you’re going to get the highest academic achievement for every student.”

MLL is a term that acknowledges multiple languages and dialects, including those that are indigenous, and is built around social justice efforts to elevate these methods of cultural communication purposely erased or looked down upon historically, said Castro at Wisconsin-Madison.

It’s also the most inclusive term in the sense that a multilingual learner can be a student in a dual-language program who is completely fluent in English and learning a second language. So it doesn’t just cover those who, according to a language assessment, require English-language acquisition support.

To that end, some researchers warn that, for legal purposes, there still needs to be a precise designation for those who need specialized services to ensure they acquire English.

It’s why the education consulting firm SupportEd has, in a recent report, suggested using multilingual learner as the umbrella term for all multilingual students, while also using emergent multilingual learner for those who still need to learn English.

Many questions also remain around how education practices such as dual-language programs can be expanded and brought to scale nationwide to truly promote multilingual education in a way that allows those legally eligible for English-language support to also develop their home languages. But with such programs currently limited across the country, some researchers also caution that multilingual education must not end up prioritizing access to students with no need for specialized English support because historically, English learners have struggled with access to quality language and academic instruction.

The hope however is that there can be a vision for public education where every student has access to multilingual education as a primary goal for public education, Leos said.

Emergent Bilingual and Programmatic Labels

The academic Ofelia Garcia coined the term “emergent bilingual” in a 2008 paper she co-authored called “From English Language Learners to Emergent Bilinguals.” Around the same time, Kathy Escamilla coined “emerging bilinguals” to discuss the dynamic nature of dual language learners from the perspective of early young learners who are learning more than one language in an interconnected way, said Castro at Wisconsin-Madison. Some scholars and advocates still prefer these terms.

But beyond the labels for students acquiring the English language, educators might also come across a variety of programmatic labels that categorize the specific program in which students are participating. For instance, if a school has an English as a second language department, students receiving services there may be ESL students. Those in a transitional bilingual program may be called transitional bilingual students. A student in a dual-language program? Dual-language learner.

However, researchers, especially those in the early education field, might use “dual-language learner” to describe children up to age 8 who are learning English in addition to their home language, said Villegas with New America.

A version of this article appeared in the May 03, 2023 edition of Education Week as The Evolution of Terms Describing English Learners: An ELL Glossary


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