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Establishing shared terminology: Commonly used terms for English learners

February 20, 2017
by Clare Irwin

In December 2016, PEER was awarded a grant from the Spencer Foundation to further expand the work of the partnership. Specifically, this funding will allow PEER to conduct research and support professional development activities related to English learners in Bridgeport, Norwalk, and Stamford.

PEER members represent a breadth of early learning, elementary, and childcare contexts, and different terminology is used in different settings to describe English learners. To help its members develop a shared understanding, PEER has begun a glossary of some commonly used terms describing children learning more than one language. While a full glossary of terms related to English learners and programs will be forthcoming, the following list begins the process of developing common terms related to English learners.

Dual language learners (DLL): A term most often used in the early childhood field, DLL refers to children prior to kindergarten entry who are learning English at the same time that they are still developing their first language. These children are considered DLLs regardless of whether they are exposed to their first language outside of the home. The term “dual language learner” is distinct from the use of “dual language” or “dual immersion” to refer to an educational program that seeks to develop a child’s home language in addition to her English language ability.

English language learners (ELL): A term most often used in the K-12 educational context, ELL refers to students whose primary language is not English. Often, ELL is a specific designation reserved for students who are receiving English language services from their school.

English learners or English learner students (EL): Synonymous with ELL, “English learners” is currently the preferred terminology of the United States Department of Education.

Limited English proficient (LEP): A term used to refer to students whose English is not developed enough to succeed in English-only classrooms. English learner and ELL are increasingly being used in place of LEP.

With support from the Spencer Foundation, PEER's new project focuses on programs and schools that serve English learners throughout the preschool to kindergarten transition, which means most of the terms above are relevant to this work. While the terms DLL and ELL/English learner have slightly different meanings, the general assumption is that DLLs are young ELLs/English learners. In addition, while DLLs are not typically receiving specific language services, they may be eligible for language services once they enter the K-12 system.

Regardless of the terms used to describe children who speak or are learning multiple languages, studies show that speaking more than one language can be an asset as well as a challenge. While there is concerning evidence regarding the underperformance of ELs in Connecticut and beyond, research points to significant cognitive and social benefits of learning and speaking more than one language. And these benefits are not only relevant to English learners. For example, in a recent memo, the Brookings Institution provides policy recommendations related to English learners and the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)—explicitly stating that bilingualism for all students should be seen as an asset.

Submitted by Joanna Meyer on February 21, 2017