So What’s the Difference Between ESL and ELL?
Tobey Cho Bassoff
Many of you have asked me the difference between ESL and ELL. I’ve finally found an answer that I like. In the recently released book Classroom Instruction that Works for English Language Learners, Jane Hill and Kathleen Flynn clearly delineate the terms while offering an excellent resource for today’s ELL teacher and school (ACSD 2006). Hill and Flynn apply the term “ESL,” to programs that are traditionally specialized. Teachers who have explicit training instruct students in acquiring English as a Second Language or ESL. Programs like these are often supported by federal funding.
With the advent of the No Child Left Behind Act, and the passage of legislation demanding the educational success of all our children, the term ELL has evolved. ELL means “English Language Learner.” The term applies to ELLs in general education classrooms. The students are not pulled out or pulled aside for individualized ESL support or lessons as in the traditional model. Rather, their teachers make the curriculum accessible to them by planning for accommodations to their content instruction. If you’re curious about the book and the research-based strategies linked to high academic achievement in ELLs identified by the author, I discuss both in my article, “A review of Classroom Instruction that Works for English Language Learners.”
Like most terms used to define a big concept, agreement depends on where you are and the culture of your school. I like this explanation because it is one that I’ve seen play out in my community. However, it’s dangerous to make the assumption that all people buy-in to this or a similar distinction between the two terms. Take the term “bilingual education” as a comparison. If you ask teachers to explain how their school approaches bilingual education you’ll get competing answers. Some will say bilingual education is making students bi-literate. Others will say it means making them bi-cultural and bi-literate. And yet others will insist that it means getting students proficient in English as fast as possible. Therefore, it is wise to seek to understand what a school means when it applies the term “ESL” to its second language learning population. Furthermore, it’s essential that we teachers understand the approach that the school is using to educate the ELL community of which we are a part. If we can come to a common understanding about the direction of our ELL program and the goals we are trying to achieve, then our approaches will be unified and our results effective.
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