Language Learners and Proficiency Levels: Who are they? What is their level?

Language learners and proficiency levels: Who are they?
By Erick Herrmann

This is the first of a two-part article on language learners.

Are you a fluent English speaker? Do you speak another language? If so, how well? It has been said that we are all language learners; we never learn all of the words in a given language. Our vocabulary continually expands as we learn new concepts and skills or integrate new technology in our lives.

For our students, the demands of the Common Core State Standards and increased rigor in instruction demand that students develop academic language. This is true for native English speakers, English learners and students learning another language in bilingual programs.


How would you describe the number of English learners in your school?

  • 1. Increasing
  • 2. Staying the same
  • 3. Decreasing

Given that, how do we know what the language proficiency levels of our students are? While we may not be able to officially assess the level of every student we have, there are some tools that can help us. By exploring the identification of English learners — and how we assess their proficiency — we can apply our knowledge to all students and help each child in our classrooms more deeply develop the language skills they need to be academically successful.

English learners currently account for about 1 in 9 children in U.S. schools, and by the year 2025 they will number 1 in 4. There are few teachers who are not impacted by the English language learner (ELL) population. Indeed in the last several years, some states have seen an increase of 300 percent in the ELL population. All the while the overall student population in the United States has grown only 20 percent.

Which states have had such dramatic growth? The answer, surprisingly, is not California, New York, Texas, New Mexico or Arizona. Rather it is in states such as North and South Carolina, Indiana, Alabama and Georgia. With such dramatic growth across the U.S. in the English learner population, it is important that we understand who these students are.

The terms English (language) learner, ESL student, limited English proficient (LEP) student, etc., are often used interchangeably to describe a very diverse group of people. English learners — my preferred terminology for this group of students — come from many different countries in the world and speak one of more than 350 languages represented in the United States.

The majority of English learners in our schools — about 75 percent in elementary grades and over 50 percent in secondary schools — were born in the U.S. to parents who speak a language other than English. Over 75 percent of English learners in the U.S. come from Spanish-speaking homes. That brings up to the definition of an English learner: an English learner is generally defined as a student who is not achieving academically due to the level of English language proficiency. According to the federal government, LEP means an individual:

  1. who is aged 3 through 21
  2. who is enrolled or preparing to enroll in an elementary or secondary school;
    – AND –
    1. who was not born in the United States or whose native language is a language other than English; or
      1. who is an American Indian or Alaska native, or a native of the outlying areas; and
      2. who comes from an environment where a language other than English has had a significant impact on the individual’s level of English language proficiency; or
    2. who is migratory, whose native language is a language other than English and who comes from an environment where a language other than English is dominant;
      – AND –
  3. whose difficulties in speaking, reading, writing or understanding the English language may be sufficient to deny the individual
    1. the ability to meet the State’s proficient level of achievement on state assessments described in section 111(b)(3);
    2. the ability to successfully achieve in classrooms where the language of instruction is English; or
    3. the opportunity to participate fully in our society.

Now that we know who English language learners are in the U.S., we will take a look at their different proficiency levels in Part 2 next week.

Part Two: Language learners and proficiency levels: What is their level?

Once students have been identified as having an influence of a language other than English — done at registration through some form of Home Language Survey — they are tested to determine to what degree the influence has had on their English proficiency.


Is it difficult to identify the proficiency level of your students?

  • 1. Yes
  • 2. No

There are numerous measures used in schools across the country that categorize English learners into proficiency levels. While the names and number of proficiency levels vary according to the state, it is important to understand what the proficiency levels tell us about students and what they are able to do in our classrooms. While each state sets its proficiency levels, the following descriptors (from the Oregon Department of Education) can be used as a general guideline:

  • Level 1: Students demonstrate minimal comprehension of general meaning; gain familiarity with the sounds, rhythms and patterns of English. Early stages show no verbal responses, while in later stages one- or two-word responses are expected. Students respond in single words and phrases, which may include subject or a predicate. (bear, brown)
  • Level 2: Students demonstrate increased comprehension of general meaning and some specific meaning. Use routine expressions independently and respond using phrases and simple sentences, which include a subject and predicate. (The bear is brown. He is eating.)
  • Level 3: Students demonstrate good comprehension of general meaning; increased comprehension of specific meaning; respond in more complex sentences, with more detail using newly acquired vocabulary to experiment and form messages. (The brown bear lived with his family in the forest.)
  • Level 4: Students demonstrate consistent comprehension of general meaning; good understanding of implied meaning; sustain conversation, respond with detail in compound and complex sentences; actively participates using more extensive vocabulary, use standard grammar with few random errors. (Can bears live in the forest if they find food there?)
  • Level 5: Students’ comprehension of general and implied meaning, including idiomatic and figurative language. Students initiate and negotiate using appropriate discourse, varied grammatical structures and vocabulary; use of conventions for formal and informal use. (Would you like me to bring pictures of the bear that I saw last summer?)

Can you think of students in your classes who fit the proficiency level descriptors listed above? Are all of them English learners? Consider your native English speakers; do some of them fit into the Level 4 or even Level 3 descriptor? If you work in a bilingual program, these descriptors can be useful when determining the language level of both native speakers of the target language, as well as native English speakers learning the target language.

Once the proficiency level has been determined, it is important to reflect upon what that means for us as teachers. One useful tool is the Can Do Descriptors, defined by the World Class Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA) Consortium, a group of 27 states, for guidance on how to adjust instruction and the tasks students complete in class. The descriptors focus on what students are able to demonstrate at each proficiency level.

But knowing the proficiency level of a student does not guarantee what the student knows or will be able to do. As mentioned before, English learners are a diverse population. Students’ success on academic topics will vary depending on a variety of factors, just as it does for any other student group. Background knowledge, or what a student already knows about a particular topic, students’ level of education and schooling, and other factors will have a large impact on students’ success.

How are English Learners identified in your schools? What are the most common proficiency levels in your schools?
Erick Herrmann is an educational consultant specialized in teaching English learners, and he runs Academic Language Learning Institute, Inc. Erick has worked with thousands of teachers across the nation to help them improve their instructional practice and increase academic achievement for all students.

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