Educators love acronyms, but no area of education seems to have more of them than English language learning. If you’re not already aware of all the shortened jargon, take a look:

  • ELL: English language learner. This refers to a student or person who is not fluent in English.
  • ESL: English as a Second Language. This has been the catchall term for English classes provided to ELLs.
  • ELD: English Language Development. This term has come into play in the last few years, replacing the acronym ESL in many states.
  • L1 and L2: The former refers to a speaker’s native language, while the latter refers to a second language.
  • ELPA: English Language Proficiency Assessment. This is the test used to both assess an incoming ELL’s English ability (in speaking, writing, listening, and reading) as well as to assess whether a student is ready to leave the school’s ESL or ELD program. Students who score a 5 in all areas are considered fluent in English. States may add a letter at the beginning of this acronym (for example, in Kansas, it’s the KELPA).

Now that you know your terms, it’s helpful to know how the ELL population fits into our public school system.

By the Numbers: ELL Growth in Public Education
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 4.7 million students (10 percent of public school students) were enrolled in ESL programs during the 2010-2011 school year. The western U.S. has the highest percentage of ELLs. California, especially, has a significant ELL population, with almost 29 percent of public school students needing ESL services.

The Migration Policy Institute provides further data, showing that ELLs are the fastest-growing segment of the student population. They found that the most commonly spoken languages in ELL populations are:

  • Spanish (73% of ELLs’ families)
  • Chinese (3.8%)
  • Vietnamese (2.7%)
  • French/Haitian Creole (2.1%)
  • Hindi and related (1.8%)

In seven states, however, Spanish is not the most likely language you’ll hear. Teachers in Alaska, Hawaii, North Dakota, and South Dakota are more likely to encounter students who speak an indigenous language such as Ojibwa (ND) or Yupik (AK). In Vermont, the most common language for ELLs is Bosnian, while in Maine it’s Somali.

ESL and ELD Programs in Public Education
No Child Left Behind, under Title III, places federal requirements on schools to support ELLs. At a minimum, it requires schools to show that ELLs are growing in English proficiency over the course of the year by way of a “reliable assessment” and that they are achieving competency in core academic content areas. The legislation also provides a formula for federal fund distribution, basing its numbers on the percentage of ELLs in distinct educational areas.

The U.S. Office of Civil Rights also outlines requirements for public schools. While there isn’t a specific intervention strategy, it places the following demands on school districts:

  • Identify students as potential ELLs
  • Assess students’ need for ELL services
  • Develop a program which experts believe has a good chance of success
  • Ensure that the program has the necessary staff, curricular materials, and facilities
  • Develop appropriate evaluation standards, including program exit criteria
  • Assess the success of the program and modify when needed.

Typical components in an ESL program include an entrance and exit exam, an ESL class in addition to a regular English class, and aides for newcomers in core academic classes. Students may also be placed in classes using Sheltered Instruction Observational Protocol (SIOP), a teaching method that focuses on including ELLs. For the specific workings of a school district’s ESL program, see the following examples:

Degrees and Specializations in ESL
As ESL and ELD programs grow, so do educational degrees and specializations in the field. If you’re looking to go into ESL education, this is a good time for it: teachers who can work with ELLs and speak Spanish, especially, are in high demand.

In terms of how long it will take you to earn your degree, it depends on your goals: if you’re just looking for a certification program (such as TESOL), you may be able to finish your work in just six months. A full masters degree will take an average of two years, while a PhD can take up to five years.

Predictably, universities in the west and southwest often have more committed programs in ESL specialization. Arizona State University, for instance, offers a comprehensive ESL teaching program that can be adapted to classroom teachers, administrators, or policymakers. Their graduate degree is representative of many strong ESL programs and includes study of the following:

  • History of ESL education
  • Theories of language acquisition and development
  • Review of current ESL program models in the U.S.
  • Strategies for community and family engagement
  • Best practices for reading, writing, speaking, and listening

ASU offers this program both on-campus and online. This is becoming more common and gives you the flexibility of adding a degree and specialization to your teaching credentials while continuing to work. Many schools include ESL education as a subsection of an MA in curriculum and instruction, meaning that you’ll get the benefit of a general education masters degree as well as learning how to work with ELLs.

When looking for a certification or degree program online, you may want to start with, which gives a good list of schools specializing in online ESL programs or TESOL (Teaching English as a Second Language) programs. A few schools that rank highly on numerous ESL lists include Concordia University, Northcentral University, and the American College of Education.

If you’re ready to add an ESL endorsement to your license or get a new certification to teach ELLs, now is the time. You’ll be supporting a growing and important section of the U.S. student population, so do your research and get enrolled!