Education: A Common Definition for English Language Learners

Amidst the continuing Common Core conversation, it is vital that states work to improve the educational experiences of all students, especially English Language Learners (ELL) or those learning English as a Second Language (ESL). For the growing number of students learning English as a second language, providing additional language support early can greatly impact the likelihood of success in school. Yet pairing more kids with the support they need remains no easy assignment. Why? The definition of who qualifies as an ELL student still varies greatly from state to state.


An estimated 4.7 million students learn English as a second language in school--a number that could actually be much higher. As I mentioned, definitions of who qualifies as ELL students varies, with some students in one state excluded on criteria that would make them eligible for additional school support in another state. Inconsistent definitions are creating cracks through which more students are likely to fall.

A common definition can't wait:

3 Reasons for an ELL Common Definition

  • Closing the Gap: States are facing widening gaps in educational attainment between ELL students and non ELL students. Reports have consistently shown that students with low proficiency are less likely to graduate as students who are proficient. Likewise, a recent report by the U.S. Department of Education found that just nine states meet all of their federal goals for English-language learner programs. Setting a common definition would provide a clear framework to guide states' efforts to increase the number of students excelling in all core subjects.
  • Innovation in Learning Models: Well defined qualifications for ELL students could enable schools to adopt new educational models that better serve students. In Las Vegas, NV, for example Zoom Schools, or specialized learning centers, emerge from the growing number of students needing language services.
  • Eliminating Stigma: A groundbreaking short film, Immersion, depicts one ELL student as he struggles to learn in a new country and a new language.  Being neglected by overburdened teachers and teased by insensitive classmates, the film brings to life the real challenges of ELL students to overcome stigmas language barriers can breed. The testimonies of real students who shied away from education prior to receiving additional language support gives urgency to the need for a common definition that quickly links students with effective language training.

A colleague recently recounted the confusion she felt as child placed in an ESL program despite the fact that English was her native language. Instances of students being misclassified as ELL students because of their ethnic sounding last names persists and derive from faulty determining criteria.

Enacting a common definition for ELL students is a much needed step towards improving the quality of education for these students. In addition to creating more streamlined learning experiences, Stateline reports that establishing a common definition could draw more federal funding for ESL programs. This is particularly important as the government looks to better measure the progress ELL students make in educational attainment.

As states take new strides to establish common standards for education we must not overlook the incongruent standards that frame the daily experiences of English Language Learners. Our schools remain the most accessible gateways for students learning English as a second language to develop skills vital to the future of their education and lives. For parents, teachers and mentors alike we must raise our voice in support of a common definition--one that will connect more students with language support early and provide new tool for families integrating into American school systems.

Aundrea_Gregg-TheWiseLatinaClub An education policy wonk at the Georgia Center of Opportunity, Aundrea Gregg holds a Master’s degree in Social Policy and Planning from the London School Of Economics and a Bachelor’s in Classical Civilizations and Political Science from Howard University. She also is a nail painting enthusiast and writer living in Atlanta, GA. Connect with Aundrea on Twitter or Google+.

Edited by: Viviana Hurtado, Ph.D.

What other ways we improve education for English Language Learners?