English Learners

6 Levels of English Language Proficiency for ELL Students

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Multilingual learners are a population that is rapidly growing in the U.S. In fact, in 2020, there were 5 million multilingual learners in the U.S. school systems. However, not every student is coming into the classroom at the same English proficiency level. To address the varying needs of multilingual learners, it is important to be knowledgeable of not only students’ language proficiency level but also their background knowledge.

A note on language: Students who are learning English do not fit neatly into a single label and come from a range of cultural, linguistic, and educational backgrounds. We use the common phrases multilingual learner, English language learner, ELL students along with the acronym ELL, but we recognize that any label is imperfect.

What Is Language Proficiency?

Language proficiency refers to the ability to communicate and comprehend in a language. Someone who is proficient in a particular language can use the language in both written and oral form appropriately in real-life interactions, which are spontaneous and not rehearsed. Language learners develop different skills, like speaking and reading, at different paces. Moreover, research suggests that the human brain is flexible and able to acquire vastly different languages using similar brain networks. Students can struggle to communicate an idea in their target language despite understanding the idea well.

ELL Proficiency Levels

There are various assessments used to determine students’ English language proficiency. WIDA—an organization that provides educators with key resources and instructional tools to support multilingual learners—offers assessments to determine students’ identification, placement, progress, and achievement. In one of the WIDA assessments, students are assessed in four language domains—speaking, listening, reading, and writing. This WIDA assessment measures English language proficiency, also known as ELP, on a scale of 1 to 6. Students’ scores describe performance in terms of the six WIDA language proficiency levels.

The WIDA proficiency levels are listed below as well as the skills students use at each level. WIDA provides details of each level at a technical level, but we have simplified them.

Level 1: Entering

  • Represents content-area language graphically
  • Uses words, phrases, or chunks of language when presented with commands, directions, or questions
  • When presented with basic oral commands or direction, may speak with phonological, syntactic, or semantic errors

Level 2: Beginning

  • Uses general language related to the content areas
  • Uses phrases or short sentences
  • When presented with multi-step commands, directions, or questions, may speak or write with phonological, syntactic, or semantic errors.

Level 3: Developing

  • Uses general and some specific language of the content areas
  • Expands on sentences when speaking or writing paragraphs
  • When presented with oral or written narrative or expository descriptions, may have phonological, syntactic, or semantic errors.

Level 4: Expanding

  • Uses specific and some technical language of the content areas
  • Uses a variety of sentence lengths of varying linguistic complexity when speaking or writing paragraphs
  • When speaking or writing, has minimal phonological, syntactic, or semantic errors

Level 5: Bridging

  • Uses specialized or technical language of the content areas
  • Uses a variety of sentence lengths of varying linguistic complexity when engaging in oral discourse or writing stories, essays, or reports
  • Speaks and writes comparable to that of English-proficient peers when presented with grade-level material

Level 6: Reaching

  • Uses specialized or technical language reflective of the content areas at grade level
  • Uses a variety of sentence lengths of varying linguistic complexity in extended oral or written discourse as required by the specified grade level
  • Speaks and writes in English comparable to English-proficient peers

While WIDA provides a series of English proficiency levels, there are many assessments used around the country to measure a student’s proficiency. The table below lists some of the assessments in use along with how they categorize student performance in relation to WIDA’s levels. Once students reach English language proficiency, they will be reclassified to fluent English proficient, also referred to as RFEP. Most states and districts require multiple measures to determine reclassification of students as proficient in English.

5 Types of English Language Learner Profiles

Every multilingual student comes into the classroom with a unique set of lived experiences. Some students may have recently arrived in the U.S. with limited schooling, while other students have been enrolled in the U.S. school system for years. Knowing students’ backgrounds can help teachers better understand their strengths and needs. Below are some English language learner profiles and details to be mindful of when working with multilingual learners. These profiles only serve as a guide, as students will not typically fit neatly into just one category.

Newcomers Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education

  • Recently arrived (one year or less) in the U.S.
  • Have limited attendance in formal schooling or experienced interrupted schooling in their another country
  • May include refugees, unaccompanied youth, migrant children, recently arrived English learners (RAELs)

Newcomers with Uninterrupted Schooling

  • Recently arrived (one year or less in the U.S.)
  • Attended formal school in another country
  • May have studied English as a foreign language
  • Possess strong literacy in another language
  • Often acquire language at a fast pace
  • May include immigrant families from more developed countries

Normatively Progressing English Language Learners

  • Enrolled in the U.S. school system for more than one year
  • Require English language development and support
  • Respond positively to language development and literacy instruction
  • Progressing at a growth rate typical for average English learners
  • May need reclassification after a few years

Students at Risk of Becoming Long-Term English Learners

  • Students in Grades 3–12 who have been identified as English learners for 4–5 years
  • Have been requiring English language development and support
  • May exhibit difficulty with oral language development and literacy instruction

Long-Term English Language Leaners (LTELs)

  • Students in Grades 6–12 who have been identified as English learners for 6 or more years
  • Fluent in conversational English
  • Stalled in one proficiency level without improvement

When teachers are aware of students' English proficiency levels and learner profiles, they can better support students to achieve mastery of the English language.

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