How ESL Programs Help Students Learn English

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ESL is a common abbreviation used in schools and it stands for English as a Second Language. Schools will often use the term ESL (sometimes called ESOL or English for Speakers of Other Languages) when describing the programs that educate students who are not native English speakers and often for describing ESL instructors and students.

Students enrolled in ESL classes at the K-12 level are also called ELLs or English Language Learners. ESL classes are also available for adults through various college and community programs.

What ESL Programs Do

Many schools will place children in an ESL program if their non-English speaking family recently immigrated to the United States or if a foreign exchange student needs extra help learning the language. But many ESL students enrolled in the U.S. public school system are actually U.S. citizens with limited proficiency in English. ESL programs are designed to give students special attention while learning and practicing English so they can integrate the language into a regular classroom.

Program Expectations

The amount of time that a student will spend in an ESL program will depend on their level of comprehension of the English language.

  • New students who know little or no English may spend most of the school day in an ESL class in the beginning.
  • Teachers will integrate the kids into a regular classroom as they become more proficient.
  • Students who understand and can speak basic English may begin with only an hour or two in an ESL program per day and spend the rest of their time in regular classes.

Teachers and their aides in an ESL program do not have to know every native language of the ESL students in their classrooms. Over time, they may pick up a few words from their students, but their primary focus is teaching the students how to speak, read, and understand English.

Many ESL programs go beyond language as well. Many will help immigrant children adjust to American society and culture. Children enrolled in ESL classes will often take these lessons home to share with their parents.

How English Is Taught

Teachers who take part in a school's ESL program are trained in specific techniques and tools to help their students learn English. While the curriculum may vary from state to state, the goal for ESL instructors is to teach ESL students to become proficient enough in English so that they meet the same academic standards as their native English-speaking peers.

An ESL class is unique because it will often include students who speak a variety of languages. The teacher must use techniques that all of these students will understand.

Pictures are one of the most commonly used tools because most children know, for example, what a dog, flower, or car looks like. Drawings or photographs can help students associate those objects with the English word, no matter what their native language is. Repetition and demonstrations are also among ESL instructors' primary teaching tools.

Many ESL programs will also use computer software to help students learn English. The Rosetta Stone series is a great example because students can progress through the lessons as they learn.

Each ESL program will have different teaching methods and tools at their disposal. They will also have different standards for a student's evaluation as they progress. The goal is to help students learn English as quickly and effectively as possible so they can join their peers in a regular classroom.

Abbreviations and Terms

ESL is just one abbreviated term associated with students who are learning English. Here are a few more terms that you may find when working with an ESL program.

  • ELL (English Language Learners): Refers to students who are not yet proficient in English but are in the process of developing their skills. This is the commonly used term for students in K-12 education.
  • EFL (English as a Foreign Language): An abbreviation used to describe students learning English while living in their own country. For example, a Chinese student living in Beijing who is studying English.
  • ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages): In addition to being used in the K-12 setting, this abbreviation is also used for adult learning and college students whose native language is not English. Many colleges and community organizations will offer ESOL classes rather than use the term ESL. These are invaluable for adults who need to learn English for work or higher education.
  • TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language): Commonly used abbreviation referring to teachers of ESL or ESOL classes.
  • TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language): Used when referring to teachers of English working in countries where it is not the primary language. This can include teachers working in international schools or those hired to teach English to employees or staff of international businesses and organizations.
5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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