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ESL vs. ELL: What’s the Difference?

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Do you teach English as a Second Language (ESL) or English Language Learners (ELL)? Are you unsure about the differences between ESL vs ELL?

Well, if so, then you’ve come to the right place! In this blog post, we’ll explore the key differences between ESL and ELL. We’ll look at how they’re defined, what they mean in terms of language learning, and the best teaching strategies for both.

Let’s start by defining ESL and ELL. While some people use these terms interchangeably, there are actually quite a few differences between them. How you define and use each term will depend on the type of student you are teaching.

Plus, it’s important to understand the differences in order to effectively create lesson plans and teaching strategies so that your students can get the most out of their language learning experience.

So, in this blog post, we’ll discuss the differences between ESL and ELL and how you can use each of them most effectively in teaching your students. So let’s jump in!

ESL vs ELL: Definitions

ESL stands for English to Speakers of Other Languages. It is also sometimes called ESOL. Typically, ESL refers to programs or courses designed for non-native speakers of English who want to improve their language skills for personal or professional reasons.

Fun Fact: ESL used to stand for English as a Second Language

ESL was changed to be more inclusive of people learning English as a third (or more) language as well as people of limited English proficiency including if English is their first language.

ELL, on the other hand, stands for English Language Learning. This term is used to describe students who are in the process of learning English (or English Language Learners). The goal is to help them transition to mainstream education classrooms.

ESL vs ELL: Education

ESL programs usually involve some form of content-based instruction, which means that students learn about topics such as science, history, or math while also practicing their English skills.

In most cases, ELL students are enrolled in regular education classes but receive additional support from ESL teachers or bilingual teachers.

The goal of ELL programs is to help students develop the language skills they need to be successful in school and life.

ESL vs ELL: Similarities

ESL vs ELL education is similar in that both approaches aim to help non-native English speakers improve their English skills.

In addition, in both programs, students are learning a new language and culture. This can be a challenge for both groups of students, as they may feel like they’re not quite sure where they fit in. 

Both groups of students need plenty of resources and practice in order to become proficient in English. This means that they’ll need opportunities to read, write, listen to, and speak English on a regular basis. 

Both groups of students may benefit from working with a tutor or taking an ESL/ELL class in order to improve their English skills.

A tutor can provide customized lessons based on each student’s individual needs, while an ESL/ELL class can offer a supportive environment where students can practice their English and language arts skills with other learners.

ESL vs ELL: Differences

There are some key differences between ESL and ELL as well. For one, ESL programs typically focus on academic language learning development.

Alternately, ELL programs emphasize developing social and communication skills. In school systems, ELL has often been considered a type of special education.

Additionally, ESL programs are typically offered to adults, while ELL programs are designed for children and adolescents. This is because children are often more successful at learning a new language than adults.

Also, ESL programs are typically short-term, while ELL programs are usually long-term. This is because it generally takes longer for someone to become proficient in a language than it does to learn some basics.

Finally, ESL programs are usually voluntary or extracurricular learning opportunities.

ELL programs, on the other hand, are often mandated by state or federal law to ensure learners have equal opportunity access to required education (K-12 in the USA). So ELL vs ESL is generally pretty different.

ESL vs ELL: Which One Do You Need?

Now that you know the difference between ESL and ELL, you might be wondering which kind of teaching English is right for you.

If you’re teaching an adult learner who wants to improve their academic English skills for university or work, then an ESL program would be a good fit.

If you’re teaching a child who is struggling to keep up with their English-speaking peers in school, then an ELL program would be a better choice.

Of course, every student is unique and will have different needs. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide if an ELL or ESL program is best for your students.

Alternate Terms Related to ESL and ELL

Academic English is the type of English language ability needed to do well in school. This is also called cognitive/academic language proficiency (CALP).

Students who are struggling academically can use accommodations, which are techniques or materials used to help them work around difficulties.

The term Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) refers to someone’s ability to converse using simple English. It is informally known as “survival English” or “playground English.”

Bilingual education is a program in which students receive instruction in both their native language and English. Or English and another specific language.

Biliteracy, according to Merriam-Webster, is the ability to speak and understand written material in English as well as another language.

A dual language program, sometimes called dual immersion, is designed to teach all children in a class to read in two languages. This is also known as two-way immersion or two-way bilingual education, and it involves students learning both languages.

A toddler learning English as a second language is referred to as an Early Childhood English Language Learner (ECELL) during the first five years of life.

English language learner (ELL) refers to a student who is age 5 or older and who is learning English as a second language.

The exit criteria are a set of guidelines that determine when English Language Learner (ELL) students have gained enough literacy skills in English to discontinue special language services.

A language minority (LM) is a student who comes from a home where another language is spoken. It does not imply how well the child speaks or understands English.

The term language proficiency refers to whether a student has sufficient language abilities to read, listen, write, and communicate well.

Mother tongue is the primary language a child learns. It is typically the language that is spoken at home.

Newcomer programs assist recent immigrants in learning English and adjusting to life in the United States. They’re usually for middle school and high school students who have had no or very little English education before coming to the United States.

The primary language is the one that students who speak two or more languages are most fluent in and choose to use.

The Pull-Out ESL program is one in which students are removed from their classes for special instruction to learn English.

Push-in ESL is a program where the English as a Second Language teacher comes into the student’s classroom to provide instruction.

The kind of English that is considered standard and formal in the U.S. is known as Standard English.

Transitional bilingual education is when two languages are used to provide instruction, with English gradually being increased until it’s the only language used.

English as a Foreign Language, also known as EFL, is when students learn English in a foreign country.

In considering ESL vs EFL, it is important to note that ESL is used in countries where English is the primary language and EFL is used in countries where English is not the main language.


Do you still have questions about ESL vs ELL? Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about the topic.

What is the difference between ELL and ESL teacher?

An ESL teacher is specifically trained to teach English as a second language. An ELL teacher, on the other hand, is a teacher who specializes in teaching English Language Learners.

This may include ESL instruction, but also includes other strategies such as accommodations, biliteracy and dual language programs.

What is an ESL student?

An ESL student is someone who is learning English as a second language. This may include students who are learning English for the first time, as well as those who are continuing to develop their English language skills.

What is ESL called in UK?

In the UK, ESL is known as ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages). It is a term used to describe programs and courses that are designed to help non-native speakers of English learn the language.

What are ESL and ELL students?

ESL students are those who are learning English as a second language, while ELL students are those who come from homes where another language is spoken.

Which is better ESL or ELL?

Both ESL and ELL have their own advantages and disadvantages. Ultimately, the best approach for any student depends on their individual needs and goals.

In terms of language acquisition, ESL focuses exclusively on English language instruction while ELL takes a more holistic approach to language learning.

What is ESL vs ESOL vs ELL?

ESL stands for English as a Second Language, ESOL stands for English for Speakers of Other Languages, and ELL stands for English Language Learner. These terms all refer to programs or courses designed to help non-native speakers of English learn the language.

Why did it change from ESL to ELL?

The term ESL was originally used to describe English language instruction for non-native speakers. However, over time the term evolved to include more than just language instruction, such as cultural and academic support.

Does England have ESL?

Yes, England has ESL programs. These programs are designed to help non-native speakers of English learn the language, both inside and outside of the classroom.

Additionally, many universities in England offer courses specifically for ESL students. These courses provide intensive instruction and support to help these students succeed academically.

What is the definition of English Language Learner?

An English Language Learner (ELL) is someone who has been identified by a school or educational institution as needing additional help to learn English. ELLs come from homes and communities where another language is spoken.

What are the three levels of ESL?

The three levels of ESL are beginner, intermediate, and advanced. They are assessed in three main methods: interpretive, productive, and interactive. The four core domains of literacy consist of reading, writing, speaking, and listening.

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Conclusion: ESL vs ELL

ESL and ELL are two acronyms that are often used interchangeably to describe students whose native language is not English and who are in the process of learning English. However, there is often confusion about the difference between these two terms.

ESL typically refers to courses or programs designed for non-native speakers of English who want to improve their language skills, while ELL generally refers to students who are in the process of learning English.

Some of the similarities between these two groups of students include their needs for practice and their challenges with learning a new language and culture.

Tutoring or taking an ESL/ELL class can be beneficial for both groups of students as they work towards proficiency in English.

Whether you’re an online teacher or tutor working with ESL or ELL students, understanding the differences and similarities between these two terms is essential to providing your students with the best possible education.

With the right approach, both ESL and ELL students can achieve English fluency.

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