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Who Are ELL Students?

— U.S. State Department
Updated on Mar 13, 2010

We often think of ELL children as the easiest to recognize among our special populations, picturing students who characteristically enter our classrooms without a word of English. These "pure type" ELL students are, in fact, easily distinguishable: recent newcomers to the country and to the international school community, for a while they may remain silent in class as they adjust to a new school, environment and culture, unless there is a native language comrade to interact with.

This so-called "silent period" may last anywhere from just a few days to several months or even close to a year and is often a time of great discomfort for the ESL student as well as the teacher. The student is concerned about decoding verbal and non-verbal communication as well as understanding the socio-cultural framework of the school ("What are the expectations for behavior? For academic success? For making friends?"), whereas the teacher may be concerned that not enough is being done for the student when the student's verbal responses are so few and far between.

Factors Affecting Second Language Acquisition

Exactly how a second language is acquired is still uncertain, although individual students show varying patterns, rates and styles of acquisition. For example, some students seem to "take off" and become quickly conversant in English, while others continue to struggle even after lengthy periods of exposure to the target language. Factors that affect second language acquisition have been divided into three basic categories. Their roles in second language acquisition are not fully understood at this time, although it is certain that they do influence student learning outcomes and success in school.

  •     Learner characteristics or personal traits (Izzo, 1981; Kusuma-Powell, 1992;  Ramirez, 1995; Sears, 1998);
  •     Situational or environmental factors (Ramirez, 1995; Sears, 1998); and
  •     Prior language development and competence (Cummins, 1979; Adamson, 1993).

Learner characteristics are those that are specific to the individual, including learning styles and strategies, attitude, motivation and personality. Frequently, self-confident children with extrovert personalities will attempt verbal interactions in another language more quickly than their timid counterparts, speeding up social adjustment in the new environment. Learner characteristics also influence the way a child responds to an instructional style and setting, i.e. the teacher?s instructional style and the formal/informal nature of the classroom or activities.

Situational or environmental factors have to do with issues external to the child, including the particular teaching style, the class and school setting, and the quality and extent of exposure to English. Within the academic setting, are ELL students getting enough exposure to native English speakers as they work in class, or are they working only with other non-native speakers? Krashen (1982, 1985) discusses the students? need for adequate exposure to the target language, and comprehensible input, or language that is slightly beyond the level which students can themselves produce. One of the observations made by many international school teachers is that second language students are only exposed to English during school hours, unless English is also spoken in the community environment. And for students in a pull-out program or ELL reception class, exposure to the speech of native language models is limited to the class teacher.

Prior language development and competence in it also seem to be key in determining how well a student acquires English as a second language. It is generally accepted that adequate linguistic and cognitive development in a home language contributes positively to second language learning (Cummins, 1986). Thus, there is a recognition of the importance of the quality of language with which children come to international schools, i.e. the language within the home, and the length of time children have had to establish competence in their native tongue. However, despite native language competence, it is unlikely that students will achieve native-like pronunciation in a second language after the age of 14.

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