Proficiency Levels of English Language Learners

Proficiency levels for English language learners

The number of English Language Learners (ELLs) in the United States has grown recently to around 10 percent of the public school population. In the past, ELLs mostly attended urban schools in specific regions of the U.S. but now can be found in almost all classrooms.

Teachers of all grade levels and content areas should be aware of the various levels of English proficiency for these ELLs. Proficiency levels vary greatly and have critical impacts on placement, instruction, assessment, and social development, and college and career readiness.

Understanding proficiency

Most people, teachers included, are more familiar with the colloquial term “fluency” as opposed to the more specific term “proficiency.” For example, you may hear someone ask a friend if he is “fluent” in French. The fields of Second Language Acquisition, Foreign Language Education, and English as a Second Language refer instead to the more specific and academically clear term “proficiency.” Unlike “fluency,” “proficiency” subscribes to clearly measurable and defined benchmarks for what a person can actually do with language.

Proficiency has to do with functional language ability at various levels, from the earlier phases to the most advanced uses of language. Proficiency is not a percentage of how many words a person knows, but is instead the levels of real-world usage in listening, speaking, reading, and writing situations. A person might have higher oral proficiency (speaking and listening) than proficiency with literacy (reading and writing). Some native speakers of English may be surprised they are not even at the highest levels of proficiency in English.

Native language proficiency most often corresponds with chronological age and educational attainment. As a child grows, they hear and use more language in various situations over time. For a second language learner, proficiency levels may not correspond with age at all. A relatively young child may have a high level of proficiency in English, while an older ELL may be at a beginning level. It’s critical that all teachers who interact with ELLs realize this fact, and utilize resources to make accommodations for various levels of proficiency for ELLs of all ages.

Similarly, underlying content knowledge and academic ability do not necessarily correlate with an ELL’s English language proficiency. We can all imagine a high school math whiz who is incredibly smart and knows all of the material for math class, yet has a low level of proficiency in his second language and would need ongoing support in order to function well in real-world English language situations.

Defining proficiency levels

Because proficiency for ELLs can vary and does not correlate with age, content knowledge, or academic ability, it is crucial for all teachers who work with ELLs to understand the specifics of each defined level of proficiency. There are a few overlapping professional definitions of English language proficiency.

A handy chart illustrating the alignment of some of these definitions can be found on the Reading A-Z website. Some states such as California, New York, Arizona, and Texas have established their own state definitions. Some school districts and the federal government use common proficiency level definitions. The most specific and professionally accepted definitions of ELL proficiency levels have been published by the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA) and the TESOL International Association.

Understanding how these definitions are used can help teachers to identify, place, instruct, and assess the ELLs in their classrooms. It can also help with teachers’ communication and collaboration with outside professionals, specialists, administrators, community resources, and ELL’s families.

Common proficiency level definitions

These definitions are often used by the federal government and school districts.

  • Non-English proficient (NEP): ELLs speak very little or no English.
  • Limited English proficient (LEP): ELLs’ skills are typically limited to survival needs and basic communication.
  • Fully/Fluent English proficient (FEP): ELLs’ proficiency allows them to interact with native speakers naturally both in school and out of school.

Proficiency level definitions from WIDA

  • Entering: ELLs may be able to match pictures to single words and understand a few one-word utterances.
  • Beginning: ELLs begin to ask simple questions, restate facts, sort out basic information using visual cues, and create lists and short sentences.
  • Developing: ELLs can follow multistep directions, form basic paragraphs (spoken or written), identify main ideas, describe story lines and situations, and use context clues to learn new words.
  • Expanding: ELLs can give simple oral reports and speeches, use language more abstractly, identify and use idioms and figures of speech, summarize information, and create original ideas using English.
  • Bridging: ELLs perform much more like native speakers, albeit not at the native level in all aspects (such as pronunciation). ELLs can draw original conclusions, debate with others, conduct research using multiple sources, and apply information to new contexts and multiple genres.

Proficiency level definitions from TESOL

  • Starting:  ELLs have little to no functional ability to speak English, but may respond to simple commands while listening. ELLs may imitate small chunks of the English they hear as their proficiency grows.
  • Emerging: ELLs can communicate in basic survival and routine situations and using mostly memorized phrases and simple vocabulary.
  • Developing: ELLs can use English spontaneously in comfortable social and academic settings, but with frequent errors. Reading proficiency can vary greatly at this level.
  • Expanding: ELLs are able to communicate in English in almost all typical real-world situations. More nuanced features of language (especially during reading), such as abstract concepts or multiple meanings have not yet developed. ELLs at this level may still have some content-area misunderstandings.
  • Bridging: ELLs can express themselves in a wide variety of social and academic situations, almost like their native English-speaking peers in most respects. Errors are minimal and do not detract from understanding meaning.

Teaching for enhanced proficiency

Teachers of all content areas and grade levels who have ELLs in their classrooms can utilize specific teaching methods that will help advance proficiency for learners at all proficiency levels:

  • Inclusion: While ELLs should also receive adequate and ongoing instruction specifically by ESL teachers for their ongoing English language proficiency, ELLs should spend a good amount of their time in the content-area classroom and in social situations with their peers who speak English as their first language.
  • Use of visuals: Visuals, such as pictures or graphic organizers, are helpful at all stages but most specifically the earliest levels of proficiency. No matter whose definition of the lower levels that we refer to, it is clear that ELLs at the lower levels of proficiency rely heavily on visual aids to construct meaning and learn language.
  • SIOP: The Sheltered Immersion Observation Protocol (SIOP) model offers a research-based and well-organized template for making sure that teachers address ELLs’ specific language needs in their lesson planning. SIOP is easily adaptable for all levels of proficiency.
  • Small group instruction: Particularly at the lower levels of proficiency, small group instruction for ELLs only gives these learners the tools they need to succeed with both their content-area and language learning.
  • Group work: Ongoing research cites the benefits of group work for ELLs, because cooperative learning involves communication between all group members. ELLs can benefit from the social and academic interaction with their native speaking peers in small group collaborative work.

Teachers who fully understand the proficiency level definitions and plan accordingly for their ELLs of various levels can serve as advocates for ELLs with administrators, colleagues, families, community resources, and professional organizations.

Dr. Maggie Broderick teaches master’s and doctoral-level courses in teacher education online for various universities, including Concordia University – Portland. Dr. Broderick taught K-12 in the Pittsburgh Public Schools before completing her Ph.D. in Foreign Language Education at the University of Pittsburgh. In addition to teaching, she enjoys writing, course development, and research.

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