With contributions from Vinita Kokatnur-Lemercier CCC-SLP Pediatric Speech and Language Pathologist
English Language Learners in Childhood
An English language learner (ELL) is a child who speaks a different language at home and is currently learning English after moving to an English-speaking country.
An ELL student is different from a bilingual child who speaks their native language at home along with English. Bilingual children learn both languages simultaneously from one or both parents who are fluent in both languages.
Parents of ELL students might have learned how to read and write in English, but they might have limited spoken English skills due to a lack of experience or education in English.
Typically the language spoken most of the time at home is the native language and not English. A student’s background knowledge in English may be limited. Because of this reduced exposure to English vocabulary, the school day may be difficult and overwhelming, so support at school is key.
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Symptoms of Struggling English Language Learners in Childhood
Although it is not necessarily problematic for a child to be new to learning English, it is important to be aware of any signs of struggle. The Department of Justice requires all school districts in the United States to enact supports for ELL students so that they can receive an equitable education to their native English-speaking peers.
Most ELL programs require children to pass a placement test to test out of ELL services. This process can be frustrating for families with children who speak more than one language. If your child is not struggling but is placed in ELL classes, there can be support from administrators at the district or school level who can help you get your child into a better placement. Be collaborative and persistent in your interactions with the school. Generally, this issue can be resolved.
However, it is important to know if your ELL student is struggling in school.
Signs that your child may need more support at school for language acquisition
- Struggling with the English language: your child is new to the English language and is finding it hard to learn
- Lost at school due to difficulties comprehending: your child does not understand what is happening at school due to not knowing enough vocabulary in English
- Feels left out of peer groups due to a language barrier: your child is having a hard time understanding jokes and humor
- Overwhelmed with English: your child does not know the words he is learning in class, so academic concepts are much more difficult to grasp
- Difficulty understanding homework: your child does not understand what the teacher is assigning each night for work
- Responding too quietly or too slowly: your child is trying to translate the words from their native language to English, and it is challenging for them to respond quickly
- Says things that don’t make sense: your child is not understanding the hidden nuances of the English language, so some of their expressions are hard to understand or follow
Common Challenges of English Language Learners in Childhood
Many children each year come to the US not speaking English. Here are some common challenges for ELL in childhood.
New language and new academics: These children are fluent in their native language and then need to learn English to fit in with the new society and culture. Children who are learning English may have a hard time in school because they are learning the language while also trying to learn new academic material. This situation feels like a double whammy.
Limited vocabulary for learning and for social skills: These children may not have the social vocabulary, slang terms, and phrases to keep up with their peers in social situations.
One child’s experience as an ELL is well described here,
“When I arrived in San Francisco from Hong Kong at age seven and a half, the only English I knew was the alphabet and a few simple words: cat, dog, table, chair. I sat in classrooms for two to three years without understanding what was being said, and cried while the girl next to me filled in my spelling book for me. In music class when other kids volunteered to go up in front of the class to play musical instruments, I’d never raise my hand. I wouldn’t sing.
The teacher probably wondered why there were always three Chinese girls in one row who wouldn’t sing…While other kids moved about freely in school, seeming to flow from one activity to the next, I was disoriented, out of step, feeling hopelessly behind. I went into a “survivor mode” and couldn’t participate in any activities.” p.14 
Feelings of isolation: As is evident in this story, children who are learning English may feel isolated and cast aside in school. Although certainly the challenges can be overcome, parents and school professionals need to take a proactive role in helping children who are learning English to make sure they feel included and supported at school.
Parents may not be able to help with homework: ELL students generally learn English at school and speak another language at home; in turn, homework is a unique challenge.
Their parents may or may not be learning English or may not have the English vocabulary to help their children with schoolwork. ELL children may have parents who struggle in English or choose not to speak English at home because of the importance of preserving the native culture. This language difference may make it challenging to help their children with homework.
Social challenges: English Language Learners might demonstrate a slower response because they are searching for how to say something appropriately in English. They need time to find the words in their language and then to translate them into English words. Jokes and humor are culturally-related, so they may be difficult for an ELL student to understand.
When a child is tired or overworked, you might find that the student will prefer the native language over English because it might feel like too much work to translate everything they want to say. Friends who speak the same language and are further advanced in English can also be a great resource in helping children trying to connect with words and expressions.
Academic challenges: Writing tasks can be challenging while learning English. Some children are of average or gifted intelligence and will do very well once they acquire English, but learning the grammar and correct daily use of the language will take a little while.
Cultural assimilation challenges: It can be difficult for parents to watch their children enter into a new culture and speak a new language for fear of losing one’s native culture and community. It is important that the ELL student creates connections between their language(s) and English by communicating with family members, educators, translators, and other students.
Your child may need to take their time to understand the culture they now inhabit. The best way to learn a language is to live in the culture where it is spoken every day. Children’s brains are like sponges, and they can learn quickly.
It is important to remember that children who are exposed less often to English words may take longer to acquire the language. Children who are ELL eventually learn to speak both languages at home and in the community, and they can learn to switch fluidly between their native language and English with time.
As a parent, it is important to allow your child to learn English in your community and at school. This way, they can learn how to read and use the language in daily situations, not just in an academic setting.
“Children will not lose their native language just because they are now learning English. It is important to keep speaking to your child in your native language and encourage communication in English at school and in the community.”
How to Help English Language Learners in School
It is common for an ELL student to have some academic challenges. Good instruction using effective strategies is key to helping children make gains. An ELL student may not have help with English assignments and homework at home.
They will need actively involved teachers and tutors at school who provide reading instruction in English, reading comprehension strategies, etc., because practice at home could be sparse.
Teachers will need to be patient, speak slowly at first, and offer wait time for processing because there is so much to learn.
Most school districts have support teachers called ELL teachers and general education teachers trained in sheltered instruction techniques.
Sheltered instruction: allow ELL students to have maximum exposure to grade-level content while simultaneously teaching the academic vocabulary.
For example, when the teacher repeats and provides the student with pictures to help teach vocabulary and give directions, the child will do better. It is helpful for an ELL student to have a dictionary or other resource to provide the English word. This resource will allow an ELL child to express an idea by finding the English equivalent.
Intensive intervention: in an English Language Learner, intensive intervention is important. Interventions might include one-on-one tutoring, multisensory teaching methods, small group instruction, paired reading, online programs like Waterford, or pull-out direct instruction with paraprofessionals.
Interventions should target a specific skill or group of skills. For example, a child may learn grade-level sight words using a flashcard intervention or may practice a skill drill of letter sounds, phonics, and blends. If you as a parent suspect these types of interventions are not happening, it is worthwhile to meet with your child’s school.
At home, practice, practice, practice: Try to get your child in activities and groups with other English-speaking classmates to increase your child’s use of social language in English. Ask about clubs or after-school activities. Engage your child to participate in language groups if available outside of school on the weekends or during holidays.
Audiobooks: Borrow and buy books on tape so your child may hear English through stories.
Watch movies in English with subtitles in your native language: so that your child can make connections between vocabulary words.
Talk to your child’s ESL teacher: to get ideas to help with English development. Ask the teacher for pictures, flashcards, or picture books to help your child understand the academic vocabulary they are learning in the classroom.
When to Seek Help for an English Language Learner
Not all English Language Learners will struggle in school. As described earlier, the Department of Justice demands that school districts train teachers in how to provide equitable instruction to English Language Learners. Even so, many children will need additional support beyond what they are currently receiving at school.
Signs that your child may need more help
Significant struggles: if indeed your child is getting good intervention, is not responding to the interventions, AND the ELL teacher is not seeing expected growth compared to typical ELL peers, it is worthwhile to have an evaluation for a learning disability.
Learning disability: if your child is struggling to learn despite average or higher intelligence, this challenge could signify a learning disability. This distinction is very hard to identify because any difficulties in vocabulary or communication may be because the child is learning English. If you suspect that your child also has a learning disability, it will be important to reach out to the ELL teacher or the special education team at the school.
The identification process for Specific Learning Disability (SLD) may take longer, but that’s fine as long as your child is still receiving support in the classroom for any area of difficulty. The school may need to consult with the district’s bilingual team to best support a struggling ELL student, and the ESL teacher’s input is critical.
Language disorder: if a language disorder is present in the native language, then English will also suffer. An ELL child can have a language disorder, and this disorder will show up in all the languages the child speaks.
With speech-language therapy, ESL classes, and help from educators, your child can overcome this challenge. A bilingual therapist must use the appropriate normed tests to determine a child’s language ability to evaluate for a language delay or disorder.
Parents are a great resource for providing a history of a child’s language skills, which helps explain if they are having language issues in English. Spanish-English tests are the most readily available.
It may be harder to use data from tests only normed on monolingual English-speaking children, even when a translator is used, simply because there is not enough evidence to show a true delay or disorder in the other language. If a language disorder is found, an ELL student can get speech-language therapy in English along with ESL services so the student can access the classroom curriculum.
Articulation disorder: if an articulation disorder is present, the child has trouble making the sounds needed to pronounce words correctly. In this case, an ELL student will generally show the articulation disorder in their native language and English.
Sometimes, what might be considered a speech defect in English might not be in another language. It is important to understand the differences between the native language and English. Stuttering might be evident in both languages as well. For the child to be a successful student, all language problems need to be addressed while continuing to enhance English speaking.
Behavior issues: if the frustration of being at a disadvantage linguistically is leading to behavior problems, your child may need extra support. In this case, reach out early and often to the school counselor or school psychologist for supportive strategies.
If your child appears unmotivated, sad, or angry, it is possible that cultural and language issues are getting in the way of your child’s education. You should consult your school’s team, and your child is likely to benefit from counseling or social skills groups.
Professional Resources to Help with ELL Issues
If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of their learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help. They may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.
- Speech-language pathologist: to provide therapy for any associated receptive language problems and communication skills
- Licensed psychologist: to diagnose any disabilities and provide social skills support or other therapies
- School psychologist: to help with academic or social challenges that may be associated with language acquisition problems
- English as a second language (ESL) teacher: to support your child with acquiring the academic skills and vocabulary to perform well in school
- Translators at the school: to support you and your child in understanding any learning difficulties by explaining them in your own language
Similar Conditions to ELL Issues in Childhood
- Social challenges: children who are learning English may have trouble socializing with peers
- Emotional challenges: children who are learning English may feel isolated, lonely, anxious, or depressed due to challenges communicating and integrating into a new culture
- Behavior challenges: children who are learning English may suffer from frustration in school or social settings and may lash out with poor behavior
- School problems: children who are learning English may have trouble acquiring academic skills, particularly in reading and writing
- Pragmatic language: children who are learning English may struggle with social language
References for English Language Learners in Childhood
 Santa Ana, Otto (Ed.) (2004). Tongue-Tied: The lives of multilingual children in public education.
Book Resources on ELL in Childhood
Gill, Steve & Nanayakkara, Ushani (2015) Evaluating ELL students for the possibility of special education qualification.
Echevarria, Jana J., & Richards-Tutor, Cara, & Vogt, Mary Ellen J. (2014). Response to Intervention (RTI) and English learners: Using the SIOP model (SIOP Series), 2nd Edition.
Bernstein, Deena K. & Tiegermann-Farber, Ellenmorris (2017). Language and Communication Disorders in Children, Third-Sixth Editions.
Derolf, Shane (1997). The Crayon Box that Talked.