Understanding the Alphabet Soup of Multilingual Education

Sep 6, 2023 4:34:46 PM


In education, we love a good acronym. We love them so much that, over time, we often forget what they stand for. When we forget those words, we sometimes forget the focus behind the acronym and its purpose. This is the case in multilingual education. 

Over the last decade, I earned my master’s in Language Education. I earned a doctorate in Literacy, Culture, and Language. I have served as an English and a new language teacher and taught college courses on how to serve multilingual learners best. I currently supervise and coach multilingual learner student teachers. This is a specialty in education I love. I find that educators outside the specialty don’t realize their duty to multilingual learners and lack understanding. To some extent, all teachers are multilingual learner teachers, but not all teachers believe they are responsible for this specialty. 

I always start with the basics. I break down acronyms and help educators understand what they are and what they mean.

Once we have that, we can move on to history and strategies to support multilingual learners. Over the course of this year, I will write articles centering on multilingual learners, but first, I need readers to understand this alphabet soup.

There are students in our school system whose first language is not English, and/or they know English and one or more languages. These students could be called the following:

  • ESL (English as a Second Language)
  • ENL (English as a New Language)
  • ELL (English Language Learners)
  • EL (English Learners)

The focus of these three terms is English.

The message sent is that these students have an English deficit and need to close it.

ESL fails to acknowledge that English might not be the student’s second language but the third or fourth.

Considering this centering on English, academics tried to find better terms.

  • EB (Emergent Bilingual)
  • EM (Emergent Multilingual or Multi-language) 
  • MLL (Multilingual or Multi-language Learners

These terms acknowledge that the student is the focus, not English, and that educators should not discourage students from using their other languages or discourage them from wanting to be proficient in languages that are not English.

Drs. David E. and Yvonne S. Freeman are expert educators and linguists specializing in effective multilingual learning strategies. In their book “Essential Linguistics: What Teachers Need to Know to Teach ESL, Reading, Spelling, Grammar,” they state, “the term, emergent bilingual, is more positive and emphasizes the ability humans have of expanding their language resources and their communication potential.”

How Are Students Identified?

Schools use the HLS (home language survey) form when students enroll.

If a family checks the box to note that another language other than English is used at home, the student should be offered services to support their education.

Those services reside in programs that have various names

  • ELME (English Learning and Migrant Education)
  • LAP (Language Acquisition Program)
  • LIEP (Language Instruction Education Program)

Within these programs, there could be sub-programs such as:

  • SEI (Sheltered English Immersion)
  • DLE (Dual Language Education)

The program could be called by the label the school uses to refer to students. For example, if a school calls these students ELLs, the program might be called the ELL program.

What Is the Purpose of These Programs?

The purpose is to help with BICS and CALP.

  • BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills)
  • CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency)

In other words, BICS focuses on social language, and CALP focuses on academic language across all content areas. It is more than just learning how to read in English. It is understanding the language of science, the language of social studies, etc.

Additionally, Sarah B. Ottow, author of “The Language Lens for Content Classrooms: A Guide for K-12 Teachers of English and Academic Language Learners,” uses the term ALL (Academic Language Learners) to acknowledge that learning is more than communicating in English but it is also about understanding and using academic language. Not only are all teachers multilingual learners teachers, but also language teachers.

Last, MLLs need a plan of learning.

Just as special education students have an IEP (Individual Education Plan), MLLs have a document to support their educational rights.

Those plans can be called:

  • ILP (Individual Learning Plan)
  • ELP (English Learning Plan)

This document provides teachers with the student's language proficiency, home language, and accommodations or modifications the student might need. It might also be noted that the student is: 

  • LEP (Limited English Proficiency)
  • SLIFE (Students with Interrupted or Limited Formal Education)

Students who have SLIFE written have gaps in their education. For example, their family might have lived in a refugee camp and could not attend school for a few years. Not only do those students have language gaps, but they also have gaps in functioning in school.

Before I continue my series on multilingual learners, we have to start with a better understanding of the alphabet soup. This primer is only the foundation.


Shawnta S. Barnes

Shawnta (Shawn-tay) S. Barnes, also known as Educator Barnes, is a married mother of identical twin boys. She navigates education from not only the educator’s perspective but also the parent’s perspective. She has been an educator for nearly two decades. Shawnta works with K-12 schools, universities, & education adjacent organizations through her education consulting business Blazing Brilliance. She is an adjunct college professor, supervises student teachers, Indy Kids Winning Editor-in-Chief, Brave Brothers Books Co-founder, & CEO, and Brazen Education Podcast host. She holds five education licenses: English/language arts 5-12, English to speakers of other languages P-12, library/media P-12, reading P-12, and school administration P-12, and she has held a job in every licensed area. Previously, she has served as a school administrator, English teacher, English learners teacher, literacy coach, and librarian. She won the 2019 Indiana Black Expo Excellence in Education Journalism Award. In 2023, she completed her doctorate in Literacy, Culture, and Language Education with a minor in Learning Sciences. She is an urban gardener in her spare time and writes about her harvest-to-table journey at gardenershicole.com. To learn more about Shawnta, visit educatorbarnes.com.

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