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The Difference Between ELL and ESL Explained

According to federal law, public education systems are required to provide equal access to all students. This means that children of every age, race, gender, capability, and economic status are entitled to a high-quality education. This includes students with limited ability to speak English. Schools are required to provide an environment where each student has an equal opportunity to understand the material being taught. Extra assistance should be made available for students who cannot follow along with a regular paced, English-immersive classroom.


The number of solutions for supporting English learning students is growing across the U.S., and for good reason, however the conversation around it can be confusing. For instance, the acronyms ELL and ESL are often used interchangeably even though they do not mean the same thing.


ELL is the abbreviation for “English Language Learner,” which refers to students who are currently learning the English language. ELL is most often used to describe students who speak another language and are learning English as their second language. It can also be used for a student who is struggling to learn English as their first language, but this is not a common use of the term. Regardless, ELL is referring to the student themselves and their position of currently learning the English language. You may also see the acronym EL (English learner) used to describe these students.


By contrast, ESL is the abbreviation for “English as a Second Language.” This is used to refer to the programs that are specialized for ELL students. For example, schools usually have an ESL class designed for ELL students. These classes often used ESL specialized programs and curriculum (such as Type to Learn, Sparkito, Claro and Comprendo). ESL is a broader term, but generally describes the tools and methods used to teach ELL students.


Because of the importance of ELL support in schools, there are many resources available to districts looking to improve their ESL materials and accommodations. The U.S. Department of Education has information on their website with recommendations on where to start and important things to include in an ESL program. Most funding for ESL programs comes from local and state grants, but the program must meet the requirements of Title VI. To find funding, you should review your state’s trends and guidelines. Upon deeper review, you may also be able to find private donors and local grants to help support your ESL funding.


Learn more about The Importance of ELL/ESL Support in Education Technology.