What’s in an acronym? When it comes to the acronym – ELL – apparently a lot!

Photo: Lou Reid

Photo: Lou Reid

Recently, I had the opportunity to collaborate with educational colleagues from across the pond (or Great Britain or England for those who might be thinking of the pond in Barry Park in Syracuse City).  Our discussion surrounded students and the use of acronyms related to English Language Learners or ELLs.  Pretty straight forward, or so I thought.  The acronym ELL, while now ubiquitous in the US, is not used in England.  Rather, the preferred term is EAL or English as an Additional Language (this evolved from E2L to EAL). Is the EAL acronym in our future?  Let’s look at the acronyms we have and are currently using in the United States.

Acronyms associated with ELL students

We once used and still on occasion use the term LEP. This means Limited English Proficiency.  While it is inherent that our students are not yet proficient in English, the term LEP does not tell the whole story of their abilities of their language or their NLA or Native Language Ability.

Should we say ESL?

ESL can be used to identify a program, a teacher and a learner. This would mean that the Learner’s second language is English. Many of our students may already speak a two, three or even four language so when we use ESL, it might not be the descriptor of all students. ESOL (English to Speakers of other Languages) is sometimes used by teacher certification offices.

Does EL mean the same as ELL? 

EL means English Learner and is often interchangeable with ELL.

Ell, ell and ELL

  • Wikipedia tells us that an Ell is a unit of measure:  “An ell (from Old Germanic *alinâ cognate with Latin “ulna”)[1] is a unit of measurement, originally a cubit, i.e., approximating the length of a man’s arm from the elbow” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ell). Please note – this is Ell and not ELL.
  • ell in dictionary.net is a unit of measure for measuring cloth of 45 inches.

While these are fun facts associated with the letters E – L – L, it serves to demonstrate that we need to look closely at our programs and our students.

Is this important?

It just goes to show that context is important to understanding the acronyms of ELLs, ELs and EALs.  It is easy to get stuck on the acronyms we use. We can lose sight of the forest for the trees. Engaging acronyms, their historical context, and actual and implied meanings is rich and important dialogue. It is more than the sum of three letters to make an acronym.

Interested in more acronyms related to ELs?

Take a look at our terms reference sheet ‘Terms’ tab on this page  or contact us to schedule an ESL in Nutshell workshop at your school.

Lisa R. Pye
Mid-State Regional Bilingual Education Resource Network (RBERN)


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