English Language Learner

Is your child learning English?

Is your child:

  • Struggling with the English language?
  • Seeming to be lost at school due to difficulties comprehending?
  • Feeling left out of peer groups due to a language barrier?
  • Getting overwhelmed because he does not know the words he is learning in class?
  • Having difficulty understanding homework?
  • Not following directions in class?
  • Responding too quietly or too slowly?
  • Nodding head but refusing to respond verbally?
  • Taking a long time to answer questions?
  • Saying things that don’t make sense?


Many children each year come to the US and are fluent in their native language and then need to learn English. Children who are ELL may have a hard time in school because they are learning the English language while also trying to learn new material in English.

These children may not have the academic or social vocabulary to keep up with their peers.

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 [3]

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.


An English language learner (ELL) is a child who speaks a different language at home and then learns 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 at the same time from parents 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.

Although every experience is unique for a student coming into a new language and culture, some common challenges are generally shared among English Language Learners.

Parents may not be able to help with homework: ELL students are generally learning English at school and speaking another language at home; and in turn, homework is a unique challenge. Their parents may or may not be learning English, as well, or may not speak English. Children who are ELL may have parents who speak broken English or who 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 the English words. Jokes and humor are culturally-related, so they may be difficult for an ELL student to understand.

When a child is fatigued 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 he wants to say.  Friends who speak the same language and are further advanced in English can also be a great resource in helping children who are trying to make a connection 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 the process of 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 his or her language(s) and English by communicating with family members, educators, translators, and other students.

Your child may need to take his time to understand the culture he now inhabits. 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 as well as at school. This way, he or she can learn how to read and use the language in daily situations and not just in an academic setting. Children will not lose their native language just because they are now learning English.


It is common for an ELL student to have academic challenges early on. Most school districts have ELL teachers and general education teachers who are trained in sheltered instruction techniques. Sheltered instruction methods 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 to 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.

For significant learning challenges in an English Language Learner, intensive intervention is important. Interventions might include one-on-one tutoring, multisensory teaching methods, small group instruction, paired reading, on-line programs like Waterford, or pull out direct instruction with paraprofessional.

Interventions should target a specific skill or group of skills. For example, a child may learn grade level sight words using a flash card intervention or may practice a skill drill of letter sounds, phonics, and blends. If you as a parent are suspecting these types of interventions are not happening, it is worthwhile to meet with your child’s school.

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.

A child who is learning English may also have a learning disability. This distinction is very hard to identify because any difficulties in vocabulary or communication may be due to the fact that 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 clasroom 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.

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 she speaks. With speech language therapy, ESL classes, and help from educators, this challenge can be overcome. The appropriate normed tests must be used by a bilingual therapist to determine a child’s language ability to evaluate for a language delay or disorder.

Parents are a great resource of providing a history of a child’s language skills, which help to explain if he or she is having language issues in English also. Spanish-English tests are the most readily available. It may be harder to utilize 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.

Some English Language Learners may have an articulation disorder, which means that the child is having 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, so 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.

Some ELL students may have behavior issues related to the frustration of being at a disadvantage linguistically. 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. Your school’s team should be consulted, and your child is likely to benefit from counseling or social skills groups.

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.

Borrow and buy books of tape so that English may be heard through stories. Watch movies in English with subtitles in your native language so that your child can make connections between vocabulary words. Talk to the ESL teacher to get ideas to help with English development. Use pictures for words to help understand use of language and picture books to help with understanding vocabulary.


If your child is struggling with a similar problem, not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for links to information about other related symptom areas.

  • Social challenges (Socializing): children who are learning English may have trouble socializing with peers
  • Emotional challenges (Feeling): children who are learning English may feel isolated, lonely, anxious or depressed due to challenges communicating and integrating into a new culture
  • Behavior challenges (Behaving): children who are learning English may suffer from frustration in school or social settings and may lash out with poor behavior
  • School Problems (Learning): 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


Children who have significant problems in this area may have any of the following potential disabilities. *Note, this information does not serve as a diagnosis in any way. See the ‘Where to Go for Help’ section for professionals who can diagnose or provide a referral.

  • Educationally Identified Disabilities (Specific Learning Disability): children who are learning English may also have a learning disability
  • Language Disorder (Expressive or Receptive Language Disorder): children who are learning English may also have a language disorder
  • Speech Articulation Disorder: children who have trouble picking up the sounds of in English may have a speech articulation problem
  • Stuttering (Dis-fluency): children who are ELL may also have issues with stuttering or speech disfluency


If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help; they may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.

  • Clear Child Psychology: to obtain a customized profile of concerns for your child or to consult ‘live’ with a psychologist or speech-language pathologist
  • 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 teacher
  • Translators

These professionals may recommend or administer the following tests for this symptom:

  • CELF-5: language test administered in English and other language such as Spanish or use a translator in other language.
  • Goldman Fristoe 3 Test of Articulation: speech articulation test to assess for articulation disorders
  • Social history and intake interview: part of a test for language delays or disorders in ELL students. Social history is obtained from caregivers and parents in languages concerned. This may occur at the school or in a clinical setting
  • Nonverbal IQ tests such as: Leiter, WISC-V (nonverbal subtests only), UNIT. These tests can be very helpful if the clinicians considering your child’s overall skills and abilities do not have access to a test in your native language or a translator available. This test will not allow for an assessment of your child’s language skills, but it will allow for a less culturally-biased assessment of your child’s cognitive ability


[1] Gill, Steve & Nanayakkara, Ushani (2015) Evaluating ELL students for the possibility of special education qualification.

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Evaluating-Students-Possibility-Education-Qualification/dp/151759474X/

[2] 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.

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Response-Intervention-RTI-English-Learners/dp/013343107X/

[3] Santa Ana, Otto (Ed.) (2004). Tongue-Tied: The lives of multi-lingual children in public education.

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Tongue-Tied-Multilingual-Children-Public-Education/dp/0742523837/

[4] Bernstein, Deena K. &   Tiegermann-Farber, Ellenmorris (2017). Language and Communication Disorders in Children, Third-Sixth Editions.

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Language-Communication-Disorders-Children-6th/dp/0205584616/

[5] Hammond, Zaretta L. (2015). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain: Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students.

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Culturally-Responsive-Teaching-Brain-Linguistically/dp/1483308014/

[6] Derolf, Shane (1997). The Crayon Box that Talked.

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Crayon-Box-that-Talked/dp/0679886117/

Image Credit:
Description Preschooler Learning to read an English book
Stock Photo ID: #154116854 (Big Stock)
By: lucidwaters
Previously Licensed on: December 5, 2016
Stylized by Katie Harwood exclusively for CLEAR Child Psychology

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