How Are ELL Students Identified?

In this lesson, you will learn about the procedures that school districts use to identify English language learner (ELL) students and provide them with an appropriate method of instruction.

Identifying ELL Students

All states in the U.S. have slightly different procedures for properly identifying ELL students. Furthermore, each school district within the state may vary these methods as well. However, under federal guidelines, all states and school districts follow a similar process. Let’s take a look at some of the common steps used in the identification and placement of ELL students.

The Home Language Survey

Typically, one of the first steps in the identification process for ELL students is the Home Language Survey (HLS), a series of questions about language spoken at home. When a student first registers for school within his or her district, the parents or guardians will complete the HLS along with the other mandatory paperwork.

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The survey asks basic questions in order to identify which students may be eligible for ELL services. Each state’s HLS may vary, but here are some of the common types of questions asked:

  • Is there another language other than English used in the home?
  • Does your child speak a language other than English?
  • What language does your child speak most of the time?
  • What language did your child first learn to speak?
  • What language is spoken in the home most often?

In order to qualify for ELL services, a student simply needs to be regularly exposed to a language other than English while at home. Even if the student is not literate or fluent in this second language, the result of this regular exposure to another language warrants the eligibility for ELL services.

Testing and Placement

Following the Home Language Survey, students are often assessed to determine their level of English proficiency. Many school districts have an ELL department to handle this task.

If a student who qualifies for ELL services based on the Home Language Survey exceeds the cut-off score on the proficiency assessment, he or she will not qualify for services. Many districts will label this student as having been screened but will record that the assessment scores indicate English proficiency that is at least equal to that of native English speakers.

If a student scores below the threshold required to be labeled ‘English proficient,’ he or she will be placed in the district’s ELL program. The next step will be for teachers to obtain parental permission for the child to receive these services. Parents and guardians always have the option to decline.

There are several ELL program models. Two school districts within the same state can have completely different programs for servicing their ELL students.

Some common methods of instructional delivery include dual-language programs, pull-out instruction, sheltered English instruction, and bilingual education.

Other Methods of Identification

Sometimes, a student won’t be identified as an ELL through this process because parents or guardians fill out the HLS incorrectly or not at all. Other times, students transfer from one school to another, and their school records are not received in a timely manner. There are other ways that some students ‘slip through the cracks.’

In these cases, teachers and other school staff members may refer the student to the ELL specialist in the building or district. The specialist can take several steps to gain further information, including:

  • Determining whether or not the HLS was completed and if not, administer it
  • Checking the student’s records to see if screening already occurred and that the student didn’t qualify for services
  • Requesting records from the student’s previous school

Lesson Summary

All states and school districts have their own variations on the same process of identifying ELL students and placing them in an instructional program. However, they share the same basic features of the process.

First, a Home Language Survey (HLS), a series of questions about language spoken at home, is distributed to all newly enrolled students. Those who are identified as having exposure to a language other than English in the home are typically administered a language proficiency test.

If this process fails to identify students, students can be identified via the recommendation of teachers and school support staff. This process of identifying potential ELL students for instruction helps ensure that all students receive equitable access to education.


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