Another category of Special Populations is
the student with limited English proficiency (LEP), also
referred to as English Language Learners (ELL). National
and statewide demographics show that population diversity
is rapidly increasing. For example, the US Census shows
that the number of White Americans dropped from 75.6% of
the population in 1990 to 69% in 2000.
The following breakdown by race and ethnicity shows how
Texas compares to the nation in its demographics mix:
Other or more
than one race
(may be any race)
US Census Bureau, 2000
Demographics for students enrolled in Texas public schools clearly
show the diversity increase:
American Indian & Alaskan Natives
US Department of Education
Research reveals that no matter what the ethnic or racial background,
a large number of students who are not yet proficient in the English
language are in Texas elementary and secondary school systems.
In 1989-90, 309,862 LEP students were in Texas public schools;
in a mere six years (1996-97), the number had increased to 513,634
Department of Education).
One might be tempted to surmise that since the majority of the
population remains white, dealing with Limited English proficiency
students is not a pressing issue. But that conclusion would be
a false one. First, almost 40% of the students in Texas schools
are Hispanic. In addition, other ethnic groups besides Anglos
are categorized as white.
For example, as Alejandra Lopez, of the Center for Comparative
Studies in Race in Ethnicity at Stanford University, points out,
“People of Middle Eastern or Arab ancestry are often categorized
or expected to self-identify as ‘White’ on questions
about race and ethnicity on the US Census and other demographic
surveys.” In fact, an article in The Christian Science Monitor
indicated “A recent study also found that Texas has one
of the fastest-growing Middle Eastern populations in the country,
third after New York and California (Axtman)." These new
immigrants to the US are often limited in their English proficiency
in the same way that a recent South American immigrant is limited.
The term “limited English proficiency” may seem self-explanatory,
but, in fact, it is a term filled with difficulties. The following
discussion of the topic, taken from Chapter One of Meeting
the Needs of Second Language Learners: An Educators Guide,
by Judith Lessow-Hurley, provides an excellent explanation of
the issues involving LEP or ELL students.
One of the difficulties in identifying students with
limited English proficiency is the lack of agreement among
theorists on a definition of proficiency. At a minimum, theorists
tend to agree that the ability to use a language is related
to the context in which it is used.
For example, if you have studied French extensively
in college, you may be capable of writing essays in French
on topics related to literature or philosophy. Stepping off
a plane in Orly, however, you may find your French insufficient
to the demands of changing money, finding a bus to Paris,
or registering at your hotel. It's not that you don't know
any French, but that you are weaker in some language skills
Conversely, you may have been born in the United States
and consider yourself a native Spanish speaker. In the absence
of academic support for your native language, however, you
may not have strong Spanish literacy skills. Your ability
to use Spanish is perfectly adequate for the requirements
of daily life, such as shopping, phone calls, and social events,
but you might have difficulty making a professional presentation
or writing a research paper in Spanish.
Proficiency and Schooling
Schooling appears to require particular kinds of language
proficiency because school is a highly specialized context.
Cummins (1981) has clarified the issues of language proficiency
and context for educators. He suggests that school-related
tasks require school-related proficiency, which he has labeled
Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP). According
to Cummins, CALP is the kind of language we use in situations
that don't have a lot of context-related clues. CALP is different
from what Cummins calls Basic Interpersonal Communicative
Skills (BICS), the kind of language we use for day-to-day
communication. In ordinary daily communication we can often
extract meaning from the situation or context, which gives
us lots of clues.
For example, you can generally get something to eat
or shop for souvenirs in a foreign country even if you don't
speak the language. Shopping and eating in restaurants are
contexts that are comparable from place to place. When you
go into a restaurant and look at the menu, or enter a store
and look at the merchandise, everyone understands what you
have in mind. In addition, you can use gestures and facial
expressions to communicate. You can also make your needs known
with a few simple words like "please" and "thank
you." Shopping and eating in restaurants are activities
that relate to concrete visible objects and events; they are
based on shared assumptions and scripts. That is to say, they
are highly contextualized. It is easy to understand and be
understood in highly contextualized situations, even if you
have limited language skills, or BICS.
On the other hand, it is difficult even for fairly competent
speakers of a second language to follow a university lecture
about abstract ideas.
In a lecture, there is little to give you a real sense of
the topic or to clarify what's going on. An instructor may
provide a lecture outline or make notes on the board or projection
screen, but print is, by definition, extremely abstract. University
lectures are decontextualized. That is to say, few communication
clues exist in the lecture context. Attending a university
lecture requires a particular set of highly sophisticated
academic language skills, or CALP.
In sum, academic experiences and activities at every
level are generally more abstract and lacking in context than
day-to-day, real-life communication, so they present difficulties
for students who have not developed academic language skills,
or CALP. And commonly used proficiency tests do not always
assess CALP. As a result, children who have playground English
are often judged as English proficient even though they may
not be able to handle the demands of schooling in their new
language. Failure to distinguish between contexts unfairly
sets up those students for failure.
Lessow-Hurley’s words show that even a student who appears
to be proficient in English in his or her social encounters may
have difficulty with understanding and communicating in a learning
The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board studies show that
a sizable number of students with Limited English proficiency
are enrolled in community and technical colleges. In 1998-99,
the number was 52,711. In 1999-200, the number dipped insignificantly
to 51,726, and in 2000-01, the number dipped to 45,818. In spite
of the noticeable dip in 00/01, the number still shows that tens
of thousands of our students struggle with English in an academic
How can a community or technical college faculty member offer
support to a Limited English Proficient student? Actually, what
works to aid the learning of these students is not much different
from what aids your other students.
A recent posting on the Tomorrow’s Professor's listserv,
out of Stanford University, addressed this topic. What follows
is the text from that posting, which was taken from the work of
noted educator and ESL expert, Dr. Kate Kinsella.
Equitable Class Discussions Within the Multicultural Classroom
Topically focused class discussions potentially
offer English learners rich exposure to new vocabulary and
usage in their second language, along with opportunities
to interact in a variety of academic situations - reporting
information, summarizing, synthesizing, and debating. Frequently,
however, linguistically and culturally diverse students
remain passive participants in whole-class discussions for
varied reasons, including insecurity about their listening
comprehension, pronunciation, word choice, and culturally
appropriate interactional strategies. Instructors may employ
the following strategies to lead carefully orchestrated
class discussions that provide language-promoting assistance
and facilitate more active participation for English learners:
Create a supportive classroom environment for less confident
English users by encouraging all students to talk in turn,
to listen actively while others talk, and to offer assistance
rather than impatience and intolerance for classmates who
need help in understanding or responding.
Show your students that you expect them all to participate
in oral activities by consistently inviting every member of
the class to participate.
Allow students to first share and rehearse their responses
to a key question or comments on a topic with a partner to
increase learning and ESL student confidence and motivation
to contribute to a unified class discussion.
Be sensitive to the linguistic and conceptual demands of
discussion questions and activities. Don't inhibit participation
by pushing students to communicate too far beyond their current
level of English proficiency.
The easiest content for less proficient English users to
handle is often related to their everyday lives and activities.
Make a concerted effort to build in opportunities for language
minority students to share information about their cultures,
communities, families, and special interests.
Pair less proficient English users with a sensitive classmate
who can ideally clarify concepts, vocabulary, and instructions
in the primary language and also coach the classmate in responding.
Attempt to activate students' relevant background knowledge
on topics, and provide through "schema"-building
activities (e.g., brainstorming, mapping, advance organizers)
requisite linguistic, conceptual, and cultural information
that would otherwise prevent them from active learning and
Move purposefully around the room to enable as many students
as possible to enjoy having close proximity to the teacher,
which should also encourage students to remain more alert
and willing to ask and answer questions.
Do not constantly pose questions to the group at large,
allowing a minority of more confident or impulsive students
to dominate the discussion.
Ask a question before naming the respondent to encourage
active learning by allowing all students to "attend"
and decide how they would answer.
Draw in less confident students by asking them to respond
to an open-ended question after they have heard a variety
of responses from their classmates.
Call on English learners to answer not only safe yes/no
questions but also more challenging, open-ended questions
that provide opportunities for thoughtful and extended usage
of their second language.
Increase wait time (3-9 seconds) after asking a question
to allow adequate time for the student to successfully process
the question and formulate a thoughtful response.
When calling on a specific ESL student, it often helps to
first pose the question and make eye contact with the student
while stating his/her name; then pause a few seconds and restate
the question verbatim.
Discourage classmates from blurting out responses and intimidating
less confident English users from taking risks with their
Do not interrupt a student's thought process after asking
an initial question by immediately posing one or more follow-up
questions; these tandem questions confuse rather than assist
English learners who may not realize that the teacher is actually
rephrasing the same question.
Encourage students to talk through nonverbal means, such
as waiting patiently, smiling, and nodding in approval.
Make any corrections indirectly by mirroring in correct
form what the student has said. For example, suppose a student
says, "Majority immigrants San Francisco from Pacific
Rim." You can repeat, "That is correct. A majority
of the immigrants in San Francisco come from the Pacific Rim."
Use these conversational features regularly and in so doing
model for your students how to use them in class discussions,
lectures, and small-group work:
Is this what you are saying?
So you believe that . . .
Will you explain your point so that I can be sure I understand?
Could you give me an example of that?
Is my use of language understandable to you?
Excuse me, but . . .
Sorry for interrupting, but . . .
Source: Kinsella, 1993, p. 16.