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ESL, ELL, or FLNE? How to Describe Students Whose First Language Isn’t English.

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ESL. Non-native English speaker. Limited English proficient.
These may be some of the terms that come to mind when you’re trying to describe students whose first language isn’t English. But over time, as officials have recognized that some of these labels can perpetuate negative or inaccurate narratives, the terminology has changed and evolved.
Today, you might hear the U.S. Department of Education talk about English language learners (ELL) or just English learners (EL). The Center for Promise, the research institute at America’s Promise, uses students whose first language is not English (FLNE).
But what exactly do these terms mean? What’s the difference between EL, ELL, and FLNE?
Consider this your cheat sheet.

English Learner (EL) and English Language Learner (ELL)

These two terms essentially mean the same thing, and they are often used interchangeably. Both refer to students whose native language is not English—but who are actively trying to learn it.
Additional terms that have been used to refer to ELLs include limited English proficient (LEP), English as a second language (ESL), and language minority students.

Limited English proficient has been highly criticized as not accurately representing the assets these young people have and contributing to a deficit narrative by focusing on limits. This criticism prompted the U.S. Department of Education to replace limited English proficiency with ELL or EL.

Emergent Bilinguals

This term promotes the most positive view of English learners by acknowledging their proficiency in another language as a strength, rather than just considering them people who need to learn English or focusing on their limits.

However, this term has its own set of limitations; some students may already be bilingual and English could be their third or even fourth language. The same problem exists with ESL.
That’s why the Center for Promise goes with a different term: FLNE.

First Language Not English (FLNE)

The main thing to know is that it is entirely possible to be an FLNE student who is completely fluent in English—it just wasn’t his or her first language. 

Here’s another way of looking at it: All ELs are FLNEs, but not all FLNEs are ELs.

Newcomers and Long-term ELs

Newcomers are students who have been in U.S. schools for four years or less, according to the William T. Grant Foundation.
Newcomers could be fluent or still learning the language—it’s a term that is less about how well they speak the language and more about how long they’ve been in the country.
Long-term ELs, on the other hand, are EL students who have been in the U.S. school system for at least seven years but have yet to reach English proficiency.
Figure 1Researchers have called for breaking the category of ELs down to be more specific, such as separating out newcomers and long-term ELs. They suggest this would help provide more specific support and diversify the deficit narrative.

Moral of the story?

The Center for Promise often uses FLNE as an umbrella term, and it follows the U.S. Department of Education in using EL when talking specifically about students who are formally enrolled in learning English.
But as you can tell, a lot of people are passionate about the way to describe these students, so the terms and definitions may vary.
Overall, as past Center for Promise research has shown, FLNE students are a set of diverse, unique students with unique strengths and needs. The better we get at describing those strengths and needs, the better chance we have of meeting them.
Want to know more about the personal experiences of English learners or FLNE students? Check out “We Must Never Give Up” and “I Couldn’t Speak English, So I Couldn’t Learn: What Teachers Should Know About English Language Learners.