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English as a Second Language – Introduction

Learner Needs Profiles Designations

What is an ESL Learner?

English as a Second Language* students are those whose primary language(s) of the home is/are other than English, and who therefore require additional services in order to develop their individual potential within British Columbia’s school system. Some students speak variations of English that differ significantly from the English used in broader Canadian Society and in school.

* In some literature, this is referred to as English as an Additional Language (EAL).

What is the task?

The task of teaching ESL is adding, not 'fixing.' ESL students have much in common with French Immersion students. Both are learning an official language of Canada and, concurrently, learning the provincial curriculum. Both groups require a significant amount of time to achieve this. Again, as with French Immersion, the task is to supplement, not supplant, an already-well-developed home language.

Who are ESL Learners?

There are four main types of ESL learners:

  1. Immigrants – those whose families have chosen to come to Canada
  2. Refugees – those who were forced to leave their homelands for safety reasons
  3. Speakers of a different dialect – those who might have been born into English-speaking families, but whose type of English is different from “school” English. In B.C. this most often describes Aboriginal learners.
  4. Canadian-born – children born to non-English-speaking families who learn the language of the home and have minimal (if any) English when they arrive at Kindergarten.

In addition, there are also International Students (students from overseas who pay districts in order to attend school here) and “astronaut kids” who live in B.C. when their parents remain overseas. These students are sometimes virtually on their own and there is sometimes a lack of motivation to work here as their stay here is not necessarily long term. In some cases, Canada is seen as a conscription-free zone, or as a place to receive free education.

What do we know about language acquisition?

Learning a new language is an active, social process that takes many years. There is no “curriculum” for ESL; it is not a content area, but a service that supports content learning. Learners learn language by having something to talk, read, and write about. No one, except perhaps a linguist in search of ancient/lost languages, enjoys learning language as an abstract study, unattached to meaning and communication. ESL students need to be actively engaged in real communication- they don’t learn well from worksheets, being talked at, or looking at a computer screen.

Research has shown that the language learning /acquisition process is very complex. It is:

  • gradual
  • non-linear
  • dynamic
  • a social phenomenon
  • reliant on when the learner is "ready" to learn
  • reliant on (the use of) background knowledge and experiences of the learners
  • not assisted by a deliberate focus on grammar o extremely variable based on the characteristics of the individual learner and her circumstances. These factors include:
    • ability to take risks
    • age at which language is being learned
    • how similar or different the home language is
    • level of parental involvement and support
    • literacy skills (or lack of) in the home language
    • maintenance of the home language in and out of school
    • motivation and attitude toward the new language
    • perceived level of respect for the home language and culture by the new community
    • personality
    • preferred learning style
    • stage of culture shock (personal/emotional health)
    • supportive learning environments and skilled teachers who use a wide range of appropriate strategies.

Comparing principles of first and second/additional language learning

Adapted from http://education.alberta.ca/teachers/program/esl/resources.aspx

(Scroll to: "English as a Second Language Kindergarten to Grade 9 Guide to Implementation")

usually the learner is older when language learning begins
  • growth in both language and learning are interwoven
  • language learning is about meaning making first
  • language learning builds on the knowledge and experiences learners bring
  • language is learned best from demonstrations/models of language in use
  • language learning is enhanced if it is interactive
  • language is learned best in supportive environments
  • language, on its own, can be a source of wonder, delight and satisfaction
  • language and concepts are developed together
  • focus should be on meaning over form
  • second language learning builds on previous knowledge and experiences of learners
  • language learning proceeds best when language is being used for a purpose
  • language is a social, interactive process
  • a supportive environment enhances language learning
  • language, on its own, can be a source of wonder, delight and satisfaction
  • second language input must be adjusted so the learner can understand the communication

How long does it take to learn a new language?

This totally depends on the learner as an individual and on the learner’s “history”. There are at least two types of language that need to be acquired:

  1. Social language –the type of language needed to communicate with others on a social level (many students will acquire this in about 2 years)
  2. Academic language – the type of language needed to succeed in the education system. ( many students will acquire this in 5-7 years)

HOWEVER, language acquisition is dependent on many variables:

According to Oxford (1992) the speed of language acquisition depends on a number of factors, each of which has implications in terms of working with the learners.

  • Age on arrival
  • Literacy in home language (including reading and writing)
  • Schooling in the first language
  • Motivation
  • Anxiety
  • Tolerance of ambiguity and risk-taking
  • Cooperative vs. competitive attitude
  • Learning style
  • Trauma experienced before or since arrival
  • Self-esteem
  • Gender (females have learned some role-based ways to approach learning that may differ significantly from the BC system of education)

Language Learning And Content Learning Go Hand In Hand

Language is not learned in isolation. Language and content learning develop together in ever increasing complexity. The first, most visible (audible) layer is easiest to note as it is based in concrete, experiential learning. The next "layer" builds on this and so on. In point form, this is how it works:


  • Learner uses language to describe what s/he can see, hear, touch directly.


  • Language use focuses on what the learner knows from her own experiences in daily life, what she has heard and seen directly but cannot see or hear at the moment. (language of home and neighbourhood)


  • The learner can now describe what she has not yet experienced directly but can imagine - usually with the help of pictures, dramatizations, charts, etc. (instructional level tasks)


  • The learner is able to discuss what is brought to mind through the spoken or written or printed word, with minimal help from visuals. (independent learning level tasks)

NB: Each ESL learner designated as such brings additional funding into the school system where s/he attends school. There is currently a five-year cap on additional ministry funding for ESL support service. Given all the variables above, there will certainly be some learners whose funding timeframe has run out but who are still in need of support. It should be noted that this is a cap on FUNDING, not support. Some individuals simply require a longer time to acquire full academic competency in English. This does NOT automatically imply they have learning difficulties.

What about using the first language?

It is very important that learners continue to develop their first language(s). For example, research has shown that if a student is able to read and write in the home language, these skills support a relatively rapid tranfer to reading and writing in English – regardless of what the home language is.

”Study after study has demonstrated that there is a strong and positive correlation between literacy in the native language and learning English, and that the degree of children’s native language proficiency is a strong predictor of their English language development. Literacy in a child’s native language establishes a knowledge, concept and skills base that transfers from native language reading to reading in a second language.” (Beth Antunez, 2002) (full article is available here )

Not only does this support learning in English , it also support the continuation of the learner’s cognitive development. Starting over again in a new language learning numbers and colours is a giant step backwards for these learners. They will need your support to continue their academic development from where it was left off in the home country. Integrating language and content learning is the best way to do this. Finally, continued advancement in the home language fosters positive self-esteem, celebrates and acknowledges the culture(s) of the home, and has the ultimate benefit of providing a variety of opportunities later in life.

While encouraging the continued development of the home language is important, its use in the school setting must be clearly outlined for the learners: some ways to use the home language in school include:

  • Have the student teach the class how to say hello in her/his language, write it on posterboard and put it up in the classroom. There could be a language a week in which everyone learns to say hello.
  • When teaching a new concept- especially the more abstract ones – ask someone who speaks the same home language to translate the key word. Then the new learner will have a concept in mind onto which she can cobble all the new terms in English
  • Help in the home language where basic classroom routines need to be learned quickly
  • Where safety is an issue – in the gym or in the science lab

What is the Goal of ESL Education?

"The goal of English as a Second Language education is to assist students to become proficient in English, to develop intellectually and as citizens, and to enable them to achieve the expected learning outcomes of the provincial curriculum [at their age/grade level]. Support for ESL students requires attention to language proficiency, intellectual development and citizenship. Such support should be provided in a school environment which values diversity, bridges cultures and works to eliminate racism." (Ministry of Education Policy Framework, 1999, pg. 7)

What is an ESL Specialist Teacher?

An ESL specialist teacher works collaboratively with classroom teachers to provide the additional support services needed for these learners to acquire social and academic language fluency in English.

Which knowledge, skills, and attitudes set an ESL Specialist apart? PDF file; Acrobat Reader required.

What qualifications does an ESL Specialist have?

See Suggested Qualifications for ESL Specialists: www.bced.gov.bc.ca/esl/policy/guidelines.pdf .

What is the Role of the ESL Specialist Teacher?

"All teachers, not just ESL Specialists, need to address the learning needs of ESL students and be prepared to adjust their instructional approaches to accommodate the different levels of English proficiencies and different learning rates and styles of their students." (Ministry of Education Guide for ESL Specialists, pg. 35)

LEARN MORE about the Role of ESL Specialist Teachers: www.bced.gov.bc.ca/esl/policy/special.pdf

LEARN MORE about the Role of the Classroom Teacher working with ESL Learners: www.bced.gov.bc.ca/esl/policy/classroom.pdf

What are some Models of Service Delivery that Support ESL Learners?

The numbers of ESL learners continues to grow. School districts with high percentages of ESL learners have a greater variety of options for providing service. Organizational options will vary and should be based on the needs of the particular groups of learners. For example, a group of refugees from a war zone, who have had limited or no schooling in their home languages, will require very different programming from a group of similarly aged learners who have had the benefit of extensive education in their home countries.

Updated June, 2015

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