English Language Learners / Ages 2-18

What to Expect When Your Child is an “English Language Learner”

If your child is learning English for the first time, here’s what you need to know about how they’ll be supported in school.

If your family speaks a language other than English at home, your child may be identified as an “English language learner” or “emerging bilingual student” when you enroll them in school. What does that mean and what should you expect for your child?

First, your child has the right to an education in the United States. Federal laws require your child’s school district to provide the language support your child needs in order to become proficient in English and learn in all academic areas. (You can read more about those rights here.) Here are some questions you might be asking—and some answers!

How do I enroll my English learner in school for the first time?

Visit your neighborhood school to find out about enrolling your child. You might be directed to your school district’s welcome center or registration office for more support. When you enroll your child, you will be asked some questions about the language or languages your family uses at home. The school district will use this information to flag students who may need support learning English in school.

Next, your child’s English proficiency will be assessed. Based on the results of their initial screening, your child will be assigned a placement in an English language education program in school. You will be notified of this placement. Your child will undergo additional language assessments once they start school.

How will my child learn English in school?

English language education (ELE) can take different forms. This will depend on what is available in your district, as well as your child’s particular language learning needs. Your child may be enrolled in a program called:

  • “English as a second language” (ESL) or “sheltered English immersion” (SEI): This means they will learn their academic content primarily in English, with language support.
  • “Two-way immersion”: Your child will learn in a mix of your native language and English, alongside some classmates who are native English speakers and others who are English learners.
  • “Transitional bilingual program”: Instruction in your child’s native language will be gradually phased out as their English improves.

Most likely, your child will spend most of their school day learning in English—but with support. Your child should have access to materials in school that are designed to be accessible to students who are learning English. These may include visual aids, captions, and other classroom tools. They should also be supported in school by a teacher who specializes in ESL instruction, either within their regular classroom or in a small-group setting.

How do I know if my child is making progress?

Your child’s school should send you regular updates about their progress in your preferred language. If you don’t receive information from the school about your child’s current language proficiency, the program they’re in, and their progress, you can request that information in writing. Here is a sample letter you can present to the school to obtain this information. Your child’s parent-teacher conference is another opportunity to learn about their progress.

What if I have a concern about my child’s learning?

Students typically do not need special education services due to their language learning status. Speech delays or difficulty understanding spoken directions in English are not signs that your emerging bilingual student needs special education services. Sometimes English learners are wrongly placed in special education settings, even if they do not have a disability. If your child is identified for special education support services, you have the right to understand exactly what services they need and why.

However, if you have a concern about your child’s learning separate from their English proficiency, you can ask to have them evaluated. Sometimes, families will be told that their child can’t be assessed for a learning disability until they are more proficient in English. This is not true. Your child’s school should be able to conduct an evaluation of your child’s learning that takes into account their current English proficiency.

What can I do to support my child’s learning at home?

You don’t need to help your child practice English at home. You can continue to support your child’s learning by speaking your family’s native language at home. Becoming bilingual and biliterate is great for your child.

Talking, singing, and reading with your child will help build their language skills in any language. Read together, have your child read to you, and encourage them to tell you about their day.

Visit your local library. Check out your local library for books and so much more! Your library may even have audiobooks that you can listen to with your child. (When you visit for the first time, a librarian can help you create an account. Bring along a utility bill or other piece of mail to show your address.)

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