Key Definitions

A number of terms are commonly used in research, legislation, and other writing to discuss students who speak a language other than English at home. Understanding the differences between these key terms is important for determining which population of students is being discussed.

Dual Language Learner

A dual language learner (DLL) is a child between the ages of zero and eight years old who is in the process of learning English in addition to his or her native language(s). These children may or may not be formally considered ELLs by their schools, depending on their performance on states’ English language proficiency assessments.

Limited English Proficient

The U.S. Department of Education defines a limited English proficient (LEP) student as a person between the ages of three and twenty-one who was not born in the U.S., whose native language is not English, and/or who comes from an environment where English is not the dominant language. As a result, the child has sufficient difficulty in English such that it impacts his or her ability to perform on their state’s standardized tests, access content in the classroom, and/or fully participate in society.

Recently-arrived LEP

A recently-arrived LEP is an LEP student who has entered school for the first time (regardless of age) in the U.S. less than 12 months ago and is therefore exempt from taking one administration of state standardized assessments in Reading and Language Arts until they have completed a full year in American schools.

English Language Learner/English Learner

English language learner (ELL) or English learner (EL) is similar to an LEP. The U.S Department of Education defines an ELL (or EL) as:

"An individual who, due to any of the reasons listed below, has sufficient difficulty speaking, reading, writing, or understanding the English language to be denied the opportunity to learn successfully in classrooms where the language of instruction is English or to participate fully in the larger U.S. society. Such an individual (1) was not born in the United States or has a native language other than English; (2) comes from environments where a language other than English is dominant; or (3) is an American Indian or Alaska Native and comes from environments where a language other than English has had a significant impact on the individual’s level of English language proficiency.”

This definition is important because the ELL designation is tied to funding under Title III, Part A of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

The distinction between an LEP and an ELL lies in the provision of services. LEP refers to any student eligible for ELL services, whereas ELLs are the students receiving these services. It is possible, though relatively rare, that a child’s parents could refuse the services that come with the ELL designation.

Long-term English Learner

A long-term English learner (LTEL) is a student who has been receiving ESL instruction for more than five years, and has not developed enough English proficiency to be officially reclassified as a FLEP.

Formerly Limited English Proficient

A formerly limited English proficient (FLEP) is a student who reached English proficiency and was exited from the LEP subgroup within the last two years. No Child Left Behind requires that FLEP students be monitored — some states track them as a subgroup for school accountability measures.

Total English Learner

A total English learner (TEL) is a student who is currently, or has been at some point in their education, formally classified as an ELL. Some states use this designation to track how ELL students perform beyond their two years of designation as an FLEP.

English as a Second Language/English to Speakers of Other Languages

English as a Second language (ESL) or English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) are instructional models of teaching English to language learners, but these terms are also occasionally used to describe DLL or ELL students who are learning English at school.