Differences Between ELL & LEP Students

Instructor: Yolanda Reinoso Barzallo

Yolanda holds a CELTA Cambridge, a Juris Doctorate, and a Master of Public Administration. She is a published author of fiction in Spanish.

As a teacher of English as a Second Language, you probably have noticed that people use ELL and LEP interchangeably despite the differences between the two terms. This lesson analyzes the distinction between these terms.

Why Is It Important to Differentiate?

Diane is an elementary school principal and she often meets with her team of English as a Second Language teachers. Diane refers to all students who are enrolled in the English as a Second Language (ESL) program either as ELLs or LEPs. Very often, people in schools use the acronyms ELL and LEP interchangeably. However, there are differences between them. The most basic difference resides in what each term means. As you likely know, a student referred to as an ELL is an English Language Learner and one referred to as LEP is Limited English Proficient.

The reason people make the distinction is the general assumption that English Language Learners have a limited proficiency in the language because they come from homes where a language other than English is spoken. While the federal government in the US recognizes that both ELLs and LEPs are in the same group as students, it is important to differentiate because some states use the terms to define different instruction for different students.

Let's take a closer look at the differences between these terms.

ELLs Versus LEPs

Diane recently met Ahmed, a student who was born and raised in the Middle East until the age of eight. When Ahmed started school in the US, he took a test in English language to determine his ability to read, write, listen and speak in English. The test results indicated that Ahmed was going to struggle in the regular classes that are part of the curriculum because Ahmed's English was not very good at the time.

Ahmed became an ELL student for a couple of years. Being an ELL student meant that Ahmed was enrolled in the English as a Second Language program at the school. Ahmed is no longer enrolled in this program because last year, he got the high score needed on the ESL standardized exam to be exempted from the program.

Now that Ahmed is no longer an ELL student, we can say that he is capable of taking regular curriculum classes in English without struggling. However, since English is Ahmed's second language, his teacher sees that he is still somewhat LEP, or Limited English Proficient, because Ahmed often asks about new vocabulary pertaining to math or science. However, Ahmed is able to quickly learn new words and use them once he understands.

This case illustrates that different ELLs are also LEP because while learning English as a Second Language, ELLs are limited in their proficiency. However, a student who is no longer an ELL after testing out of ESL programs can continue to be LEP in some areas.

A different case is the one of Cecilia. She was born and raised in the US speaking English, but her family speaks mostly Spanish at home. She does not struggle in her regular classes although she was an ELL student enrolled in an ESL program for a year. However, since she often speaks Spanish at home, she is somewhat unfamiliar with certain expressions and words. She is LEP although she is a native speaker of English.

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