Differences in ESL learners

Written by Valentina Temina-Kingsolver

Written on . Posted in Teaching Writing.

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Tagged with: Teaching Writing, English Learners

Those who have ever taught an ESL course would agree that you cannot have a completely homogenous group of ESL students in one classroom. Typically ESL classes include students of different ages, genders, personalities, cognitive styles, motivations, socioeconomic status, cultural backgrounds, L1 educational experiences, and different levels of L2 proficiency.

Some of the ESL students are newly arrived immigrants while others were born in the United States but grew up in non-English speaking homes. All these dissimilarities need to be taken into consideration while working with an ESL population.

The most important distinction that has to be made is between immigrant, non-immigrant and U.S. born ESL students. They greatly vary in their attitudes and expectations of academic work, desire to assimilate within the dominant society, and their L2 problems.

U.S. born ESL students are those who were born in the United states, but grew up in non-English speaking homes, for example, Hispanics and Native Americans. Some of the students from this category understandably refuse to give up their own culture and language and resist integrating into the mainstream society. They see integration as a threat to their identity and their cultural values and beliefs. However, after these students start school in this country, they find themselves torn between the culture of their homes and that of their schools and their peers.

In spite of their attitudes and dilemmas, a majority of these students acquire English as their second language relatively well when they begin their schooling, while at the same time maintaining their home language to a certain degree. This category of students is called PHLOTE and is not common in ESL classes. Unfortunately, those who were not successful in learning English in primary grades reside in ESL classes for years and receive the name “ESL lifers”. Some of them are illiterate in their first language, which makes it more difficult for them to transition into L2 literacy. Most of these students become quite proficient in speaking English but they lack essential reading and writing skills. Cummins (1979) refers to this group of English learners as BICS, i.e. proficient in Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills, but less skilled in the language of academic discourse.

The immigrant category is the assembly of students who moved to the United Stated from their native countries and whose families decided to settle down in this country permanently. They represent different cultural and ethnic groups and vary in their educational backgrounds. They come here for different socio-political-personal reasons. Most of them do so voluntarily and have a strong desire to assimilate with the dominant culture in order to gain the benefits of the mainstream society. However, some of them go through major adjustments in order to ‘fit in’. Many experience language and culture shock, and detachment from their native countries. They often miss family members that they left behind and the familiar life-styles.

The immigrant group is rather diverse in their educational experiences. Here we can meet students who are highly literate in their native languages, and those who are extremely illiterate. This fact creates a lot of challenges for ESL teachers.

Non-immigrant students are those who obtained student-visas in order to come to the United States and receive education in American universities. They are called international students. They do not consider it to be important for them to integrate into the American culture. They are proud citizens of their own countries and plan to return home after finishing their education in the U.S.

This is also a very diverse group of ESL students, as they all come from different cultural and language backgrounds. However, most of these students are highly educated in their first language. Quite often they have very well developed reading and writing skills in English but fail to successfully communicate orally, especially when they first arrive in this country.

Cultural diversity reflects in these students’ attitudes and abilities for successful learning. For example, some ethnic groups have received a reputation for being very intelligent and very diligent learners. Some are very sophisticated, with a great deal of life experience and broad political views.

Quite a few of these people experience the same problems as the immigrant group. They encounter emotional tension, language insecurity, financial instability and cultural shock. Unlike the immigrant group these students do not feel a permanent disconnection with their native countries and have an opportunity to return to their homes after the end of their studies.

As we see, all these groups not only have different paths that led them to ESL classrooms but they also have different expectations of their academic achievements in general and attitudes toward second language learning in particular.

Quite often these three groups of non-native speaking students are taught in the same ESL classes in schools and universities. This mixing of students can be really damaging for the self-esteem of all categories of ESL learners. Many immigrant, and especially non-immigrant students, are very well educated in their native language, with perfectly developed writing skills and they may find it extremely harmful for their pride to be put in the same class with students of low language abilities. On the other hand, “ESL lifers” may also experience disappointment when they are continuously placed in low level ESL classes. They may often feel boredom and frustration. Some of them do not see an essential difference between conversational skills and the ability to write in the target language until they run into major problems in their college composition classes.

Of course, there is a number of other factors that affect successful learning and for that matter successful teaching of writing in ESL composition classes. Some of them are beyond the control of the ESL teacher, for example, personal histories, linguistic complications, emotional disturbance, and others. However, teachers need to be aware of them and take them into account while working with these categories of students. It is obvious that ESL teachers face a lot of hard and persistent work in order to accommodate the diverse needs of English language learners and help them acquire/learn the academic language of schools and universities.


Leki, I. (1992). Understanding ESL Writers: A Guide for Teachers. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook Publishers.

Cummings, J. (1979). Linguistic interdependence in educational development of bilingual children. Review of Educational Research, 49, 222-251.

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Differences in ESL learners

| Valentina Temina-Kingsolver | Teaching Writing
Those who have ever taught an ESL course would agree that you cannot have a completely homogenous group of ESL students in one classroom. Typically ESL classes include students of different ages, genders, personalities, cognitive styles, motivations, socioeconomic status, cultural backgrounds, L1 educational experiences, and different levels of L2 proficiency.

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