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Four Profiles of English Language Learners (and How to Teach Them)

Have you ever wondered at the diversity of the multilingual learners (MLs) in your classroom? While they are all classified as English learners, they have unique learner profiles, strengths, and opportunities for growth. Of course, all students are one-of-a-kind, but having a general understanding of your multilingual students' learner profiles can be helpful for designing effective instruction. Did you know there are actually four distinct learner profiles of multilingual students?

According to Fisher, Frey, & Rothenberg, the four types of English learners are

  1. Newcomers who are literate in their first language.

  2. Newcomers who are not yet literate in any language.

  3. Students who have been in US schools for several years and are developing English proficiency as expected.

  4. Long-term English learners with conversational English who have not developed academic language and literacy in any language.

General advice about how to teach multilingual students often fails to take these differences into account. But knowing the four ML learner profiles can help us differentiate instruction to meet their specific language and literacy needs and build on their strengths.

Who are multilingual learners in US schools?

There are about five million English language learners enrolled in schools in the United States. This works out to be about 10% of students nation-wide, but in some schools MLs make up the entire student population.

There is incredible diversity among multilingual students. Over 400 languages are represented in US schools! More than 75% of MLs speak Spanish as their first language, with Arabic, Chinese, and Vietnamese being the next most common languages spoken. Each state has a unique mix of languages in their schools depending upon the make-up of their communities.

When looking at the data, it's important to notice that language learners are classified as having specific learning disabilities and speech and language impairments at much higher rates than monolingual English speaking students. This suggests that some MLs are wrongly identified as having special needs. In actuality, these students have received instruction that has not helped them develop English proficiency within the expected timeframe.

Why is it important to know the four multilingual learner profiles?

Whether you are preparing for the beginning of the year or welcoming a student mid-year, the process of getting to know our students enables us to begin to design effective instruction. Similarly, whenWhen a ML is not making the growth we expect, it can be challenging to tease out whether it is because of language development or a sign of an additional learning need.

Response to Intervention (RtI) asks educators to compare students to “true peers” to get a sense of the typical progress we can expect. This makes sense; it would not be reasonable to expect that a typical newcomer would perform at the same level as a student who has always spoken English. We would have cause for concern, however, if that newcomer was not developing English at the same rate as the other newcomer students who started at the same time. These beginner English speakers represent the newcomer’s true peers, giving us a helpful frame of reference for growth.

Of course, our students are multi-dimensional. As educators, it’s our responsibility to gather comprehensive information about their backgrounds, experiences, strengths, and areas for growth so that we can get a clear picture of who they are as individuals and learners. Getting to know our students is the true starting point for designing effective and responsive instruction. Our students may be classified as English learners, yet each student is unique and requires something different from us as teachers.

What will I learn in this series of blog posts?

In this series of posts, we:

  1. describe four multilingual learner profiles, inspired by Fisher, Frey, and Rothenberg's work

  2. offer suggestions for supporting your students in the classroom, based on their learner profiles

Understanding the typical learner profile for our multilingual students helps us design effective instruction. We can also think of these categories as four groups of true peers. This is especially helpful for educators who have small populations of ML students in their schools; if you can identify which category your student falls into, you can compare their growth with the growth expected of other MLs with similar backgrounds and educational experiences.

We hope this series will be helpful to you as you get to know your multilingual learners! Continue reading the series here:

Profile 1: The Literate Newcomer

Profile 2: The Language and Literacy Novice

Profile 3: The Progressing English Learner

Profile 4: The Persistent English Learner


Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Rothenberg, C. (2010). Implementing RtI with English learners. Solution Tree. [Amazon]

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