Classroom, Curriculum, Elementary, ell, High School, Junior High, Resources, school

Understanding English Language Learning Levels

If you’re new to teaching students whoa re learning English, it can be daunting to figure out all the levels and what students are expected to do at each.

Most school boards recognize five distinct levels for English language development and assess and level students accordingly.

I’ll be using the following terms to break down the five levels of English langauge learners: beginning, emerging, developing, expanding, and bridging. Beginning is the lowest (or level 1, as many districts classify) and bridging is the highest (level 5).

As students move through these different levels, there are different things to expect from each. Of course, all students are different and progress at different paces, but these are general observations which the majority of “normal” language learners follow.


Students who are at the beginning ELL level are brand new to English. I mean, brand spanking new; like me trying to skakeboard in the olympics new.

These students will likely be extremely quiet and reserved. Can you blame them? Imagine being thrown into a class in a new country. You’re not only going to not understand the language, you’re also going to feel lost within a new culture and customs.

Don’t be surprised if these students don’t respond at all to you, or simply nod or gesture in response. There’s a good chance they don’t understand what you’re saying. They also may be extremely shy or nervous.

Of course, don’t ignore that these students may have undergone extreme trauma as well. Not only is is traumatic in itself to be thrust into a new culture, they could have witnessed war, refugee camps, terrorism, loss of family members, cartel violence, and so on.

Giving these beginning students a warm and welcoming place to come each day and plenty of time to adjust is a must. Trying to rush them or becoming frustrated not only won’t work, it may actually be harmful.

Plenty of visuals and translating to and from their home language is of the utmost importance at this stage. If they are attempting to read straight text or follow along with what you or peers are saying, they’ll be completely lost.

As students begin to grow more comfortable with you, the classroom, and their peers, they’ll naturally begin to take more chances. Students will begin to try to answer with simple words, engage more in non- or low-verbal games, and point and gesture more to respond. This is fantastic and natural as the phase into a higher ELL level.


Emerging English language learners still tend to be quiet, but they are able to understand and produce more than beginning students.

You can expect these kiddos to start speaking and writing more, but they will still be making considerable errors. Don’t correct every little thing; they may lose confidence and withdraw. Instead, encourage them and correct things they can easily change and understand errors they’ve made.

Often (but not always), these students will understand more than they can produce, so they will still likely respond with simple words or phrases, or only write a small amount. They may also rely on short phrases they’ve memorized, so don’t be surprised if their answers don’t always make complete sense for the question asked.

These students will definitely still need a lot of significant supports in class. They will not be able to read the texts the rest of the class is reading or respond in depth. They should still be focusing on developing basic vocabulary, both social and academic, so that they can engage more with you, their peers, and their class work.

Continue using things such as visuals, translators, fill-in-the-blanks, and so on as these students progress.


Students who have reached the developing English language level are now able to understand more of what’s going on socially as well as in their classroom.

I don’t know about you, but developing, or level three, ELL students tend to be very broad in skill and ability level in our district. This can often be the most difficult level to really understand, assess, and program for because of the variance in “low” versus “high” level three students.

These students can often appear higher than they are because they tend to be more comfortable with social language than academic language. You may see them in class or in the halls with their friends cracking jokes and using colloquialisms you couldn’t have imagined when they were beginning English language learners.

However, academic English is significantly more difficult and these kiddos still need a lot of support in class.

A lot of the slang you’ll hear kids use are memorized and used multiple times a day, so it’s much easier for them to be comfortable with. When it comes to classroom language use and understanding content, they are still working with simple sentences and paragraphs, so don’t over estimate how high they are.

The biggest errors you’ll find in students’ speaking and written English at this level are grammatical. Things such as mistaking past and present tense are very common.

These English language learners may not rely as much on things such as visuals, but they will have alot of trouble with things they don’t have background knowledge on. A great strategy this these kiddos is to pre-teach vocabulary or major concepts. Even just having a conversation with them about what you’re about to learn is helpful for a jumping-off point.


When students reach the expanding level of English langauge acquisition, they appear near fluent in informal, day-to-day language. I sometimes see teachers think they should “demit” students from the ELL program at this level – a little too early – because they teach them a less language-based class and don’t realize they’re still lacking some necessary academic language skills.

These students are generally able to follow along quite well in class. They can generally participate in class discussions, and complete many assignments, even with little differentiation.

However, when it comes to more elaborate ideas, these students tend to become confused and not completely understand complexities. Social Studies and English classes can be difficult, because they often require a deeper understanding, which ELL students may not catch.

For example, some stories or poems in English Language Arts have themes which become apparent based on something as simple as a word which holds two different meanings. It’s incredibly difficult for students who are not native English speakers to pick up on this. I mean, it’s hard for even our native English speakers to pick up on such intricacies!

Often, these students will perform as if they are a native language speaker, but just a grade or two below. Things you can so to support them involve working one-or-one or allowing peer support, giving simplified assignments, pre-teaching concepts, and providing structured/guided assignments (such as sentence frames to start each paragraph in an essay).


Once students hit the bridging level in the English language development level, they’re likely quite strong. We always joke at my school that even half of us English-born teachers haven’t hit level five yet.

These students are quite comfortable with both social and academic language. They can generally respond to questions quickly and without much need to decifer what teachers or peers are saying or asking.

While errors in writing, reading, speaking, and listening definitely occur, these tend to be the same types of errors that native English speakers make as well.

At this point, there is little to no differentiation you need to provide students with in class; they tend to work and perform about the same as the “whole class”.

At this level, students should be able to be writing essays along with their peers and being able to understand and correct errors when they’re pointed out. I like to call this ELL level the “safety” level. Basically, students should be performing near or at native English levels. If not, I move them down or keep them another year or so longer at level five to ensure they’re still “flagged” and can receive appropriate supports.

Well, do these levels correspond with how your district levels English language learners? Learn any helpful tips? Anything you think I’m way off on? Let me know!

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