What is the difference between ESL vs ELL?

ESL refers to students learning English as a second language in a separate class, but ELL refers to students that are in mainstream classes with native speakers.

You might be more familiar with the acronym ESL than ELL, but what do they both mean? ESL is an acronym that stands for “English as a Second Language”. ELL is an acronym that stands for “English Language Learners”. Both acronyms refer to students who are learning English as their L2 language.

What is a L2 language?

The L2 designation refers to a person’s second language. It is usually learned later on in life, as a foreign language. It is in addition to their L1 language, or their first (or native) language.

ELL (English language learners) is a term tightly aligned with the teaching pedagogy of the Sheltered English Immersion Program.

The L1 language can also refer to students’ “mother tongue” or “home language”.

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What is Sheltered English Immersion?

At its core, Sheltered English Immersion just means you teach all students the correct grade-level appropriate lesson, but you tweak the delivery of the content in such a way that it is accessible to all students, including those that have English as their L2.

ELL Learners benefit from the principles of Sheltered immersion classes because they do not fall behind in their studies.

The direct practice of the SEI principles can help us clarify and hone some skills,

The goal of the Sheltered English Immersion Program is to give a comprehensive curriculum to all learners, including the English Language Learners (ELLs) students.

The principles of SEI are very intuitive. I jokingly told a colleague that the goals can be neatly wrapped up in the goal “don’t be an asshole”. It is simply common decency to be inclusive to all students, to tailor our vocabulary and scaffolding to lift up and engage all students in the class, and to keep students learning at their grade-appropriate content level so they don’t fall behind or get bored.

A teacher who promotes inclusivity and rigor in their lessons will by default use SEI principles. However, the direct practice of the SEI principles can help us clarify and hone some skills, so let’s explore further.

Vocabulary Related to ELL Learners

Here are some words related to ELL taken from the National Council of Teachers English.


English as a foreign language (EFL): Refers to non-native English-speaking students who are learning English in a country where English is not the primary language.

English as a second language (ESL): Readers may be most familiar with this term because it has been used as an overarching term for students, programs, and/or a field of study. Currently, the term usually refers to programs of instruction (i.e., study of English in an English-speaking country); however, ESL was used in the past to refer to English language learning students.

English language learner (ELL): In keeping with the terminology used in the NCTE Position Paper on the Role of English Teachers in Educating English Language Learners (ELLs), this PIP strand employs the term ELL, which is commonly used in secondary schools as the short form of English language learner. The term refers to a complex, heterogeneous range of students who are in the process of learning English.

Related Keyword Phrases: ELL, ESL, Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA), SEI, Generation 1.5 or LEP, Limited English proficiency (LEP)

Limited English proficiency (LEP): This abbreviation may be used in some educational contexts to refer to a designation used by the US Department of Education. Many scholars see this as a deficit term because of its focus on subtractive language (language that implies a deficiency) under a monolingual assumption of proficiency.

Long-term English language learner (LTELL): Currently in use in some states, this term refers to K–12 students who have been enrolled in US schools for many years and continue to be stuck with the ELL designation long past the time it should take for redesignation. Like Generation 1.5 students, LTELLs may have spent most if not all of their education in US schools. For a variety of reasons, including family mobility, inconsistent educational programs, and personal reasons, they have not had opportunities to learn academic language sufficiently to pass English language proficiency tests and other measures of proficiency for redesignation (Olsen, 2010).


“Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt

Learn More About the ESL and ELL fields

Ingrid Maria Pimsner, MA, BA, TEFL
Ingrid Maria Pimsner, MA, BA, TEFL

Ingrid Maria Pimsner has been teaching for over a decade in various universities, nonprofits, and private academies. She has taught English as a Second Language for Lutheran Children & Family Service, Nationalities Service Center, Lernstudio Barbarossa Berlin-Tegel, and more. In addition to her Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) Certification, she holds a BA from the University of Pennsylvania and a MA from Maryland Institute College of Art.