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Chapter 1: Levels of English Language Learning

Anyone who’s ever tried to learn a new language knows it takes time and effort. Language learning is a process and involves much more than practicing vocabulary. To communicate effectively in a new language, students must understand how words are expressed in a cultural context in addition to learning dialect and intonation.

As EL students develop language skills, they move through different proficiency levels before reaching fluency. Each level builds upon the previous level. The various proficiency levels help teachers and parents gauge a student’s English abilities and track their progress.

This chapter covers the different English language proficiency levels and descriptors developed by the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA) Consortium, an organization dedicated to researching, developing, and implementing high-quality language development standards. Forty-two U.S. states, territories, and federal agencies, including Pennsylvania, are members of the WIDA Consortium. If you’d like to learn about our commitment to WIDA’s standards, please contact us for more information.

What Is an EL Level?

An EL level, or what WIDA refers to as a “language proficiency level,” shows what language development looks like and how it can connect to academic content. Each level describes what an EL student can do within each language domain — reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Language proficiency levels are a component of the WIDA English Language Development Standards Framework.

WIDA’s Framework

WIDA’s framework is designed to help educators combine language development with content learning while meeting their students’ needs. Teachers can use WIDA’s system as a guide when developing curricula, instructional methods, and assessments. WIDA’s framework consists of the following four interconnected components:

1. English Language Development Standards

The first component of WIDA’s framework involves language development standards. These standards demonstrate the language skills ELs need to succeed in various subjects. Each standard encompasses Key Language Uses, Language Expectations, and English learners’ Proficiency Level Descriptors. The standards aim to help students learn the language in the context of academic content.

Language for Social and Instructional Purposes is the first standard. It’s a broad principle that functions independently from and in conjunction with the other standards. This standard states that students communicate to learn, express their needs and wants, form and maintain relationships, and affirm their identities. It reflects how students interact with teachers and peers to learn and develop skills.

Language for Social and Instructional Purposes is meant to remind educators that ELs’ experiences, home languages, and cultural backgrounds instruct the meanings they form in different content areas. By focusing on students’ strengths and backgrounds, teachers can link social, emotional, and personal aspects to academic content and keep students engaged.

Graphic: English language development standards.

According to the other four standards, ELs need to communicate ideas and information to succeed in:

  • Language Arts
  • Mathematics
  • Science
  • Social Studies

Teachers should help students use the English language to communicate in all of the above content areas.

2. Key Language Uses

According to WIDA, Key Language Uses describe the primary ways language is used in school. Key Language Uses are meant to help teachers decide how to integrate language with academic content across all disciplines. WIDA has identified the following Key Language Uses:

  • Narrate: Teachers and students use language to communicate real or imagined experiences and stories to teach, instruct, or entertain.
  • Inform: Teachers and students use language to convey factual information and share ideas.
  • Explain: Teachers and students use language to describe how things work and why they happen.
  • Argue: Teachers and students use language to present evidence and argue for or against ideas, solutions, or issues.

All of the Key Language Uses exist in every grade level and discipline, and students use them every day. It’s important to note that language use is multimodal, meaning students and teachers also communicate through gestures, movements, images, facial expressions, and other forms.

3. Language Expectations

Language Expectations help teachers and students establish goals for concurrent language and academic content learning. These expectations represent the language needed to meet grade-level content standards. Language Expectations include the following modes of communication:

  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Listening
  • Speaking

The above modes of communication, also called domains, can be consolidated further into interpretive and expressive communication modes, which give ELs more ways to communicate and make learning more accessible. They’re described as:

  • Interpretive communication mode: This mode includes reading, listening, and viewing.
  • Expressive communication mode: This mode includes writing, speaking, and representing.

WIDA’s Language Expectations are built around Language Functions, or common ways students use language to learn and communicate in school. For example, a language arts teacher might expect a grade 1 EL student to construct a narrative that develops story events. The action of developing story events is an example of a Language Function.

4. Proficiency Level Descriptors

EL proficiency levels exist within each Language Expectation domain and grade-level cluster. Each level describes expected performance and what ELs can do, whether they’re beginning to learn English or have developed advanced skills. Overall, the Proficiency Level Descriptors show students’ progression as they acquire English as an additional language. There are six levels of English proficiency, which are:

  • Entering: At this level, ELs can use, produce, or understand pictorial representations of the language and one-step commands. They can respond to simple questions with gestures.
  • Emerging: At the Emerging level, ELs can use or understand general language related to the content area or short sentences. They will write or speak with errors and need to build vocabulary.
  • Developing: At the Developing stage, ELs can use some specific language related to the content, and their written and spoken sentences are longer. They’ll still produce errors, but their communication retains meaning.
  • Expanding: ELs at the Expanding level can use specific and technical language, and their sentences vary in length and complexity. When they write or speak, they make few errors that impact the overall meaning of what they’re communicating.
  • Bridging: At the Bridging level, ELs can speak the technical language of the content area. They can write stories, essays, or reports. Their speech and writing are almost comparable to English-proficient peers.
  • Reaching: At the Reaching stage, ELs can write and read extensively as required by their grade level. Their written and oral communication is comparable to their peers. However, it’s important EL students continue with language development.

All ELs have unique backgrounds and personalities that influence their levels of proficiency within each language domain. It is the teacher’s role to identify students’ strengths and proficiency levels to build upon their skills and experiences, plan suitable lessons, and monitor each student’s progress along the way.

Grade-Level Clusters

Because language development occurs over many years and is affected by factors like age, motivation, and classroom experiences, WIDA developed materials for students based on grade-level clusters. Within each grade-level cluster, materials are organized according to WIDA’s framework. Grade-level clusters are:

  • Kindergarten
  • Grade 1
  • Grades 2 and 3
  • Grades 4 and 5
  • Grades 6 to 8
  • Grades 9 to 12

For example, an EL in kindergarten is expected to interpret language arts text, with support, by identifying main topics and details. Under the Language for Mathematics standard, kindergarten EL students are expected to interpret math texts by describing quantities and attributes.

What Students Can Expect at CCA

At CCA, our certified ESL instructors collaborate with students, parents, and other teachers to develop personalized curricula and incorporate principles modeled after the WIDA English Language Development Standards Framework. Because CCA is a cyber school, our teachers can use digital tools to enhance educational experiences and connect with students in engaging ways. ELs can also interact with other students online, keeping them motivated to learn and encouraging them to share their unique skills and backgrounds.

Whether you’re an educator interested in our program for EL cyber school students or a parent ready to enroll your child in online classes, we welcome you to request more information.

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