Let’s Start at the Very Beginning: Identifying ELLs

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As the school year commences across Michigan, many schools are in the process of getting to know newly enrolled students. This process includes identifying students who need English language development services. Identifying English language learners (ELLs) is really an issue of educational access and equity; students who fail to be identified as ELLs who do in fact need English language development services won’t have the same opportunities to access instructional content as their peers. On the other hand, students who are mistakenly identified as ELLs may be denied access to academic content that is appropriately challenging.

In a recent presentation during the Summer Focus School Institute in Detroit, Dr. Joseph Murphy from Vanderbilt University pointed to a wall in the conference room and asked the audience to envision 72 doors on the wall, each representing access to an employment opportunity. He claimed that our job as educators is to ensure that our students have the ability to open each and every one of those doors and decide for themselves what they will do with their lives. He then asked a thought-provoking question: How many of those doors will our students who fall on the wrong side of the achievement gap be able to open? When it comes to ELL students, we would ask: How many of those doors will our students who are not yet proficient in English be able to open? How will their opportunities to participate in society be constrained?

ELL identification is the first step in providing language minority students with the instructional and linguistic supports they will need to have access to meaningful opportunities to learn.

Facts About ELLs in Michigan

  • Approximately 76,000 ELLs were tested on the Spring ELPA in 2013
  • Top two languages spoken: Spanish and Arabic
  • Majority of ELLs in Michigan are also Economically Disadvantages
  • Majority of public districts in Michigan have at least one ELL
  • High ELL concentration areas: Wayne, Oakland, Kent, Macomb, Ottawa, Ingham

What are the State of Michigan’s requirements for identifying ELLs?

MDE’s entrance protocol actually begins during a student’s enrollment process. Like the vast majority of states, Michigan requires each student’s parent or guardian to answer two questions that are part of the state-approvedHome Language Survey (HLS):

  1. Is your child’s native tongue a language other than English?
  2. Is the primary language used in your child’s home or environment a language other than English?

If a “yes” is received for either question, then the student must be administered the state’s English language proficiency assessment used for screening purposes. School districts have 30 school days from the date of enrollment at the beginning of a school year or 10 days after enrollment at any point during the school year, in which to identify students for ELL services.

Beginning with the 2013-14 school year, districts within Michigan must use the WIDA ACCESS Placement Test (W-APT) to aid in determining if the student should be enrolled in English language development services. In addition to administering the W-APT, districts should also employ the best practice of using multiple criteria (Garcia Bedolla & Rodriguez, 2011) to make informed decisions. MDE’s Entrance and Exit Protocol identifies a variety of other assessments such as DIBELS Next for Kindergartners and LAS Links for 6th – 12th graders. These additional diagnostics can be used to aid in valid decision-making when it comes to properly identifying ELL students.

What else should you know about your incoming ELL students?

In addition to the student-level demographics MDE asks districts to report, districts should also consider gathering other information on ELLs that can provide a greater level of detail about each student’s potential instructional needs. Much of this information could be gathered either by including additional questions on the enrollment forms, or through initial English language screening. Here are some examples of information educators will find useful in planning instruction for ELL students.

  • Primary/First Language Literacy: A student with no first language literacy skills will require a different set of learning experiences that focuses on skills such as print letter identification and basic decoding and literacy concepts such as phoneme to grapheme conceptualization (Au, 1993).
  • Country of Birth: Knowing a student’s country of birth or country from which they are emigrating can provide insight into a student’s specific cultural and linguistic needs. For example, students emigrating from countries like Libya may have had recent exposure to the violent political uprisings that may require extra support. For more information on how to support ELL students with emotional and psychological needs from war-torn countries, consider reading Chapter 7 of The Essential Guide for Educating Beginning English Learners by Debbie E. Zacarian and Judie Haynes (2012).
  • Formal Schooling Experiences: It is not uncommon for students from other countries to have had limited exposure to formal learning environments and have specific learning needs (Calderon, 2007; DeCapua & Marshall, 2010; Freeman & Freeman, 2002). Often we take for granted a student’s, ability to do seemingly basic tasks, like hold a pencil or write their name. This is particularly true of older students.
  • Interrupted schooling: Similar to students with limited formal schooling experiences, those who have experienced interruptions in their education also have specific needs. Students who are refugees or are migrant students are highly mobile. Migrant students may experience interruptions in schooling as their parents move from place to place for work. Refugee students may have interruptions in schooling due to large-scale natural disasters or war. Knowing about a student’s formal schooling experiences may provide educators with an empathetic viewpoint and help guide their instruction (Spaulding, Carolino, & Amen, 2004).

How can you learn more about your district’s ELL identification process?

We have designed an ELL Identification Improvement Checklist tool that school districts can utilize to help improve their ELL identification processes.

By better understanding your own district’s ELL identification procedures, you not only gain the benefit of ensuring that correct procedures are being followed in the event of state or federal monitoring, but you may also discover :

  • Under-identification of students needing ELL instructional support, which could contribute to achievement gaps in your school because students who need to be receiving English language development services are unable to access academic content.
  • Over-identification of students not needing services, which could contribute to achievement gaps in your school because ELL students are not being provided with unnecessary language development services instead of being exposed to appropriately rigorous and challenging academic content. Over-identification of ELLs could also result in unnecessary usage of district funds to support language development services.

In our next MI Toolkit issue, Jennifer Paul and I will share some of the latest research and what it tells us about the process of identifying ELLs. We will also post a video of interviews we conducted with two districts—Lansing and Novi—who graciously agreed to discuss their processes, challenges, and successes with us. Please feel free to contact us if you have questions or comments on this article or any of the resources we have provided. We look forward to engaging in conversations with educators across the state who are passionate about improving educational opportunities for our ELL students!

Until the next issue,

Madeline Mavrogordato & Jennifer Paul


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Abedi, J. (2008). Classification system for English language learners: Issues and recommendations.Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice, 27(3), 17–31.

Au, K. H. (1993). Literacy instruction in multicultural settings. Orlando, FL: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

August, D., & Hakuta, K. (1997). Improving schooling for language-minority children: A research agenda. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.

Bailey, A. L., & Kelly, K. R. (2010). The Use and Validity of Home Language Surveys in State English Language Proficiency Assessment Systems: A Review and Issues Perspective. Los Angeles, CA: UCLA.

Calderon, M. (2007). Teaching reading to English language learners, grades 6-12: A framework for improving achievement in the content areas. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

DeCapua, A., & Marshall, H.W. (2011). Breaking new ground: Teaching students with limited or interrupted formal education in U.S. secondary schools. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

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Garcia Bedolla, L. & Rodriguez, R. (2011). Classifying California’s English Learners: Is the CELDT too Blunt an Instrument? Berkeley, CA: Center for Latino Policy Research.

Kindler, A. L. (2002). Survey of the states’ limited English proficient students and available educational programs and services: 2000–2001 summary report. Washington, D.C.: National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition and Language Instruction Educational Programs.

National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition & Language Instruction Educational Programs (NCELA). The Growing Numbers of English Learner Students. Retrieved fromhttp://www.ncela.gwu.edu/files/uploads/9/growingLEP_0708.pdf.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001, Pub. L. No. 107-110, § 115 (2002).

Spaulding, S., Carolino, B., & Amen, K. (2004). Immigrant students and secondary school reform: Compendium of best practices. Washington, D.C.: Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO).

Zacarian, D. & Haynes, J. (2012). The essential guide for educating beginning English learners. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.