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Organizing for Instruction

Characteristics of English Language Learners

Characteristics of Learners by Level of English Language Proficiency

Different English language learners require different organizational structures and instructional supports based on their English language proficiency levels. Understanding the characteristics of English language learners at each level of English language proficiency helps school staff make decisions about what organizational options are most appropriate.

The following chart shows some of the key characteristics of English language learners working at each of the five levels of English language proficiency as described in the Alberta K–12 ESL Proficiency Benchmarks.

Level 1
Level 2
Level 3
Level 4
Level 5
  • New to English
  • Little or no exposure to English as a foreign language classes
  • Usually literate in first language
  • May have previously been a student who required English language and literacy development
  • Beginner with some prior English instruction
  • Has limited English proficiency
  • Usually has had previous schooling
  • Age-appropriate literacy in first language


  • May have studied English in home country or had some schooling in Canada
  • May have been in Canada for some time with academic language gaps
  • Listening and speaking skills approaching native English speakers in conversational English; however, academic oral proficiency is developing in specificity and complexity
  • Reading and writing skills at grade with scaffolding, direct instruction and extra time
  • May have studied English for several years (international or Canadian schools)
  • May appear fluent in oral language or may be less fluent orally and more competent in reading and/or writing
  • Requires support and instruction to understand literature and cultural references, word choices and sophisticated grammatical structures

Students with Limited Formal Schooling Experiences

For a variety of reasons related to displacement, war, environmental disasters, civil unrest or political instability, some students may have attended school sporadically, if at all. These students may have been moving from location to location or living in a refugee camp or an enclave of displaced people for several years. They may come from a background in which schooling was not available for certain groups. They may have attended a remote rural school, or a type of private school with limited curriculum, and the language of instruction may have been different from what was spoken at home. It is important to identify students with limited formal schooling early as they usually require intensive social and academic support.

Students with limited formal schooling experiences may have limited literacy, numeracy and understanding of academic concepts in their home language. They often have fewer academic understandings from their home language to transfer to English; therefore, when they attend an Alberta school, they are not only learning the language, they are learning new content and concepts. These students will also have to adjust to a school schedule and culture and likely a different way of life.

Students with limited formal schooling experiences are often very successful in a sheltered setting designed to address their specific literacy, numeracy and academic development and cultural needs. For a portion of the day, they can also be placed with peers in selected classes in which they will not experience as great a gap between their skills and knowledge and those of their peers (e.g., physical education, beginning language classes).

When there is a smaller number of students with limited formal schooling experiences in the school, these students’ needs often must be met in the grade-level classroom. Teachers in these cases should focus on providing:

  • instruction at the “just right” level based on the student’s academic and language proficiency
  • explicit language development instruction
  • reading instruction with scaffolded supports
  • modified writing assignments with scaffolded support
  • explicit numeracy instruction.
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