Acronyms and Definitions Commonly Used in Relation to English Language Learners

Acronyms and definitions commonly used in relation to English Language

By Dr. Susan M. Schultz, Associate Professor/Graduate Program Director, Department of Inclusive Education, St. John Fisher College and Jessica Schultz, TVI

The education of students who are English Language Learners (ELL) involves the use of many terms and acronyms that may be unfamiliar to those who are new to the field.  We have compiled this resource as a tool for teachers and families.


BICS – Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills
CALP – Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency
DLL – Dual Language Learners
ESEA – Title III of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) as amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
EFL – English as a Foreign Language
EL – English Learner
ELL – English Language Learners
ELP – English Language Proficiency
ENL – English as a New Language
ESL – English as a Second Language
ESOL – English for Speakers of Other Languages
ESP –  English for Special Purposes
L1 – Refers to a student’s first language. This can also be referred to as “home language.”
L2 – Refers to a student’s second language.
LEP –  Limited English Proficient
NABE – National Association for Bilingual Education
TESOL – Teachers of Students of Other Languages
WIDA – World-class Instructional Design and Assessment

Definitions of Common Terms

Academic Language: 
Academic language refers to the oral, written, auditory, and visual language proficiency required to learn effectively in schools and academic programs—i.e., it’s the language used in classroom lessons, books, tests, and assignments, and it’s the language that students are expected to learn and achieve fluency in. Frequently contrasted with “conversational” or “social” language, academic language includes a variety of formal-language skills—such as vocabulary, grammar, punctuation, syntax, discipline-specific terminology, or rhetorical conventions—that allow students to acquire knowledge and academic skills while also successfully navigating school policies, assignments, expectations, and cultural norms. Even though students may be highly intelligent and capable, for example, they may still struggle in a school setting if they have not yet mastered certain terms and concepts, or learned how to express themselves and their ideas in expected ways (Hidden Curriculum, 2014).
Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills refer to “social” language.  BICS is what students need to know in order to function in everyday life and to communicate on a very basic level.  When a Person has BICS we say that he/she is “conversationally” fluent (McNeil, 2015).
Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency which requires students to demonstrate understanding and comprehension of academic terms.  Students move from basic conversation skills to actually understanding and participating in the regular classroom (McNeil, 2015).
Code switching:
Using two different languages within the same conversation. The term is used “to describe any switch among languages in the course of a conversation, whether at the level of words, sentences or blocks of speech. Code-switching most often occurs when bilinguals are in the presence of other bilinguals who speak the same languages” (NCELA website).
Cognates are words in two languages that share a similar meaning, spelling, and pronunciation. While English may share very few cognates with a language like Chinese, 30-40% of all words in English have a related word in Spanish. For Spanish-speaking ELLs, cognates are an obvious bridge to the English language (¡Colorin Colorado!)
Dominant language:
The language in which the speaker has greater proficiency and/or uses more often (NCELA, 2015).
Dual Language Learners:
Dual language learners (DLL), the term currently used to refer to students or children who are learning two or more languages, either simultaneously or sequentially.
  • Simultaneous language learners are those who learn two or more languages at the same time from birth or who start learning a second language prior to age three. Additionally:
    • These learners often master both languages, each of which is considered to be their “first language.”
    • Though both languages will develop at the same pace, the pace for learning two or more languages might be slower than that of a child who is learning only one language.
  • Sequential language learners are those who begin to learn an additional language after they have turned three years of age. In addition:

By the age of 36 months, these learners have often reached at least basic mastery in their first language. Basic mastery usually indicates that they have learned roughly 3,000 words and the use of simple phrases (similar to Stage 3 in the table below).  Many preschool children who communicate effectively in their home language go through the stages of second language acquisition, more information about which can be found in the table below (IRIS Center, 2015).

Table of Second Language Acquisition Stages
Click on image to download Table of Second Language Acquisition Stages.
Limited English Proficiency (LEP):
Individuals who do not speak English as their primary language and who have a limited ability to read, speak, write, or understand English can be limited English proficient, or “LEP” (
Second Language Acquisition:
The process whereby non-native speakers learn a new language; the speed and process is determined by the type and purpose of the language being acquired (IRIS Center, 2015).
Sheltered Instruction:
Instruction delivered outside of the general education curriculum. The teachers use simple English to convey academic information. The grade level content is still taught, but the students are all English Language Learners. This allows the students to collaborate with students at their proficiency level on academic content. (Brown University, 2017).

Social Language: see BICS

Tiered Vocabulary:
  • Tier 1: Tier one consists of the most basic words. These words rarely require direct instruction and typically do not have multiple meanings. Sight words, nouns, verbs, adjectives, and early reading words occur at this level. Examples of tier one words are: book, girl, sad, run, dog, and orange. There about 8,000 word families in English included in tier one.
  • Tier 2: Tier two consists of high frequency words that occur across a variety of domains. That is, these words occur often in mature language situations such as adult conversations and literature, and therefore strongly influence speaking and reading. Tier two words are the most important words for direct instruction because they are good indicators of a student’s progress through school. Examples of tier two words are: masterpiece, fortunate, industrious, measure, and benevolent. There are about 7,000 word families in English (or 700 per year) in tier two.
  • Tier 3: Tier three consists of low-frequency words that occur in specific domains. Domains include subjects in school, hobbies, occupations, geographic regions, technology, weather, etc. We usually learn these words when a specific need arises, such as learning amino acid during a chemistry lesson. Examples of tier three words are: economics, isotope, asphalt, Revolutionary War, and crepe. The remaining 400,000 words in English fall in this tier (Hutton, 2008).

References and Resources

Brown University (2017). What is Sheltered Instruction? Retrieved from…

¡Colorin Colorado! (2017).  Using cognates to develop comprehension in English.  Retrieved from…

Hidden curriculum (2014, August 26). In S. Abbott (Ed.), The glossary of education reform. Retrieved from

The IRIS Center (2015). Dual Language Learners with Disabilities: Supporting Young Children in the Classroom. Retrieved from

Limited English Proficiency (LEP).  (2017) A federal interagency website.

National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition (NCELA) (2015).  English learner tool kit. Retrieved from

TESOL International Organization. (2005). Difference or disability? Retrieved on November 13, 2015, from