What is the Relationship Between English Learners and Immigrant Students?

Not the Same

Often, within educational settings immigrant students and English Learners are thought of as interchangeable. While there is considerable overlap, they are not one and the same. Some students immigrate from countries where English is the language of instruction (e.g., Nigeria or the Philippines) although they may speak another language at home.

Unfortunately, there is evidence that students who speak with accents or are new to academic English often receive less engaging and rigorous learning experiences than their white counterparts. Additionally, there are also school and cultural norms that might impact a student’s level of participation in the classroom. An example of this situation would occur in cultures in which students respectfully listen to the teacher and do not ask or answer questions during class time. By contrast, in the United States instructors frequently ask both indirect and direct questions, a teaching strategy that could be a new experience for immigrant students.

Other students may be second-generation citizens but may not have not been exposed to English until they have entered the school system. The majority of immigrant-origin students, however, must learn (at least one) new language as part of their journey to their new land; therefore, second-language instruction is a critical component that is necessary to ensure their academic success.

Differences in Practices

Frequently, students are placed in some kind of second-language instructional setting as they enter their new schools. Some are first-generation immigrant students, and others were born in the U.S. but enter schools having had limited exposure to English. Some students are provided some form of English as a Second Language (ESL) or bilingual education, but others are not. Across various schools, districts, and states, students are transitioned from one program to another, often with very little rhyme or reason for the transition.


Research considering the efficacy of second-language instruction and bilingual programs often reveals contradictory results. This outcome should not be surprising given that there are nearly as many models of bilingual and language-assistance programs featuring a wide array of practices and philosophical approaches as there are districts.

Well-designed and well-implemented programs produce good educational results and buffer at-risk students from dropping out by easing transitions, providing academic scaffolding, and furnishing a sense of community. However, there is significant disparity in the quality of instruction among settings. Although high-quality programs have been found to produce excellent results, not surprisingly, those plagued with problems produce less than optimal results. Many bilingual programs face real challenges in their implementation, including inadequate resources, uncertified personnel, and poor administrative support.