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ERIC Identifier: ED289360
Publication Date: 1987-12-00
Author: McKeon, Denise
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics Washington DC.

Different Types of ESL Programs

By the year 2000, it is anticipated that the number of limited-English-proficient (LEP) students aged 5-14 in the United States will reach approximately 3.4 million (Oxford, Pol, Lopez, Stupp, Gendell, and Peng, 1981). These are students who lack the necessary English skills for immediate success in an all-English curriculum. To date, nearly one teacher in four has had LEP students in class (O'Malley and Waggoner, 1984).

In an effort to meet the needs of these students, school districts have instituted a variety of programs to provide instruction in English as a second language (ESL), each of which appears to be as different as the students themselves. However, regardless of program design, the minimal goal of an ESL program should be to provide each student with the English skills necessary to function successfully in an academic setting.


Several variables influence the kind of program that will be designed to operate in any given district: (1) student population to be served, (2) individual student characteristics, and (3) district resources.

--District Demographics. Districts find themselves with many varieties of LEP students. Some districts have large, relatively stable populations of LEP students from a single language or cultural background. Others have large groups of LEP students representing several language backgrounds. Still other districts may experience a sudden increase in the number of LEP students from a given group: the number of Vietnamese, Hmong, Cubans, and Haitians in many districts increased significantly in direct response to social and political changes in students' countries of origin. On the other hand, some districts have very small numbers of LEP students from many different language groups. Some report more than 100 language groups with two or three LEP students from each, scattered across grade levels and across schools. Characteristics of these populations--including the numbers and kinds of students per language group, the size of language groups anbd the mobility of their members, as well as geographic and grade distribution of students--influence the type of ESL instructional program design that a district will develop to serve its students.

--Individual Student Characteristics. Characteristics of individual students can influence ESL program type. Some students enter U.S. schools with strong academic preparation in their native language. They have attended school in their own country, have learned to read and write well in their first language, and are at comparable (or better) levels in such content areas as mathematics. Other students may not have had such extensive academic preparation. Due to social, economic, or cultural factors, their schooling may have been interrupted or never begun (Ovando and Collier, 1985). Some students at every age level come with little or no exposure to reading and writing, unable in some instances to do even basic mathematical computations. Designing an instructional program to serve students such as these becomes increasingly complicated.

--District Resources. Availability of resources varies from district to district. Some have trained ESL personnel on site, while others are scrambling to find someone to work with a few students on a volunteer basis. A few districts can draw upon a large, stable community group for bilingual education programs.

Some districts are experiencing declining enrollments, freeing up classroom space to allow for such designs as magnet schools or resource centers. Other districts are bursting at the seams, making it seem impossible to find classroom space to house an ESL program. Thus, the capability of individual districts to provide human and material resources will greatly influence the type of ESL program organization that will be developed.


ESL program designs can be broadly categorized as either stand-alone ESL or ESL-plus. In general, stand-alone ESL programs group LEP students together and instruct them in a manner similar to that used in foreign language classes. The focus of the program is primarily linguistic. Stand-alone ESL programs operate solely for LEP students who are taken out of their regular classroom environment and placed in a setting where their need for instruction in and about English can be addressed in a special way (Ohio State Dept. of Education, 1987). Stand-alone ESL programs usually operate for small portions of each school day, although in some less-than-ideal circumstances, they may operate less, with students receiving special instruction only two or three times a week.

ESL-plus programs may include a component of special instruction in and about English (like the stand-alone programs) but generally go beyond the linguistic scope to focus on content area instruction, which may be given in the student's native language or in English. ESL-plus programs generally serve students for a longer portion of the instructional day than stand-alone programs, and in some instances represent the student's entire instructional program.


--Pull-out (generally used in an elementary setting). The student is pulled out of the regular clasroom for special instruction in ESL. This pull-out instruction may be provided by teachers who are assigned to just one building (where the number of students needing instruction is large enough), or it may be provided by one teacher who travels to several schools to serve small numbers of children scattered throughout the district (Chamot and Stewner-Manzanares, 1985). Students from different first-language backgrounds may be separated into groups for instruction. The teacher may or may not be trained in ESL (O'Malley and Waggoner, 1984), and is generally not bilingual.

--Class period (generally used in a middle or secondary school setting). Students receive ESL instruction during a regular class period, generally receiving credit for the course, just like any other course taken in a departmentalized setting. Students may be grouped according to their level of English proficiency. The teacher is generally not bilingual (Ohio State Dept. of Education, 1987).

-- Resource Center. A variation of the pull-out design, the resource center brings students together from several classes or several schools. The resource center generally is an "enriched" version of the pull-out design, with materials and staff being concentrated in one location to provide a wider variety of language instruction and experiences. Students may be pulled out of their regular classrooms for one or more periods of ESL instruction. The resource center is generally staffed with at least one full-time ESL teacher, who may or may not be bilingual (Ohio State Dept. of Education, 1987).


--Bilingual Education Programs (used either at the elementary or secondary level (Seelye and Navarro, 1977). Bilingual programs are classified as "early transition" or "late transition" programs, depending on the criteria used to determine whether students can succeed in an all-English curriculum. In early exit programs, students are mainstreamed primarily on the basis of oral English proficiency. In "late transition," students are mainstreamed on the basis of English proficiency--including reading and writing--sufficient for sustaining academic achievement in an all-English classroom.

In both early and late transition programs, students receive instruction that develops their native language skills, instruction in ESL, and content area instruction in varying degrees in English or the first language. Students are grouped according to first language, and teachers are bilingual (Hernandez-Chavez, 1984).

--Structured Immersion Programs (used either in elementary or secondary level schools). Immersion programs include, in varying degrees, development of the student's first language skills and content area instruction in English. No structured ESL component is included. While students may address the teacher in either their first language or English, teachers (who are bilingual) respond generally in English. Content area instruction is based on the notion of "comprehensible input," in which the teacher uses only the vocabulary and structures that can be understood by students (Ramirez, 1986).

--Sheltered English or Content-Based Programs (used primarily to date with secondary school students). These "alternative" content classes allow LEP speakers from different backgrounds with some English proficiency to be grouped into specific content classes especially designed to provide them with "comprehensible input" (see previous section). A trained ESL teacher who is not necessarily bilingual provides instruction. Sheltered English or content-based programs may parallel virtually all mainstream academic curricular offerings or may consist of only one or two subjects (Chamot and Stewner-Manzanares, 1985).

--High Intensity Language Training (HILT) Programs (used primarily at the secondary level). In a HILT design, LEP students of various language backgrounds are grouped for a significant portion of the school day. Students receive intensive training in ESL, usually for three hours a day in the first year of instruction, less in succeeding years (Chamot and Stewner-Manzanares, 1985). Placement of students into regular classrooms is accomplished on a subject-by-subject basis and usually includes initial mainstreaming into linguistically undemanding classes such as music, physical education, and art. Some HILT models may incorporate content-based or sheltered English classes as an additional feature of program design. Teachers are trained in ESL and are not necessarily bilingual.


The design of any ESL program must take so many factors into account that it is difficult to decide which program organization is best for a given set of circumstances. What can be said, however, is that the best program organization is one which:

--is tailored to meet the linguistic, academic, and affective needs of students;

--provides LEP students with the instruction necessary to allow them to progress through school at a rate commensurate with their native-English speaking peers; and

--makes the best use of district and community resources.


Chamot, A. U., and G. Stewner-Manzanares. A SUMMARY OF CURRENT LITERATURE ON ENGLISH AS A SECOND LANGUAGE. PART C: RESEARCH AGENDA. Rosslyn, VA: InterAmerica Research Associates, 1985. ED 261 539.

Hernandez-Chavez, E. "The Inadequacy of English Immersion Education as an Educational Approach for Language Minority Students in the United States." In STUDIES ON IMMERSION EDUCATION. Sacramento, CA: California State Dept. of Education, 1984.

Ohio State Dept. of Education. STRATEGIES FOR DEVELOPING LANGUAGE PROGRAMS FOR NATIONAL ORIGIN MINORITY STUDENTS (rev. ed.). Columbus, OH: Ohio State Dept. of Education, 1987. ED 255 034.

O'Malley, J. M., and D. Waggoner. "Public School Teacher Preparation and the Teaching of ESL." TESOL NEWSLETTER 18 (1984): 1, 18-22.

Ovando, C. J., and V. P. Collier. BILINGUAL AND ESL CLASSROOMS. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1985.

Oxford, R., L. Pol, D. Lopez, P. Stupp, M. Gendell, and S. Peng. "Projections of Non-English Background and Limited-English-Proficient Persons in the United States to the Year 2000: Educational Planning in the Demographic Context." NABE JOURNAL 5 (1981): 1-30.

Ramirez, J. D. "Comparing Structured English Immersion and Bilingual Education: First Year Results of a National Study." AMERICAN JOURNAL OF EDUCATION 95 (1986): 122-49.

Seelye, H. N., and B. N. Navarro. A GUIDE TO THE SELECTION OF BILINGUAL EDUCATION PROGRAM DESIGNS. Arlington Heights, IL: Bilingual Education Service Center, 1977.

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