Five Quick Ways to tell if Your Student is an English Language Learner

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Even the most proficient ELL students struggle with language  fundamentals such as preposition and gerund use that native speakers acquire intuitively as children. It takes years of immersion in English for nonnative speakers to acquire the same instinct for using a gerund, for example, and not an infinitive, after the particular verb, “considered”:  she considered moving to New York, not she considered to move to New York. While there are other ways to tell if a student’s struggles are related to the process of English Language Learning, the following five errors are not usually made by native speakers, but rather, by English Language Learners only:

  1. Consistent misuse of prepositions: A preposition is a word that creates a relationship between nouns, pronouns, and phrases and other words in a sentence. ELLs have problems in this area because many prepositions are part of verb phrases, idioms, and colloquial expressions that change meaning when translated literally. For example, to say “it depends on …” in Spanish would be “depende de…” having a literal translation of “it depends of” so a native Spanish speaker might use “of” instead of “on.”
  2. Usage mistakes: Usage mistakes, also a problem of literal translation, do not necessarily break grammar rules but do create unnatural and awkward, even nonsensical constructions that can prevent readers from comprehending the ELL writer’s idea. A usage mistake refers to wording or phrasing that a native speaker would never use to express the same idea. For example, an ELL might write, “I am compromising my girlfriend” to mean “I am getting engaged to my girlfriend.” Additionally, the saying “it’s raining cats and dogs” would confuse any ELL who hasn’t been taught that this means it’s raining hard.
  3. Mistakes in the use of articles: The misuse of “a,” “an,” and “the” is one of the most telling signs that a person is not a native speaker of English. Native speakers acquire the correct use of articles instinctively as children whereas English Language Learners must learn article use in English after acquiring their own first language, which may not have articles or use them in the same way. An ELL student might therefore say, “Kaplan is great University” or “Kaplan University has the online program.”
  4. Incorrect use of gerunds and infinitives: A native speaker will intuitively know when to use a gerund or an infinitive whereas an ELL student usually has to memorize which verbs are followed by a gerund, which are followed by an infinitive, and which can be followed by either one. For example, an ELL student may write, “I practice to write English” instead of “I practice writing English,” and they may not recognize the different meanings of statements such as “I stopped to smoke cigarettes” and “I stopped smoking cigarettes.”
  5. Word order and word forms: Sentences in English have a fixed word order. In fact, word order in English is more important than it is in many other languages. Oftentimes, ELL students produce sentences that sound strange to the native speaker’s ear because the order of the words in the sentences is wrong. For example, an ELL student may write something like “Went to Maria to work” instead of saying, “Maria went to work,” or an ELL student may say, “That girl beautiful came to see me yesterday.” Additionally, forming words incorrectly such as “He drove his new car careful” or “She disagreement with her parents” is another flashing sign that the writer is an English Language Learner.

Identifying the English Language Learners in your courses is important because not being able to produce these language forms may also signify struggles with reading and comprehending the course content. Although the five language fundamentals listed here take years to acquire even with formal instruction, they are nonetheless useful indicators that your student’s challenges are related to language learning. Please reach out to your ELL students, and share your observations and concerns and listen to theirs. Let them know that you are available to answer their questions and to provide further explanations of concepts or assignments. Additionally, recommend the student visit the ELL Support area of the KU Writing Center: ELL outreach and referral information for faculty is also available on the Writing Center Faculty Resources page: The Writing Center is here for you and your ELL students!

Millie and Chrissine, KUWC ELL Tutors


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