Ontario schools have some of the most multilingual student populations in the world. These students bring a rich diversity of experience to the classroom. When they start school in Ontario, however, many of these students are entering a new linguistic and cultural environment. All teachers share in the responsibility for these students' English-language development, and care must be taken in assessing these students' learning.

When assessing English language learners (students who are learning English as a second language or additional language in English-language schools), educators must carefully consider a student's language acquisition needs and possible special education learning needs. As researchers in this field have noted, “Sometimes characteristics of typical ELLs [English language learners] look similar to the learning difficulties experienced by students with special education needs. It is necessary to gain more information and to go through a systematic and focused process to determine the root of each student's difficulties, and the most appropriate and effective method to address his/her needs.”footnote 1 Educators with expertise in supporting English language learners, such as English as a second language (ESL) teachers and English literacy development (ELD) teachers, should be a part of all in-school discussions.

English language learners need to learn the language of instruction at the same time as they are working towards meeting learning expectations. Students who do not speak English, or who speak a variety of English that is significantly different from the variety used for instruction in Ontario schools, may require focused educational supports to assist them in attaining proficiency in English. Every curriculum document, including The Kindergarten Program (2016), has a section on supporting English language learners.

During their first few years in Ontario schools, English language learners may receive support through one of two distinct programs from teachers who specialize in meeting their language-learning needs: ESL programs or ELD programs. Even with such support, however, rates of language acquisition vary: it can take considerably longer for some students than for others to become fluent in English. In a supportive learning environment, most students will develop oral language proficiency quickly. Most English language learners who have developed oral proficiency in everyday English will nevertheless require instructional scaffolding to meet curriculum expectations. Research has shown that it takes five to seven years for most English language learners to catch up to their English-speaking peers in their ability to use English for academic purposes.

The step: Steps to English Proficiency (2015) framework is one of a number of resources designed to assist teachers in supporting a growing demographic of English language learners in Ontario schools. As a framework for assessing and monitoring the language acquisition and literacy development of English language learners across the Ontario curriculum, the step resource can be used for both initial and ongoing assessment purposes. Information gathered using this resource can help in-school teams in their review of an English language learner's progress.

Some English language learners may have had limited or interrupted formal schooling. Students who have large gaps in education, or, in some cases, no previous access to education, may appear to have special education needs. In assessing these students, educators should take the following factors into consideration:

  • current access to programming, such as ELD programs, to address their literacy and numeracy needs as well as their need to develop proficiency in English
  • educational background (e.g., previous school experiences, including length of school day; attendance patterns; languages spoken)
  • medical history (e.g., need for hearing or vision testing)

Where special education needs have been identified, either in the initial assessment or through later assessments, students are eligible for ESL or ELD services and special education services simultaneously. For more information on policy concerning English language learners, see English Language Learners/ESL and ELD Programs and Services: Policies and Procedures for Ontario Elementary and Secondary Schools, Kindergarten to Grade 12 (2007). For additional resource information, see Supporting English Language Learners: A Practical Guide for Ontario Educators, Grades 1 to 8 (2008).


  • footnote[1] Back to paragraph Vicki Adelson, Esther Geva, and Christie Fraser, Identification, Assessment, and Instruction of English Language Learners with Learning Difficulties in the Elementary and Intermediate Grades (Toronto: OISE, University of Toronto, 2014), p. 2.