English Language Learning (ELL)

Language proficiency is one of the most important keys to success as an international student.  These language skills are not only necessary for academic success but also important for adapting and integrating socially. Each student learns a new language at a different rate, and proficiency in speaking the new language will usually come before reading and writing in another language. 

English Language Learners (ELL) are students “who are learning the language of instruction at the same time as they are learning the curriculum” (www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/curriculum/secondary/esl.html , p. 3).  

Nearly all international students coming to Ontario are English as a Second Language (ESL) students, that is “students whose first language is a language other than English or is a variety of English significantly different from that used for instruction in Ontario schools. Students in these programs have age-appropriate first-language literacy skills and educational backgrounds.” (www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/curriculum/secondary/esl.html, p. 6) 

While the majority of international students will have had some instruction in English language, most require significant support to develop the level of language proficiency required to be successful academically and to adapt to Canadian culture.  All Ontario schools offer a wide variety of student support services to assist students to become more proficient in the language used in their school and community.

Language Assessment and Placement

All new international students are assessed for English or French language proficiency. 

Assessment and Placement Process

Often the language proficiency of international students will be assessed prior to arrival in Ontario. This is usually completed through an online assessment tool and will provide an indication of the appropriate placement of the student in an ESL program in an Ontario school.  

Shortly after arriving in Ontario, the student will participate in an assessment through the local school board. The assessment may have several components, but usually there is a focus on reading, writing and spoken language proficiency (and often there is a math proficiency component as well).  There is usually some type of spoken interview as part of this process.  Based on the results of this “in person” assessment, the student will be placed in an appropriate ESL program at a local school which offers ESL programs.  Note that some school boards provide opportunities for students to attend special intensive English programs prior to the start of the school year in order to assist students in improving English language skills before entering school in September.

Levels of English Language Proficiency

The following chart indicates the different ESL levels:

ESLAO - Beginner

  • Understand, read and retell simple stories
  • Give and respond to straightforward directions and instructions
  • Write assertive, negative and interrogative sentences
  • Write a short structured composition following a model 

ESLBO - High Begginer

  • Maintain face-to-face conversations on familiar topics
  • Use short sentences to give opinions
  • Skim a paragraph to find main idea and scan text to find specific information
  • Write simple and compound sentences in answering written questions
  • Write a short composition following a teacher’s outline 

ESLCO - Intermediate

  • Take part in conversations on a range of topics
  • Take notes from a passage using a graphic organizer in preparation for writing
  • Identify a writer’s or character’s point of view
  • Use a variety of simple, compound and complex sentences with some accuracy
  • Write short expository paragraphs in response to a reading 

ESLDO - High Intermediate

  • Discuss or explain ideas or issues
  • Identify and explain literary elements (theme character, plot and setting)
  • Identify facts and opinions
  • Write a passage of 3 or more paragraphs to develop a central idea 

ESLEO - Advanced

  • Express, support and elaborate a point of view
  • Analyze literary elements (themes, character, plot, setting)
  • Infer meaning of unfamiliar words from context 
  • Write a coherent response to literature which analyses, interprets, and evaluates information and ideas

Pathways to English 

The following chart provides an overview of the pathways most ESL students take before entering mainstream English courses.  ESL students will follow variations of this sequence based on individual progress.

Chart adapted from (www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/curriculum/secondary/esl.html, p. 14)  

Need to learn more about ESL programs in Ontario public schools?