Wednesday, 09 September 2015 15:26

Supporting English Language Learners in Post-Secondary: Understanding the Learner Demographics

Written by Candace Lewko

This series of articles will be devoted to supporting English Language Leaners (ELLs) in post-secondary. The focus of the articles will be on students who have come from English language training programs and who aspire to study in post-secondary. The ultimate aim of the series will be to raise awareness of ELLs bound for post-secondary, such as who they are and what their learning needs may be, but more so to provide practical teaching strategies that will enable positive and successful learning in higher education programs.

As post-secondary institutions begin to diversify, more and more attention will need to be paid to supporting ELLs in higher education. ELL demographics range from international study students to immigrant refugees. The students come from varied ethnic, socioeconomic and educational backgrounds, and levels of proficiency in English. Because students are limited by their English ability, such as minimal English skills and academic preparedness, this will make the path to higher education all the more challenging. The key to success in academic studies and, more importantly, a successful transition to post-secondary, will be to ensure that students receive the appropriate academic preparation and on-going support in navigating through institutional processes.

A typical adult learner who is transitioning from English language training to college-level programs will need support in overcoming barriers. The primary barrier affecting successful transition is language-related, which is mostly attributed to past educational experiences. Other factors influencing second or additional language acquisition and academic preparedness are the length of time lived in Canada, cultural influences, and literacy in first language. Some lack language and study skills, and are even at low literacy levels. ELLs will require flexible and tailored delivery services in order to succeed in the training they are pursing. Especially when teaching in multi-cultural or multi-lingual settings, instructors will need to broaden their delivery models and be mindful of creating meaningful, innovative and culturally sensitive learning experiences. Understanding key differences between the student demographics, such as the difference between the learning needs of an international student and a refugee status student, is the first step in establishing a comprehensible learning environment, and ultimately success in post-secondary.  

To begin with, English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) is a term broadly used to categorize an individual who is learning English as a second (or additional) language.

Here are a few other examples of English language learner designations:

Learning Lab

The primary focus of this article will be on the ESL and ESL Literacy (or LIFE learner) designations.

Profile of an ‘ESL’ student

ESL students come to Canada to for a variety of reason, but mainly to study in English language training programs, and to later transition to an academic program of study. Some students may even have come as practicing professionals, such as lawyers, engineers, or nurses. Others may have participated in international student exchange programs. Regardless of the purpose for studying English, the uniqueness of the ESL student is that they completed secondary schooling in their home country. One other key factor that distinguishes this student demographic from other designations is literacy in first language. Read about Kanako who would like to study in an interior design program:

Kanako went to school in her home country of Japan. She attended elementary, junior, and senior high school, and graduated with honours. Kanako can read and write in her mother tongue with high proficiency.

Kanako is now attending a vocational college in Japan and wishes to transfer to a Canadian post-secondary institution to study interior design. She has learned to read, write, and speak English, although she is not fluent. She relies heavily on translation, especially when reading and writing English.

What makes Kanako unique? Kanako is an ESL student who is literate in her first language. She has experience of going to school in Japan. Although, she has low listening and speaking ability, and relies heavily on translation, she can read and write with a high level of competence; this will help her with acquisition of post-secondary -level, academic content.  

Profile of an ESL Literacy student

ESL Literacy Learners are students who come from limited educational experiences in their home countries. They have a basic knowledge of reading and writing in their first language, and are learning to read and write for the FIRST TIME in English. They speak multiple languages, other than their mother tongue. They are sophisticated speakers of English, and can carry on a conversation with ease. They also have acute listening skills, but face challenges with reading and writing tasks. Read about Markus, who aspires to be in post-secondary, but is still practicing reading and writing skills, so he can apply to an engineering program:

Markus is from Sudan. Due to political unrest in his country, he had little opportunity to go to school. In the middle of his school year, he and his family was expulsed to Kenya. In Kenya, Markus attended part of middle school; he never attended high school. Instruction was held partly in his tribal language, and much of the content he was learning was translated into English. He never learned to read and write in his mother tongue. Because of his family’s sudden migration to Canada, Markus could not finish his education in his Kenya.  

Because Markus’ formal education was interrupted, he is considered to be a student with limited literacy.
So, what is the KEY to understanding the difference between Kanako and Markus?

Where ESL student are generally literate in their first language which makes second or additional language acquisition all the more attainable, ESL Literacy students are learning to read and write for the first time in an additional language.

Another way to look at it would be:

Learning to read (literacy) vs. Reading to learn (academic)

Markus is learning to read and Kanako is reading to learn.

And just a hint! When it comes to providing learning strategies or developing teaching strategies to assist Markus and Kanako:

One size does not fit all!...When we take into account their educational backgrounds and prior learning experiences

An upcoming article will focus on the myths and realities of ESL learners, and some teaching and learning strategies you can use in the learning environment and how instructors support the academic needs of students who are still learning an additional language after their transition into an academic-learning context. Stay tuned!


Bow Valley College. (2009). Learning for LIFE: An ESL literacy handbook. Calgary AB: Bow Valley College.

Condelli, L., Wrigley, H.S., & Yoon, K.S. (2009). What works for adult literacy students of English as a second language. In Stephen Reder and John Bynner (Eds.), Tracking adult literacy and numeracy skills: Findings from longitudinal research. New York, NY: Routledge.

Li, G., & Edwards, P.A. (Eds.). (2010). Best practices in ELL instruction. New, York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Li, G., & Protacio, M.S. (2010). Best practices in professional development for teachers of ELLs. In Guofang Li & Patricia A. Edwards (Eds.), Best practices in ELL instruction (pp. 353-380). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Roessingh, H. & Douglas, R.S. (2012). Educational Outcomes of English Language Learners at University. Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 42(1), 80-97. Retrieved from

Van de Craats, Kurvers, & Young- Scholten (2006).Research on low-educated second language and literacy acquisition. In I. Van de Craats, J. Kurvers, & M. Young-Scholten (eds.), Low-educated and Second Language Literacy Acquisition: Proceedings of the Inaugural Symposium—Tilburg 05.Utrecht, The Netherlands: LOT.

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