What You Need to Know About ELLs: FAQs

A smiling boy and a girl with their arms around each other.

How many ELLs are attending U.S. schools?  How many of our ELLs were born in the U.S.? Learn the answers to these questions and more from our fast facts below, compiled from recent research briefs and articles.

Over the past twenty years, the population of English language learners (ELLs) has grown dramatically throughout the United States.  ELLs are a diverse group whose needs may vary significantly. Learn more about the current ELL population from these fast facts compiled below! Additional information can be found in the documents cited as well as related resources:


How many ELLs are there in the U.S.?

In 2020, there were more than 4.9 million ELLs in U.S. public schools, comprising nearly 10% of students in U.S. public schools.  ELLs are the fastest-growing student population in the country, growing 60% in the last decade, as compared with 7% growth of the general student population (Grantmakers for Education, 2013).

Where do ELLs live?

There are ELLs attending schools in all 50 states.  ELLs are still heavily concentrated in states such as California, Arizona, Florida, Texas, New York, and Illinois. California has more than 1.5 million ELLs, who comprise nearly 25% of the state’s total K-12 population (Ruiz Soto, Hooker, and Batalova, 2015).

However, a number of states around the country, particularly in the Midwest and Southeast, have seen a dramatic increase in the numbers of ELL students enrolled statewide in the past decade.  For example, in 11 states, the ELL population growth has increased in recent years by more than 200%, and in some cases 400% (Indiana) or even 800% (South Carolina). Other states with recent dramatic growth include Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, Alabama, and Arkansas (Batalova and McHugh, 2010a).

What languages do ELLs speak?

Most ELLs – more than 70% – speak Spanish.  However, as a group, ELLs speak more than 400 languages, and the most common languages spoken by students vary by state.  For example, in 2012, there were five states where Spanish was not the primary language: Alaska (Yupik), Hawaii (Ilokano), Montana (German), Maine (Somali), and Vermont (Nepali) (Batalova and McHugh, 2010b).

For detailed information about languages by state, see our State Resources section as well as this fact sheet from the Migration Policy Institute.

Are most ELLs immigrants?

No.  While some ELLs are immigrants and newcomers to this country, the majority of ELLs enrolled in U.S. schools are born in the U.S. and as such, they are American citizens:  85 percent of pre-kindergarten to 5th grade ELL students and 62 percent of 6th to 12th grade ELL students are born in the U.S. (Zong and Batalova, 2015).

Are ELLs more likely to attend urban schools?

Yes, ELLs are still more likely to attend urban schools, but ELL populations are growing rapidly in suburban and rural districts across the country in areas that typically have not served ELLs in the past (Rix, n.d.)  Growth of immigrant populations can be tied to any number of factors; in the Midwest, for example, industries such as meat-processing plants have served as a catalyst for rapid increases in local communities.

What are some of ELLs’ strengths and challenges?

ELLs’ needs, strengths, and challenges can vary dramatically, even within the same classroom or among students from the same country.  Having an effective way to evaluate students’ needs is crucial to helping students succeed.  Some of ELLs’ strengths may include:

  • Strong literacy skills in their native language
  • Academic skills and content area knowledge developed in their native language
  • Strong family support and commitment to children’s future
  • Strong interest in education
  • High levels of personal responsibility, resilience, resourcefulness, and commitment to success

Some of their challenges may include:

  • Little or no formal schooling
  • High levels of mobility in moving between schools (especially in the case of students from migrant farmworker families)
  • Lack of access to effective, consistent language instruction, as in the case of students who have experienced bilingual education during one year and then English immersion in another
  • Limited practice developing and using academic language
  • Personal responsibilities that occupy hours during or outside of school, such as caring for siblings, working one or more jobs, and translating for families

How long does it take to learn English?

Most experts agree that it takes 5-7 years to acquire academic English, the language needed to succeed academically and professionally.  Students may acquire social language (the language used on the playground or in the cafeteria) much more rapidly, but there is frequently a gap between social and academic English.  In addition, newcomer ELLs may go through what is known as a “silent period,” in which they say very little but listen carefully to everything happening around them.  Even though they are not speaking during this period, they are still in an important stage of language development (Roseberry-McKibbin and Brice, n.d.).

Who are long-term ELLs?

Long-term ELLs are students who have been in U.S. schools for more than six years without attaining academic language proficiency.  It is estimated that 60% of ELLs in grades 6-12 are long-term ELLs (Grantmakers in Education, 2013).



American Immigration Council. 2014. “Refugees: A Fact Sheet.” http://www.immigrationpolicy.org/just-facts/refugees-fact-sheet

Baird, Ashley Simpson. “Dual Language Learners Reader Post #2: Who Are Dual Language Learners?” EdCentral.  May 18, 2015. http://www.edcentral.org/dllreader2/

Batalova, Jeanne and Margie McHugh. 2010a.  Number and Growth of Students in U.S. Schools in Need of English Instruction. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute.


Batalova, Jeanne and Margie McHugh. 2010b.  Top Languages Spoken by English Language Learners Nationally and by State. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute.


Bridging Refugee Youth & Children’s Services. Refugee Children in U.S. Schools: A Toolkit for Teachers and  School  Personnel. http://www.brycs.org/publications/schools-toolkit.cfm

Colorín Colorado & American Federation of Teachers.  2015. “Unaccompanied Children in Schools: What You Need to Know.” http://www.colorincolorado.org/ell-basics/special-populations/unaccompanied-children/background-information

Grantmakers for Education. 2013. Educating English Language Learners: Grantmaking Strategies for Closing America’s Other Achievement Gap.  https://edfunders.org/sites/default/files/Educating%20English%20Language%20Learners_April%202013.pdf

Rix, Kat. ELLs in the Heartland. Scholastic. http://www.scholastic.com/browse/article.jsp?id=3754209

Roseberry-McKibbin, Celeste, and Brice, Alejandro. “Acquiring English as a Second Language: What’s Normal, What’s Not.” American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. http://www.asha.org/public/speech/development/easl.htm

Ruiz Soto, Ariel G., Sarah Hooker, and Jeanne Batalova. 2015.  States and Districts with the Highest Number and Share of English Language Learners. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute.http://www.migrationpolicy.org/research/states-and-districts-highest-number-and-share-english-language-learners

White House Task Force on New Americans. 2015. Strengthening Communities by Welcoming All Residents. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/sites/default/files/docs/final_tf_newamericans_report_4-14-15_clean.pdf

Zong, Jie, and Batalova, Jeanne.  2015. “The Limited English Proficient Population in the United States.” Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute. http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/limited-english-proficient-population-united-states#Age,%20Race,%20and%20Ethnicity


You are welcome to print copies or republish materials for non-commercial use as long as credit is given to Colorín Colorado and the author(s). For commercial use, please contact [email protected].

More by this author

Donate to Colorin Colorado

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.