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:
- Infographics on the Nation's 5 Million English Language Learners: A Vast Pool Of Talent, At Risk (NPR)
- 10 Assumptions to Rethink About English Language Learners (Education Week)
- 6 facts about English language learners in U.S. public schools (Pew Research Center)
- Our Nation's English Learners (Ed.gov)
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).
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).