What You Need to Know About ELLs: Fast Facts

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

For related information, take a look at the following:

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 the resources listed at the end of this article.

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

In 2012-2013, there were 4.85 million ELLs in U.S. schools, comprising nearly 10% of students in U.S. public schools (Ruiz Soto, Hooker, and Batalova, 2015).  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 nearly 150 languages (Baird, 2015), 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.

How many refugees come to the U.S. each year and where are they being resettled?

The U.S. has about 350 refugee resettlement agencies across nearly all 50 states (Bridging Refugee Youth & Children’s Services, n.d.).  Some common destinations for refugee families are the Twin Cities in Minneapolis, Burlington, VT, St. Louis, MO, and Dallas, TX.  The numbers of refugees admitted to the U.S. vary from year to year.  Recently, the annual refugee admissions ceiling has been 70,000, with one-third of those admitted aged 0-17.  Top origin countries for refugees admitted to the U.S. are Iraq, Burma, Bhutan, and Somalia.  The U.S. has also admitted other kinds of populations eligible for resettlement, such as asylees, victims of human trafficking, and entrants from Cuba and Haiti (White House Task Force on New Americans, 2015).

Globally, other top origin countries for refugees include Afghanistan, Syria, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (American Immigration Council, 2014).

Why did numbers of unaccompanied youth from Central America increase in recent years?

Since 2014, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has detained more

than 62,000 unaccompanied children crossing the Mexico-U.S. border (Colorín Colorado & American Federation of Teachers, 2015). While some youths may be coming to the U.S. for economic reasons or to reunite with family members, the sharp increase in drug trafficking and gang violence in Central America has forced young people to leave. The numbers have remained higher than usual over this past year but are projected to fall in the coming months.

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).

What percentage of ELLs live in poverty?

Nearly 60% of ELLs nationwide are from low-income families in which parents have “disproportionately” limited levels of education (Grantmakers in Education).

Related Resources



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. ELL 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


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