Who are the English Language Learners in the U.S. Today?

Teachers help meet the needs of ELLs

Teachers, school administrators, and policymakers have increased their focus on English Language Learners lately because of increasing numbers of ELLs in public schools. If we are to properly serve and teach this population of students, we must understand their backgrounds, similarities, and differences. We must also understand how each region of the U.S. and type of school may have different populations of ELLs and resulting concerns and issues.

Concentrations of ELLs

While nationwide data on the percentages of ELLs tells one story, each region of the U.S. has unique differences. Examining the numbers of ELLS in each particular state helps us to visualize the differences across the U.S.

Striking differences appear when we look at neighboring states, such as Texas (over 10 percent ELL population) and Louisiana (less than 3 percent ELL population). According to the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), “In 2012-’13, five of the six states with the highest percentages of ELL students in their public schools were in the West. In the District of Columbia, as well as six U.S. states,  Alaska, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Texas, 10 percent or more of public school students were English language learners, with ELL students constituting 22.8 percent of public school enrollment in California.“

Specific types of schools also vary in terms of the ELL population. For example, urban schools continue to have higher concentrations of ELLs, generally up to 16 percent of the school population. Public schools tend to have far higher populations of ELLs than private schools.

Statistics on languages spoken

Many Americans may assume that all or nearly all ELLs speak Spanish as their first language and that having Spanish-speaking teachers would help all ELLs. While native Spanish speakers are indeed the majority of ELLs, they make up only about three-quarters of the U.S. ELL population. Teachers who are proficient in Spanish definitely have an advantage in connecting with their Spanish-speaking students, but what about the rest of the ELL population?

Many schools have a wide variety of languages spoken by their ELLs, perhaps with up to 10 native languages represented in one English as a Second Language (ESL) classroom. Teachers of ELLs need to learn about the languages and cultures of all of their students so they all can succeed.

Of course, this does not mean becoming fluent in every language spoken by the ELLs. Professional development, research, and teaching techniques can help teachers of ELLs to connect with their students of all language and cultural backgrounds.

ELLs in U.S. public schools come from all over the world and for a wide variety of reasons. Some ELLs are escaping poverty, while others are the children of professional parents working in various industries.

Nationwide, NCES statistics on the native languages of ELLs are:

  • Spanish: 76.5 percent
  • Arabic: 2.2 percent
  • Chinese: 2.2 percent
  • Vietnamese: 1.8 percent
  • Others: less than 1 percent each

Teachers may be surprised, for example, to realize how relatively large the population of Vietnamese ELLs remains to this day.

In addition to these statistics, it’s important to remember that each language may have many different dialects and varieties. For example, Spanish speakers coming from Argentina may have differences in spoken and written language when compared with Spanish speakers from Mexico.

Even within a given country, there are sometimes differences, such as with Mandarin Chinese versus other varieties. Even when the language itself is mostly identical, cultural differences from various regions of the same country can come into play. These cultural differences can affect social understanding and expectations.

Strategies for teachers

  • Promote a multicultural school environment by using classroom materials and decorations that are inclusive of all cultural and language backgrounds.
  • Speaking Spanish is definitely a plus, especially in certain regions of the U.S., where the majority of ELLs are native speakers of Spanish. Even if a teacher hasn’t studied Spanish, some basic phrases can help to develop and foster a positive relationship among student, teacher, and parents.
  • If your ELLs speak languages other than Spanish, learn a few basic phrases such as hello and thank you to establish a positive relationship with those students.
  • Students’ specific language backgrounds can make it easier or more difficult to learn English. For example, students who speak languages that are written in different orthography (letter systems) than the English alphabet may face additional challenges with writing in English. Be aware of the basic differences between languages.
  • Ask administrators for some statistics on ELLs in your school district, especially regarding the languages they speak and their cultural backgrounds. You may be surprised at who your ELLs are and how you can meet their specific needs.
  • Research the cultural and language backgrounds of the various ELLs in your classroom and school so you are familiar with customs and expectations. Be sensitive to students’ various backgrounds and needs.
  • Use visuals, gestures, and other teaching techniques that help ELLs from all language and cultural backgrounds to understand the curricular content. The Sheltered Immersion Observation Protocol (SIOP) model is especially helpful for teachers of all content areas and ELLs from all language backgrounds, as it is designed to enhance comprehensible input and both academic and language knowledge.

Dr. Maggie Broderick teaches masters and doctoral level courses in teacher education online for various universities, including Concordia University – Portland. Dr. Broderick taught K-12 in the Pittsburgh Public Schools before completing her Ph.D. in Foreign Language Education at the University of Pittsburgh. In addition to teaching, she enjoys writing, course development, and research.

English Language Learners: Related Resources

Learn More: Click to view related resources.