5 Things You May Not Know About English Language Learners

5 Things You May Not Know About English Language Learners

English language learners are often thought of as a homogenous group, but in reality, they are extremely diverse. Although you likely know these common facts about ELLs, you may not be as familiar with the underlying complexities of this often misunderstood population. 

Here are five things you may not know about English Language Learners:

Fact #1: English language learners compose one of the fastest-growing student populations in the country.

But did you know…? There are about five million ELLs in the United States (about nine percent of all public school students), and the number is increasing. In fact, by the year 2025, nearly one out of every four public school students will be an English language learner. Since the passage of the Bilingual Education Act in 1968, all public schools are required to offer ELLs an appropriate level of education.

Fact #2:  All students have the same natural ability to acquire language skills, unless diagnosed with a language disorder.

But did you know…?  Based on their native language, some students have a more difficult time learning English. For example, students whose first language uses the Latin alphabet or has a sentence structure similar to English may have an easier time acquiring English language skills compared to those whose native language uses characters (like Mandarin) or is written from right to left (like Arabic or Hebrew). Additionally, depending on culture and parental literacy, ELLs can face a number of challenges with regard to oral English language development, including limited exposure to spoken English in the home.

Fact #3:  Being bilingual promotes all areas of cognitive functioning.

But did you know…?  People who speak two languages have also been shown to have more efficient monitoring systems. In a 2009 study from the International Journal of Cognitive Science, monolinguals and bilinguals responded similarly when their brains' monitoring system was not under stress, but in conditions requiring high monitoring demands, bilinguals were faster. The bilingual brain is used to handling two languages at the same time, which aids in developing functional skills such as inhibition, switching attention, and working memory.

Fact #4:  Not all ELLs are immigrants.

But did you know…?  More than half of ELL students were born in this country. According to the National Education Association, second-generation students—defined as children born in the U.S. to at least one immigrant parent—currently constitute 23 percent of the nation’s children and 75 percent of elementary English language learners. According to the Obama-Biden Transition Project, 75 percent of ELL students in grades K–5 and 57 percent of those in grades 6–12 are native-born.

Fact #5:  Spanish is the most common mother tongue of English language learners in the U.S.

But did you know…?  According to the Migration Policy Institute, English language students in the U.S. speak more than 150 languages, including Chinese, Vietnamese, and French/Haitian Creole. Of the top 10 first languages spoken by ELLs, six (Chinese, Korean, Hindi, Arabic, Russian, and Hmong/Miao) are not based on the Latin alphabet.

What does this mean for teachers? 

The number of English-Language Learners in the United States is growing rapidly, including many states that have not previously had large immigrant populations. In an excerpt from his book with fellow teacher Katie Hull Sypnieski, blogger Larry Ferlazzo looks at a few basic ways to reach students who are learning English as well as the subject at hand:


  • Modeling
    Model for students what they are expected to do or produce, especially for new skills or activities, by explaining and demonstrating the learning actions, sharing your thinking processes aloud, and showing good teacher and student work samples. Modeling promotes learning and motivation, as well as increasing student self-confidence.
  • Rate of speech and wait time
    Speak slowly and clearly, and provide students with enough time to formulate their responses, whether in speaking or in writing. Remember, they are thinking and producing in two or more languages! After asking a question, wait for a few seconds before calling on someone to respond. This "wait time" provides all students with an opportunity to think and process, and especially gives ELLs a needed period to formulate a response.
  • Use of non-linguistic cues
    Use visuals, sketches, gestures, intonation, and other non-verbal cues to make both language and content more accessible to students. Teaching with visual representations of concepts can be hugely helpful to ELLs.
  • Giving instructions
    Give verbal and written instructions. This practice can help all learners, especially ELLs. In addition, it is far easier for a teacher to point to the board in response to the inevitable repeated question, "What are we supposed to do?"
  • Check for understanding
    Regularly check that students are understanding the lesson. After an explanation or lesson, a teacher could say, "Please put thumbs up, thumbs down, or sideways to let me know if this is clear, and it's perfectly fine if you don't understand or are unsure, I just need to know." This last phrase is essential if you want students to respond honestly. Teachers can also have students quickly answer on a Post-It note that they place on their desks. The teacher can then quickly circulate to check responses.

The increasing number of English Language Learners entering the education system presents unique challenges for teachers and educational leaders. While these students may have certain learning needs in common, it is important to understand that the ELL population, like any population, is a great deal more diverse than one may think. While the above list is certainly not exhaustive, consider incorporating them and other strategies into your daily instruction to give your English Language Learners the support they need.

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