Demographics for English Language Learners

Instructor: Jessica Keys
As of the 2014-2015 school year, about 4.6 million (or 9.4%) of the nation's public school students were English Language Learners, according to the NCES. How does this number break down by location or age? What is the most common home language? Read on for a more detailed look at ELL students in the U.S.

English Language Learners: Overview and Definition

English language learners (ELL) are students who are currently participating in programs designed to help them reach proficiency in the English language while working towards the same academic achievements as their peers.

While many ELL students have immigrated to the U.S., most are American citizens; in fact, according to U.S. Census Bureau data from 2013, 85% of ELL students in pre-kindergarten to 5th grade (and 62% of ELL students from 6th grade to 12th grade) were born in the United States.

The most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) shows that this segment of the student population is growing quickly, demonstrating an increase in value and need for ELL programs nationwide. Check out the tables below for an overview of these NCES stats from the 2014-2015 school year.

ELL Students by State

English language learning students attend public schools in every state, though the distribution of students varies by region. States with the highest percentage of ELL students were typically located in the West. Those with an ELL student population of over 10% are outlined below:

State % of ELL Students
California 22.4%
Nevada 17.0%
Texas 15.5%
New Mexico 14.6%
Colorado 11.7%
Alaska 11.5%
District of Columbia 10.6%
Illinois 10.3%

While thirteen states have a population of ELL students that is less than 3.0%, the state with the lowest ELL student population is West Virginia (1.0%), followed by Mississippi (1.6%) and Vermont (1.7%).

ELL Students by Locale

Currently, the highest ELL student populations are concentrated in more urban areas. Note that the percentages for each locale listed below are averages of more specific designations within each type. For example, the ELL student population in America's cities includes the percentage of students living in large urban areas (with a population of 250,000 or more) as well as small urban areas (population less than 100,000).

Location Type % of ELL Students
City 14.2%
Suburban Area 8.9%
Town 6.2%
Rural Area 3.5%

Demographic Shifts

From 2004-2005 to 2014-2015, Maryland experienced the largest ELL student population increase (up 4.4%), while Arizona's population of ELL students decreased by 13.8% over the same period of time.

Though urban areas currently have the highest populations of ELL students, rural and suburban areas are experiencing rapid growth in this demographic. As such, the need for more adequate ELL support in public school systems (including teacher training and licensure) is also growing in these areas.

ELL Age Demographics

The highest percentage of ELL learners could be found in kindergarten through fifth grade. Generally, there is a population decrease that correlates with student age. One explanation is that many students attain proficiency in English as they approach the upper grades. The breakdown of ELL students by grade is as follows:

Grade % of ELL Students
Kindergarten 16.7%
First Grade 16.6%
Second Grade 15.9%
Third Grade 14.9%
Fourth Grade 11.7%
Fifth Grade 9.8%
Sixth Grade 7.8%
Seventh Grade 7.0%
Eighth Grade 6.5%
Ninth Grade 6.5%
Tenth Grade 5.2%
Eleventh Grade 4.4%
Twelfth Grade 4.1%

Note: 7.3% of ELL students were reported as Ungraded.

ELL Language Demographics

ELL students reported speaking a number of different languages at home. Here are the most common home languages for public school-enrolled ELL students nationwide:

Home Language % of ELL Students
Spanish/Castilian 77.1%
Arabic 2.3%
Chinese 2.2%
Vietnamese 1.8%
English 1.7%*
Hmong 0.8%
Somali 0.7%
Russian 0.7%
Haitian/Haitian Creole 0.7%
Tagalog 0.6%
Korean 0.6%

Note: *This may include students living in multilingual households or adopted students who live in an English-speaking home but grew up speaking a different language.

Resources for ELL Teachers

Whether you are a professional ELL specialist or you are simply considering taking your teaching career in that direction,'s Resources for Teaching English Language Learners makes an excellent companion. Here, you'll find a wealth of information on all things ELL, including educational strategies, accommodations, legal issues and methods for communicating with parents. This course is 100% online and accessible any time, with each topic broken down into short lessons. It's designed to fit your schedule!

Alternately, check out our Activities for Teaching English Language Learners for a variety of ways to add more fun to the classroom.

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