IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

Looking Beyond the Label to Better Help English Learners

By Karen Douglas, NCER Program Officer, English Learners

The education of English learners (EL) continues to be a topic of great interest across the country. But there has been little research to identify what steps to take in order to best serve this diverse group of students.

In recent years, the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) has funded a number of grants that are using data to better describe EL students and study the factors that are related to better educational outcomes. Findings from these studies are included in a recent policy brief by the Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) entitled “Improving the Opportunities and Outcomes of California’s Students Learning English: Findings from School District-University Collaborative Partnerships.”

Although these studies all took place in California, the key findings likely have implications across the United States.

(Editor’s note: In some places you will see EL students referred to as English language learners (ELL), language minority, or limited English proficient (LEP) students. However, English learner (EL) is the term used by IES).

Defining ‘English Learner’

The term ‘English Learner’ seems pretty straightforward. It denotes a student that doesn’t speak English as a first language and whose lack of English skills serves as an impediment to learning. However, this simple term belies the diversity of this group of students.

Many EL students were born outside the U.S., but some are American citizens who were born in this country. Some arrive in the U.S. having gone to school starting at a very young age, while others come to the U.S. as teenagers and may not have had access to regular instruction in their previous country. And some EL students—such as the recent influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America—come from war-torn countries, where they have experienced significant trauma and have social emotional needs, as well.

Some EL students do not speak any English, but others come to our schools with basic English skills. And while a majority of ELs speak Spanish at home, many others speak European, African, and Asian languages.

Given all the ways that EL students differ from each other, there is a pressing need to move beyond the simple “EL” designation in order to better address the educational needs of these students.

You can learn more about the characteristics of EL students in a recent post to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) blog.

Meeting the Needs of EL Students

The context in which students designated as EL attend school is equally varied.  Schools differ greatly in the criteria they use to identify students as ELs, as well as the rules for deciding that a student is no longer an EL.

In addition, some students attend schools at which the majority of students are ELs, whereas others are one of a handful of ELs in the school. Instructional programs, even among those that provide support for the home language, vary widely in regard to the amount of instruction in another language a student will receive and the manner in which it is integrated across content areas.

Leaving EL Status

The complexity of reclassification out of EL status is a central issue in the PACE brief because there is a concern that EL students may not have the same access to the full curriculum as their non-EL peers.  The brief shares study findings in which EL students are overrepresented in lower-track classes, less likely to take important gateway math courses, and are more likely to be in classes with a higher percentage of ELs.

The studies in the PACE brief suggest that it is beneficial for students to be appropriately reclassified out of EL status, but these studies show that there is great variability in the stated criteria used by schools and districts as well as inconsistency in implementation. The report also highlights the potential benefits of bilingual and dual language programs both for learning in English as well as maintaining the first language.

Key Findings
 
The PACE policy brief makes three broad recommendations. Again, while these recommendations are directed at serving EL students in California, these are ideas that can be used throughout the country:

  • Improve the ways in which students who need language supports are classified and reclassified in order to improve alignment across districts, and alignment between classification and services;
  • Be more systematic in how data on EL students are collected and used, by tracking students’ progress over longer time periods and including all students who were ever EL students in accountability metrics; and
  • Improve EL students’ educational opportunities in school by expanding access to core content, bilingual instruction, and well-prepared teachers. 

Through better attention to the diverse characteristics of students designated as ELs, schools across the country will stand a better chance of both improving educational opportunities, as well as benefiting from the many contributions that EL students can provide to our school communities. 

Diversity in home languages: Examining English learners in U.S. public schools

By Joel McFarland

More than 4.9 million English learners (EL) were enrolled in U.S. public elementary and secondary schools during the 2013-14 school year, representing just over ten percent of the total student population.   

Recently published data from the U.S. Department of Education’s EDFacts data collection shed light on the linguistic diversity of EL students, as well as the distribution of EL students across grades. EDFacts data are drawn from administrative records maintained by state education agencies and provide a detailed picture of the total population of K-12 public school students in the United States. (Depending on the organization or publication, ELs can also be known as English language learners (ELL) or Limited English Proficient (LEP) students.)

States reported that Spanish was the home language of nearly 3.8 million EL students in 2013-14, which accounts for 76.5 percent of all EL students and nearly 8 percent of all public K-12 students. Arabic and Chinese were the next most commonly spoken home languages, reported for approximately 109,000 and 108,000 students, respectively.

It may surprise some to learn that English (91,700 students) was the fourth most commonly reported home language. This may reflect students who live in multilingual households, and those who were adopted from other countries and raised to speak another language but currently live in English-speaking households. Overall, there were 38 different home languages reported for 5,000 or more students.


Ten most commonly reported home languages of English learner (EL) students

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, EDFacts file 141, Data Group 678; Common Core of Data, "State Nonfiscal Survey of Public Elementary and Secondary Education." See Digest of Education Statistics 2015, table 204.27.


EDFacts data also allow us to examine the distribution of EL students across grade levels. Data from the 2013-14 school year show that a greater percentage of students in lower than in upper grades were identified as EL students. For example, 17.4 percent of kindergarteners were identified as EL students, compared to 8.0 percent of 6th graders and 6.4 percent of 8th graders. Among 12th graders, only 4.6 percent of students were identified as ELs. 


Percentage of Public K-12 students identified as English learners (ELs), by grade level: 2013-14SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, EDFacts file 141, Data Group 678; Common Core of Data, "State Nonfiscal Survey of Public Elementary and Secondary Education." See Digest of Education Statistics 2015, table 204.27.


More home language and grade-level data on English learners can be found in the Digest of Education Statistics. Additional data on EL students, including state-level data and data by locale (e.g., city, suburban, town, and rural), can be found in the Condition of Education.

Interested in recent research on how EL students are identified and served? Check out the Inside IES Research blog.