NCES Blog

National Center for Education Statistics

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.