Report Reveals 1 in 10 American Students Are English Language Learners

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Language acquisition is the key to individual students’ educational success and to the nation’s future economic prosperity.

More than one in ten of all preK-12 students in the U.S.—totaling over 5.3 million children—are English Language Learners (ELLs), yet common assumptions about this fast-growing population are often incorrect. The majority of young ELLs are not immigrants: over 75 percent of ELL elementary students were born in the U.S. Although the largest ELL groups are in California, Texas, New York, Florida, and Arizona, ELLs are a growing presence throughout the country, with the fastest growing ELL populations in South Carolina, Indiana, Nevada, Arkansas, North Carolina, Virginia and Delaware. And many of America’s schools are not yet able to serve these millions of students effectively, according to a new report, “Investing in Our Next Generation.

Carnegie Corporation supported the 2010 the Grantmakers for Education briefing “Addressing the Educational Opportunities and Challenges Facing English Language Learners” upon which much of the report is based.  Carnegie Corporation program officer Andrés Henríquez was one of the experts consulted in the lead-up to the report.

“Partisan debates about immigration often frame assumptions regarding ELL students, resulting in a lot of misinformation and drawing attention from what we know are effective strategies to get these students well educated and workforce ready,” says Chris Tebben, executive director of Grantmakers for Education, the nonprofit which issued the report. “This a critical issue for the U.S. Unless we are willing to see one in ten of our students underserved and our nation’s collective economic stability imperiled, we must ensure that our education systems have the capacity to drive success for ELL students.”

Although helping students learn English at a young age can make a difference in the primary grades, this approach is not enough. According to the report, conversational fluency and basic literacy are only the start.  Academic literacy—moving from learning to read to reading to learn—takes far longer, up to seven years. As a result, many ELL students speak, read and write English, yet they lack the advanced vocabulary and language skills required for success across subject areas, especially in the early grades.

The report underscores what school leaders, policymakers and funders can do to improve instruction and supports for these students. Grantmakers for Education is a national network of public and private philanthropies that give over $1.5 billion a year to education. “We asked our members to identify the most critical issue that was not being addressed, and their most frequent response was English Language Learners,” says Tebben. “We need both to raise awareness about how large, diverse, and geographically dispersed this population is, and to increase understanding and implementation of what works for these kids.”