English Language Learners


One of the fastest growing student populations in the country are English language learners; in 2003, 9.9 million – or 19% - of 5-17 year olds spoke a language other than English at home, up from 9% in 1979 (NCES - pdf). Since 1968 – with the passage of the Bilingual Education Act - all public schools have to offer these students some kind of appropriate education. The federal government helps foot the bill; in 2004 it spent over $680 million for ESL and bilingual programs (of about $3 billion extra schools spend to teach ELL's). The big debate among educators is how best to teach these students as they learn English – or, to be more specific – how much they should be taught in their first language.

First - some definitions

  • English Language Learner (ELL) - A non-native English speaker who has difficulty with English. Sometimes referred to as limited-English-proficient (LEP).

  • English as a Second Language (ESL) - A program that pulls ELLs out of the classroom and teaches them English, usually in English.

  • Bilingual Education - Instruction to students in both their native language and in English.

  • Immersion - No use of native language in instruction, with a small amount of separate ESL.

  • Two-Way Immersion - Both native English speakers and English learners are instructed together - using English and the native language of the other students. The idea is that by the end of the year all students will know two languages.

Note: Bilingual and immersion stand at two opposite ends of the spectrum. Schools often use a combination of the two, often alongside ESL.

English Language Learners in the schools

Number of students who are Limited English Proficient (LEP): (depends on who you ask)

  • 3.3 million students (7% of total student population) Urban pdf
  • 4.4 million students (9% of total student population) NCELA pdf

Number of students who "speak English with difficulty":

  • 2.9 million students (5.5% of total student population) NCES

Number of 5-17 year olds who speak a language other than English at home: NCES

  • 2003: 9.9 million, 19%
  • 1989: 5.2 million, 12.3%
  • 1979: 3.8 million, 8.5%

The programs schools are using

  • 3.8 million students (11%) receive ELL services (NCES) - or 7.9% NCES

  • English vs. native language: Percentage of English Language Learners whose instruction is: (2001) NCELA pdf (numbers not so foolproof - from a survey that only 41% of schools responded to)

    • Entirely in English: 54%

    • At least partially in native language: 46%


  • Federal spending on English Language Learners (DOE)

    • 2005: $675.8 million, 0.9% of DOE budget

    • 1995: $206.7 million, 0.6% of DOE budget

    • 1985: $169.3 million, 0.9% of DOE budget

  • Total cost of educating a child per year (2002) DAI: (deadlink)

    • General education: $6,151

    • English language learner: $6,831

  • Total additional costs nationwide of educating ELLs: $2.9 billion
    (CitizenJoe just did a little math here: about 4.2 million ELLs at $680
    more per ELL gets you $2.9 billion).

  • Total costs of public school instruction nationwide:

Bilingual vs. Immersion

  • Number of Two-Way Immersion schools in the US (EdWeek):

    • 1987: 30

    • 2004: 309 (292 in Spanish and English)

  • Studies comparing bilingual education versus English-only education are countless - and contradictory. In 2000 Brookings offered the best attempt we've found to make sense of all the studies out there. Here's what they discovered...

    • Of 60 studies comparing reading performance of ELLs in Bilingual Education and English Only:

      • 22% found Bilingual Education better than English Only

      • 45% found no difference between the two

      • 33% found English Only better than Bilingual Education

    • Of 14 studies in language:

      • 7% found Bilingual education better than English Only

      • 29% found no difference

      • 64% found English only better than Bilingual Education

    • Of 34 studies in math:

      • 9% found Bilingual Education better than English Only

      • 56% found no difference

      • 35% found English Only better than Bilingual Education

Where the facts are from

Did we miss something, let some slant slip in, lose a link - or do you just have something to say? Drop a line below! In the spirit of open dialogue, cJ asks you keep it civil, keep it real and keep it focused on the message, not the messenger. See our policy page for more on what that all means.

Bias site

Why are you kidding Joe-- with (In 2000 Brookings offered the best attempt we've found to make sense of ALL the studies out there. ).  As an educator and researcher I read you clearly.  You can't make sense of all the studies.  Those who are for English only will find studies that favor English only even though they are flawed.  Bilingual education has been found time after time to have more benefits than English-only programs

a random Joe (not verified) | March 18, 2008 - 4:18pm

dead link

Hello, Citizen Joe. I'm working on a research paper for school and this site has been very helpful. However, when I try to access this link:


I get a 404 Not Found message. It's strange because I just accessed it yesterday.

Thanks for what you do!

a random Joe | October 30, 2007 - 12:02pm