English Language Learners in Classrooms: A Big Change for US Schools

A decade ago, about 3.5 million schoolchildren in the United States were “English language learners.” Now it’s over 5 million—almost 11 percent of all kids in US public schools. It’s a steep challenge for schools, and not just in the traditional gateway states like California, Texas, and New York. Teachers in small towns from Alabama to Kansas to South Dakota now find their classes include children speaking Korean, Hindi, Arabic, Hmong, and dozens of other languages.

More than one in ten U.S. schoolchildren in grades Pre-K through 12 speak a language other than English at home. Photo: US Census Bureau.

To help educators grapple with this change, the Migration Policy Institute has set up an online ELL Information Center with videos, fact sheets, and maps on the English language learner (ELL) student population across the United States.

I have a thing for interactive maps—well, maps in general—and I like the one that shows the percentage of ELL students by state. Roll the cursor over the map and see which states have the highest density of English language learners. Leading is Nevada, where a whopping 31 percent of schoolchildren are ELLs, followed by California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas. At the other end of the scale is our neighbor West Virginia, where just 0.6 percent of kids are English learners.

There are over 40,000 English language learners in Maryland schools, almost 5 percent of the student population. The figure is higher in the Maryland suburbs of DC. Photo: US Census Bureau.

Where has ELL enrollment grown fastest? That would be, if you can believe it, South Carolina, where the number of ELL students in schools has grown more than 800 percent in the last decade.

There’s also a fact sheet showing the top languages spoken at home by children learning English. The number one home language nationwide? Well, Spanish, of course! It’s overwhelmingly dominant (73 percent). Chinese is a distant second (almost 4 percent), followed by Vietnamese and French/Haitian Creole.

The vast majority of English learners in US schools speak Spanish as their home language. Photo: US Census Bureau.

But Spanish is not the top language spoken by ELL children in every state. In Alaska, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota, the leading non-English language is a Native American language. In Maine, it’s—guess? Somali. And in Vermont, Bosnian and Cushitic are tied for first place. Who on earth speaks Cushitic? Somebody please tell me. And how did they find their way to Vermont? I hope they have warm coats.

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