Effective Ways to Approach ELL Programs

Jenny Rodriguez • Principal Leadership Article

Today, approximately 5 million students are considered English-language learners (ELLs) in the United States. ELL is a broad term that refers to students who are learning English as an additional language, but identification varies from state to state. Recent trends show that the number of ELLs continues to rise across the nation. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that the percentage of ELLs in public schools increased from 8.1% in 2000 to 10.1% in 2017.1 While most ELLs are in elementary school, nearly 800,000 are in high school. As for middle school, in 2015, 33% of ELLs were in grades 6–12 (which includes the middle grades), according to the Pew Research Center.2

Spanish is the most prevalent home language and represents 75.2% of all ELLs (3.8 million students) and 7.7% of all public school students.3 After Spanish, the next most common languages are Arabic and Chinese. However, within the U.S., ELLs speak more than 400 languages.

Bilingual Education in the United States

Bilingual education programs involve sustained use of a student’s home language in which instruction occurs in English and the home language, with students developing bilingualism, biliteracy, and multicultural understandings.4 While there are different types of programs for ELLs, with many only in English, it is up to schools to decide which method is best for their students.


ELLs face numerous obstacles to education in the U.S. According to Education Week, a lack of resources and adequate support from school staff are a few of the challenges to bilingual education.5 ELLs are most successful with trained support and teachers who recognize “similarities and differences between first- and second-language development, and the importance of nonverbal communications and visual aids in language acquisition” and who also “recognize the difference between conversational language and academic language.” NCES has found that students who speak English as a second language are more likely to struggle with academics and less likely to graduate than students who are not ELLs when they are not provided with the kind of instruction and advanced academic coursework they need.6 In the 2016–17 school year, only 66% of ELLs graduated from high school on time compared to 85% of non-ELLs who did so.