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English language learners

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Students who are identified as English language learners (ELLs) can participate in language assistance programs to help ensure that they attain English proficiency and meet the academic content and achievement standards that all students are expected to meet. Participation in these types of programs can improve students’ English language proficiency, which in turn has been associated with improved educational outcomes.1 The percentage of public school students in the United States who were ELLs was higher in fall 2017 (10.1 percent, or 5.0 million students) than in fall 2000 (8.1 percent, or 3.8 million students).2

In fall 2017, the percentage of public school students who were ELLs was 10.0 percent or more in 10 states, most of which were located in the West, and the District of Columbia.3 The states were Alaska, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Washington. California reported the highest percentage of ELLs among its public school students, at 19.2 percent, followed by Texas (18.0 percent) and Nevada (17.1 percent). Twenty-one states had percentages of ELL students that were 6.0 percent or higher but less than 10.0 percent, and 14 states had percentages that were 3.0 percent or higher but less than 6.0 percent. The percentage of students who were ELLs was less than 3.0 percent in five states, with Vermont (2.2 percent), Montana (2.2 percent), and West Virginia (0.8 percent) having the lowest percentages.

In fall 2017, the percentage of students who were ELLs was higher for school districts in more urbanized areas than for those in less urbanized areas. ELL students constituted an average of 14.7 percent of total public school enrollment in cities, 9.6 percent in suburban areas, 6.8 percent in towns, and 4.1 percent in rural areas.

In general, a higher percentage of public school students in lower grades than of those in upper grades were ELL students in fall 2017. For example, 15.9 percent of kindergarteners were ELL students, compared with 8.6 percent of 6th-graders and 7.0 percent of 8th-graders. Among 12th-graders, only 4.6 percent of students were ELL students. This pattern was driven, in part, by students who are identified as ELLs when they enter elementary school but obtain English language proficiency before reaching the upper grades.4

Spanish was the home language of 3.7 million ELL public school students in fall 2017, representing 74.8 percent of all ELL students and 7.6 percent of all public K12 students. Arabic and Chinese were the next most commonly reported home languages (spoken by 136,500 and 106,500 students, respectively). English was the fourth most common home language for ELL students (94,900 students), which may reflect students who live in multilingual households or students adopted from other countries who were raised speaking another language but currently live in households where English is spoken. Vietnamese (77,800 students), Somali (41,300 students), Russian (36,800 students), Portuguese (33,300 students), Haitian (32,700 students), and Hmong (32,200 students) were the next most commonly reported home languages of ELL students in fall 2017.

1 Genesee, F., Lindholm-Leary, K., Saunders, W., and Christian, D. (2005). English Language Learners in U.S. Schools: An Overview of Research Findings. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 10 (4): 363–385. Retrieved November 25, 2019, from

2 For 2014 and earlier years, data on the total number of ELLs enrolled in public schools and on the percentage of public school students who were ELLs include only those ELL students who participated in ELL programs. Starting with 2015, data include all ELL students, regardless of program participation. Due to this change in definition, comparisons between 2017 and earlier years should be interpreted with caution. For all years, data do not include students who were formerly identified as ELLs but later obtained English language proficiency.

3 Categorizations are based on unrounded percentages.

4 Saunders, W.M., and Marcelletti, D.J. (2013). The Gap That Can't Go Away: The Catch-22 of Reclassification in Monitoring the Progress of English Learners. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 35(2): 139–156. Retrieved November 25, 2019, from

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2020). The Condition of Education 2020 (2020-144), English Language Learners in Public Schools.

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