What are their characteristics?

  • — U.S. Department of Education


English learners (ELs) are a growing part of the K–12 student population. Between the 2009–10 and 2014–15 school years, the percentage of EL students increased in more than half of the states, with increases of over 40 percent in five states.1 Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, states must annually assess the English language proficiency of ELs, provide reasonable accommodations for them on state assessments, and develop new accountability systems that include long-term goals and measures of progress for ELs. While Spanish was the most common language spoken by ELs at home in 2014–15, in some states there was more variation in the home language. The need to support less commonly spoken languages could also be different across school districts.

Information about the characteristics and location of ELs in the following story map may help inform decisions about the provision of instructional supports and services for these students. These figures represent the latest look at ELs across the country, primarily using publicly available data for the 2014–15 and 2009–10 school years. See figure notes for specific data sources.

Note: Data included in this story may differ slightly from data in other published reports due to certain data decisions. More information.

The charts are interactive. Hover over or click on chart elements to learn more about specific data points and, where they appear, use buttons to filter or sort charts by select groups.

Who Are English Learners?

In 2014–15 , there were more than 4.8 million ELs across the country.a Nearly all of them (97 percent) participated in language instruction education programs.a, b The racial/ethnic composition of ELs differed significantly from that of the overall student population.a, c, d

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Hispanic or Latino students represented more than three times the share of ELs, compared to all students.
More than 75 percent of ELs in 2014–15 were Hispanic or Latino, but made up just 25 percent of all students. Asians also comprised a larger percentage of ELs than all students; about 5 percent of all students were Asian, but Asians accounted for 11 percent of ELs. White students made up the third-largest share of ELs at 6 percent.

Overall, 10 percent of students were ELs. A similar percentage of students with disabilities were ELs (9.9 percent). In comparison, ELs represented 14 percent of all homeless children enrolled in public school, 15 percent of students served by either Public Title I Schoolwide Programs or Targeted Assistance School Programs , and 39 percent of eligible migrant children who resided in the state.

Though ELs made up 10 percent of students with disabilities, 14 percent of all ELs were students with disabilities, compared to 13 percent of the overall student population.a The chart below shows the percentage of ELs with disabilities and the percentage of non-ELs with disabilities by disability category.

Among ELs with disabilities, nearly 50 percent had a specific learning disability, compared to nearly 38 percent of students with disabilities who are not ELs. Similarly, 21 percent of ELs with a disability, compared to 17 percent of non-ELs with a disability, were identified as having a speech or language impairment.

Where Are English Learners?

The following analyses group school districts and schools into four categories based on the percentage of their students who were ELs: high (20 percent or more were ELs), medium (5 percent to 20 percent), low (at least one EL student, but fewer than 5 percent), and no ELs. The analyses reveal that English learners were not equally distributed across the country, but rather clustered in a relatively small percentage of districts and schools.

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English Learners were heavily concentrated in districts and schools with their EL peers.

These graphs highlight the fact that English learners were not equally distributed across all districts. In 2014-15, almost half of all ELs were enrolled in the relatively few districts (7 percent) with a high proportion of ELs, while a total of 75 percent of districts enrolled either a low proportion of ELs or no ELs at all. The clustering of ELs in these districts does not appear to be attributed just to the size of the districts, as these same districts enrolled only 15 percent of the total student population overall.

Similar to the district data, we see that EL students were not equally distributed across all schools either. More than 60 percent of schools enrolled either a low proportion of ELs or no ELs at all. In 2014-15, only 15 percent of schools enrolled a high proportion of ELs. However, 61 percent of all English learners in the nation where enrolled in this 15 percent of schools. These same schools only enrolled 16 percent of the total student population, indicating a high concentration of English learners clustered in these schools.

English Learners Mapped

While school districts across large sections of the country had low percentages of ELs in 2014–15, those with the highest concentrations of ELs clustered in the Southwest and in Alaska. (See tables below the map that identify the 10 districts with the highest concentration of ELs in terms of number of ELs and percentage of ELs.) In addition, nearly 60 percent of districts with ELs enrolled in a language instruction educational program (LIEP) in 2009–10 and 2014–15 experienced an increase in these students over time. However, there was no distinct geographic pattern among districts experiencing an increase.

Hover over school districts for information, double-click to zoom in, and select a range from the legend to see specific views of the data. Select the buttons above the legend to toggle between the map for the percentage of students who are ELs in 2014–15 and the map for the percentage change in the number of ELs enrolled in an English language instruction educational program in 2009–10 and 2014–15. Select the buttons below the map to toggle between percentages for elementary and unified school districts, and independent elementary, secondary, and unified districts.
Elementary and Unified
Independent Elementary, Secondary, and Unified

* See map notes.

High EL concentration districts with the most ELs
  District Name State # of ELs % ELs
1. Los Angeles Unified School District CA 145,983 22.6%
2. Dallas Independent School District TX 61,944 38.7%
3. Houston Independent School District TX 57,172 26.6%
4. Fairfax County Public Schools VA 37,543 20.2%
5. San Diego City Unified School District CA 31,314 24.1%
6. Santa Ana Unified School District CA 25,713 45.3%
7. Fort Worth Independent School District TX 24,588 28.6%
8. Denver County School District 1 CO 24,564 27.7%
9. Aldine Independent School District TX 20,867 29.9%
10. Austin Independent School District TX 20,790 24.6%
Districts with the highest concentration of ELs
  District Name State # of ELs % ELs
1. San Ardo Union Elementary School District CA 86 86.0%
2. Lower Yukon School District AK 1,735 85.2%
3. Black Horse Pike Regional School District NJ 25 83.3%
4. Northern Valley Regional School District NJ 15 83.3%
5. San Fernando Elementary District AZ 22 81.5%
6. Roosevelt School District WA 22 81.5%
7. Yupiit School District AK 370 81.3%
8. Luther Burbank Elementary School District CA 431 78.1%
9. Chualar Union Elementary School District CA 263 78.0%
10. Semitropic Elementary School District CA 177 77.0%
Note(s): High EL concentration districts are districts where ELs represent at least 20 percent of the student population.
Source(s): U.S. Department of Education, EDFacts Data Warehouse (EDW), 2014–15. LEA File C141, LEP Enrolled. Extracted March 31, 2017. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data (CCD), "Local Education Agency (School District) Universe Survey Data," 2014–15. Downloaded April 2017 from https://nces.ed.gov/ccd/pubagency.asp.

Most Common Non-English Languages Spoken by English Learners

ELs speak a wide variety of languages at home, including Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Hmong. States with more variation in the languages spoken at home may require additional resources for instructional supports and services for ELs.

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In total, ELs in U.S. public schools speak over 400 different languages.a In 2014–15, more than three-quarters of all ELs spoke Spanish. The next most commonly spoken non-English languages were Arabic, Chinese, and Vietnamese. However, these languages were spoken much less commonly than Spanish, representing about 2 percent each.

Spanish was the language most commonly spoken by ELs at home in 45 states and the District of Columbia, and in all but seven of those states, more than 50 percent of the ELs in the state spoke Spanish at home. The states in which Spanish was not the most common language were Alaska (Yupik languages), Hawaii (Iloko), Maine (Somali), Montana (German), and Vermont (Nepali). The number of unique languages spoken by ELs in each state varies from five in Mississippi to more than 225 in Pennsylvania.a

Wrap Up

ELs are a tremendously diverse group representing numerous languages, cultures, ethnicities, and nationalities, with Hispanic or Latino students being the majority and Spanish being the most commonly spoken language. Geographically, ELs were enrolled in school districts throughout the country, but were concentrated in a relatively small percentage of them. EL students with disabilities were more likely to be classified as having a specific learning disability than their non-EL counterparts. Overall, EL students face unique challenges but also represent a tremendous asset for our country if their full potential can be unlocked and harnessed.