The population of English language learners (ELLs) in the United States continues to increase.

The Glossary of Education Reform states ELL means "students who are unable to communicate fluently or learn effectively in English, who often come from non-English-speaking homes and backgrounds, and who typically require specialized or modified instruction in both the English language and in their academic courses."

Furthermore, The National Center for Educational Statistics says, "The percentage of public school students in the United States who were English language learners was higher in 2010-11 (10 percent, or an estimated 4.7 million students) than in 2002-03 (9 percent, or an estimated 4.1 million students)."

With the increase of ELL populations in U.S. schools, there has been a continued disparity and increase in the academic performance gaps of ELLs compared to their non-ELL peers. The increase in the academic performance gap has contributed to higher school dropout rates among ELLs.

To understand the issues ELLs face and how to help them improve their academic achievement as well as helping prevent them from dropping out of school, it is important to look at research and statistics. One example is The National Center for Educational Statistics' Digest of Educational Statistics.

Table 47 shows the number of students who have been participating in programs for ELLs in each state of the U.S. from 2002-03 to 2010-11. The National Center for Educational Statistics also has Table 142, which shows the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) reading scale scores which are available by average mean. This table compares scores broken down into groups of students and comparing them. Included in the reading score comparisons are those of ELLs and non-ELLS.

Table 142 lists scores of ELLs from 1998 to 2011, which are broken down by grades: fourth, eighth and 12th. The average reading score gap in 2009 between ELLs and non-ELLs in fourth and 12th grades is alarming. The gaps were 36 for fourth grade, 47 for eighth grade and 50 for 12th. The group of 12th graders from 2009, had a gap of 40 in 2005 as eighth graders.

In the condition of education, The National Center for Educational says, "This disparity is known as an achievement gap — in NAEP reading scores, the achievement gap is seen by the differences between the average scores of two student subgroups on the standardized assessment."

What is the reason for their 10-point gap in reading scores? Why is the gap increasing even with continued improvements in interventions? Is the increasing influx of ELLs emigrating from other countries contributing to the gap? Is this why more ELLs are being tested?

Schools need to be aware of statistics, growth patterns, assessment scores and progress and questions that results pose or answer. Through this they can address effective and ineffective planning and learning to better meet the needs of ELLs.

When reviewing statistics and data, it is important for schools and educators to be aware of obstacles that can affect student test scores and high school dropout rates. They also need to be aware of solutions that work. Schools and educators should also understand the patterns of the growing number of ELLs in their states, the languages represented, federal and state policies, and special state/regional factors that ELL learning, retention and achievement.

Obstacles schools encounter

1. Every school varies. Some schools have huge ELL populations that speak many different languages, while others have huge populations that speak one language. Other schools have smaller populations of ELLs and therefore are not as accustomed to providing effective teaching and learning opportunities for students to stay motivated in school.

2. The ELLs in U.S. schools have lived here for varied periods of times. Some are new to the U.S. and others were born in the U.S. These students come from diverse literacy experiences in their native languages and in English.

The socioeconomic status of ELLs in public schools also differs drastically. Some ELLs come from affluent backgrounds, while others come live in poverty. There is also the factor of schooling. Some ELLs have had prior schooling, and others have had little to none.

These major variations in student backgrounds affect schools in that the teaching and learning for ELLs must be accommodative and varied. One cookie-cutter approach will not work for students who have so many backgrounds, experiences and literacy levels.

3. Standardization increases challenges for ELLs. With standardization of curriculum, teaching, assessments and improvement tracking from implementation of laws like No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top and the Common Core State Standards, ELLS have faced increasing challenges with trying to meet rigorous standards of learning goals and English language proficiency goals.

In its research The American Institute for Research found, "language status hampers access to grade-level instruction in the core curriculum and may impede attainment of the academic English language and grade-level performance standards." In this study, parents expressed concerns that because of this, ELL classes were not preparing high school students for college readiness.

4. Reclassification may affect dropout rates. ELL student dropout rates are higher among ELLs and higher among those who have been reclassified as English proficient in higher grade levels versus those reclassified in earlier grades.

Lesli A. Maxwell of Education Week says that students who remain classified as ELLs for longer periods of time have greater chances of dropping out of school. She observed a study from National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing. Through review of this study Lesli states:

"The researchers found that dropout rates for ELL students were 25 percent, compared to 15 percent for non-English learners. English learners who were reclassified in later grades had higher dropout rates than those who were reclassified in the early grades: 33 percent dropped out if they were still classified as ELLs in high school, 22 percent of those reclassified in grade 5 or sooner dropped out, while 15 percent of students who got reclassified in grade 2 or earlier dropped out."

These results are consistent with the achievement gap results presented in The National Center for Educational Statistics' Table 142 above. ELLs in lower grade levels had lower achievement gaps with their non-ELL peers compared to 12th graders, who had a higher achievement gap compared to their non-ELL peers.

And students who were ELLs but were reclassified as English proficient would not count as ELLs in this study. Their numbers would be factored into the non-ELL numbers. This pattern poses the question: Is this a factor in the higher dropout rate of ELLs as they progress into later grade levels?


WestEd and The American Institutes for Research (AIR) studied ELL educational environments for five years. This study indicated that there is not just a single factor to promote ELL academic achievement. There are factors though which have proven as solutions for increasing the likelihood of academic achievement among ELLs in U.S. schools.

1. Educators need to use a plan of instruction that is structured and rigorous for ELL learning. Schools should offer classes for ELLs that are on the same rigor as classes offered to their English-speaking peers.

2. Schools need to make sure that teachers who work with ELLs receive training and are prepared for meeting student instructional needs. Schools can provide this through professional development and hiring of teachers who have been trained and qualify to teach ELLs. A focus on staff input and collaboration is also a key.

3. Throughout the teaching and learning process, educators need to use data to assess effectiveness. Additionally, they need to make decisions based on data results (data-driven decisions).

4. Educators need to observe the academic learning and performance of ELLs and make instructional planning modifications as needed.

5. Schools need to have a schoolwide focus by all staff on English language development and planning instruction to meet standards.

6. Schools should focus on high school literacy development. This can be achieved by creating personal learning communities that promote literacy development and discussions about literacy.

7. Educators should focus on the needs of individual students. One size does not fit all students. Assess all individual students and modify instruct to meet their developmental, emotional and learning needs.

8. Schools need to create a classroom for late-entry newcomers. This type of classroom focuses on helping ELLs in higher grade levels adjust to learning in the U.S. and in English.

9. Schools and educators need to implement effective strategies and programs for dropout prevention in all education levels and environments. And, implement dropout prevention programs.

10. Schools and educators need to include family engagement, early childhood preparation and literacy development programs for ELLs and their parents.

11. Schools need to create warning and intervention system/programs. They can implement after-school programs, mentoring, 1:1 instruction, technology tools and alternative learning environments for ELLs who need an extra boost and help. To do this, identification of at-risk students is the key to the intervention of students who pose a risk to dropping and/or struggling in school. Interventions help encourage students to graduate by diploma versus by earning a GED.

12. Schools need to improve subject-area instruction for ELLs by implementing research-based effective methods and curriculum by training content area teachers in effective methods of teaching ELLs.

Addressing the problems and solutions for helping ELLs remain in school, achieve and reach high school graduation is a complex task. Since ELL populations in the U.S. will only continue to grow, all educators and schools must be prepared for educating ELLs.

All must understand how to address the learning needs of ELL student populations, how to identify at-risk students, how to address obstacles they face, and how to implement research-based and proven solutions that help direct ELLs toward academic success.