U.S. Education Market Snapshot: English Language Learners (ELLs)

The Early Days

In the 1960s, Victoria Porras attended Melrose High School in Massachusetts as an exchange student from Bogotá, Colombia. She was far from home. Her host family, teachers, and new schoolmates were friendly and eager to help, but the everyday English spoken in the Boston area is accented, idiomatic, and studded with acronyms.

Victoria decided then that she would find a way to help other exchange students navigate spoken English. The idea of Victory Productions grew from that experience.

When Victoria established Victory Productions in 1995, its mission was to develop educational materials to teach English as a Second Language (ESL), but she found that what the market wanted was Spanish translation. Only later did the market recognize the need for materials dedicated to English Language Learners (ELLs).

The ELL market has certainly changed since those early years. Most early programs focused on teaching English language skills so students could learn in the mainstream classroom. The products offered to the market were Spanish student editions, bilingual student editions, and supplemental programs designed to build English reading skills. Today’s market, however, is different.

Today’s Market for English Language Learners (ELLs)

The U.S. Department of Education recorded 4.85 million English language learners (ELLs) enrolled in public schools in the academic year 2012–2013. ELLs attend public schools in all 50 states, so the market is national. As shown in the map below compiled by the Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA), the greatest populations of ELLs (by percent of total enrollment) are in southwestern states. In 2012, there were six states with a 10% or higher density of ELLs: California, Texas, Nevada, Oregon, Colorado, and New Mexico. On the east coast, only three states—Florida, New York, and Virginia—ranked in the top fifteen states in ELL student density.

U.S. State Map of Highest Density of English Language Learners (ELLs)

Growth of the ELL Market

Overall, the number of ELL students in U.S. public schools is increasing steadily. According to the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), ELLs are the fastest growing segment of the student population. Growth in grades 7–12 is the highest and now comprises 10.5% of the nation’s K–12 enrollment. The number of ELL students in elementary grades is also increasing.

Although the overall percentage of ELL students in the U.S. is growing, the OELA map below clearly shows how widely the rate of growth varies across the country. In fact, there was a decrease in the ELL population in thirteen states, most importantly in California. Massachusetts was the only state in which the ELL population doubled during this time span.

U.S. State Data on Changes in Population of English Language Learners (ELLs)

Unique Characteristics of the ELL Market

English language learners face a double challenge: to become proficient in a new language while simultaneously learning content in specific subjects, such as mathematics and social studies. Those variables create a unique market in which to develop and publish materials that benefit these students.

Another way that the market is proving unique is that there are many different types of ELLs. Similar to native English learners, ELLs do not fit into any rigid or clearly identifiable categories. Some ELLs have knowledge of English and are very literate in their native language, while others struggle with literacy both in their native language and in English.

Publishing Opportunities for ELLs

While in the past publishers have created products and programs aimed at the ESL (English as a Second Language) market, the ELL market presents a different set of priorities. These are a few of the challenges that represent opportunities for educational publishers:

  • Development of scaffolded programs, using current standards for ELL students. (Standards vary from state to state, so many of the products need to be customized for California, Texas, and other large adoptions.)
  • Language lessons that use fiction and nonfiction based on different cultures and experiences. Research has proven that when students see themselves in their learning, their learning improves.
  • Background builders for literature and content that allows students to have the same level of knowledge in lessons.
  • Visual lessons, which ease the language barrier.
  • Lessons focused on higher-level-thinking strategies as well as language.

Are you looking to develop ELL products that successfully execute ELL strategies across a broad range of grade levels? Developers that can put together interdisciplinary ELL teams with the right background and experience will excel at creating products and materials that truly address the needs of this market.

Useful Links

Teaching English Language Learners ELL Resources for teachers and administrators
ELL Resources by State Links to ELL standards and legislation for all 50 states
WIDA English Language Development (ELD) Standards WIDA’s 2012 Amplification of the ELD Standards, K–12, available for free download

Works Cited

Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA). Fast Facts: Profiles of English Learners. National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition. <http://www.ncela.us/files/fast_facts/OELA_FastFacts_ProfilesOfELs.pdf>

NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English). English Language Learners: A Policy Research Brief produced by the National Council of Teachers of English. Web. 29 March, 2016. <http://www.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Resources/PolicyResearch/ELLResearchBrief.pdf>

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