Five Basic Questions to Ask About Your English Learners


By Barbara Gottschalk

“Do any of your students speak Polish?” This question came from a resident at a nursing home my 4th and 5th grade newcomers were visiting. The resident’s question reflected just how much the demographics in my school district had changed. Most of the students in my class were from Iraq. Fifty years earlier, Polish immigrants had populated the Detroit suburb where the nursing home was located. In the intervening years, Polish immigrants had moved further north and were replaced by Chaldean Christians from Iraq. A brand-new Chaldean Community Center now stood a few blocks from the Polish Community Center constructed many years earlier.

Similar shifts in immigration patterns occur in communities across the country. As an ESL teacher, keeping track of these shifts helped me better support the students in my care. In fact, every educator would benefit from understanding such demographic data. We can’t begin to build bridges for our English language learners until we know exactly who they are. Some studies have shown that simply increasing awareness about this population seemed to positively impact educational outcomes for these students (Menken, Funk, & Kleyn, 2011). Without this basic—but often overlooked—data, teachers may make assumptions about their ELLs or they may not even realize they have ELLs in their classrooms (particularly former or fluent ELLs).

Let’s get down to basics, then, with five key questions to ask about the ELLs in your classroom, school, and district:

  1. How many ELLs do you have?

    This is simple, but vital information. I’ve listened to teachers describe “all the new ELLs” enrolling at their school, but, when asked, they didn’t know how much ELL numbers were increasing — or if, in fact, they really were. In cases like this, concrete data can help facilitate requests for more ELL support services. Counting ELLs also helps you notice changes. From 2000-16, 19 states doubled their ELLs as a percentage of the total school population in that state; in contrast, during the same time period, ELLs as a percentage of the total state school population actually decreased in eight states (National Center for Education Statistics, 2018). Many of the states with the highest number of ELLs, historically, are not the states experiencing the greatest growth now.
  2. How long have your ELLs been in the United States?

    Some classroom teachers I have worked with have mistakenly assumed ELLs were only newcomers or those at basic levels of proficiency. In fact, the majority of all ELLs—85 percent in the elementary grades and 62 percent at the secondary level—were born in the U.S. (Zong & Batalova, 2015). Programming for these students looks much different than it does for newcomers.

    In addition, knowing how long a student has been in the U.S. provides context. A teacher may not realize that a 3rd grader struggling in reading only came to the U.S. in the middle of 1st grade. ELLs may also return to their home countries for extended periods during the school year. If an ELL is struggling, a simple check of attendance records may provide an explanation. Even if students have received all of their schooling in this country, it’s still important to note when they came to the U.S. Your new student may turn out to be new to you, but not so new to the country.
  3. What countries do your ELLs come from?

    The answer to this question can also give you native language information, although it’s possible to get this wrong. For example, since Arabic-speaking students were in the majority at my elementary school, teachers sometimes mistakenly assumed their ELLs from Pakistan or Bangladesh also spoke Arabic. Even if students come from the same country, they may speak different native languages. My school had students from India representing at least six of the many different languages spoken in that country. ELLs from Spanish-speaking countries may not necessarily be native speakers of Spanish, but rather native speakers of an indigenous language.

    Tracking the countries your ELLs come from (and the languages they speak) also gives you the ability to spot trends. For example, the majority of the ELLs in my district in Michigan spoke Arabic and/or Chaldean, but the second most spoken language changed from Albanian to Bengali during the 18 years I taught there. Paying attention to the birth countries of your ELLs shows you value your students’ backgrounds. Don’t be like the writer of a grant application I recently reviewed who listed “Czechoslovakian” as one of the groups of students studying English with the organization. Czechoslovakia is actually two different countries, the Czech Republic and Slovakia—and it’s been that way since 1993. We can do better than this with the ELLs in our classrooms.
  4. What are the proficiency levels of your ELLs?

    Although valuable to know, the proficiency levels of ELLs aren’t always readily available. I know of one high school counselor who couldn’t obtain her students’ scores from the state’s annual test of English language proficiency—until she specifically asked (several times) for the information. She explained it away by saying “Nobody pays attention to this anyway,” and she may have been right, but still, we should pay attention to it. The annual test of English language proficiency is more valid than many other assessments ELLs take. That’s because it’s designed to test all four domains of their English language proficiency — listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Take advantage of this information, even if, like the high school counselor, you have to ask for it. In this case, the counselor discovered that a student everyone thought was “doing fine” had tested at a basic level of English proficiency— for the previous three years.
  5. How long have your ELLs been ELLs?

    So often we’re concerned with how ELLs are doing at a particular point in time. Instead, we should focus on their progress toward proficiency. Historical data is important, but unfortunately, it’s often the information most difficult to assemble, especially for ELLs who move from school to school, state to state, and even country to country. An ELL who has been in the U.S. for a year and doesn’t test proficient on your state’s math assessment is one thing; a 7th grade ELL who was born in the United States and who doesn’t test proficient on your state’s math assessment is quite another.

    Historical information is valuable because it links all the snapshots of assessment together into a trend line of progress. It can pinpoint reasons for concern, but it can also reassure. A teacher may worry about a 1st grader being “so low” and not realize the student entered kindergarten midyear and is making good progress. I’ve pointed out similar cases to teachers many times myself, reminding them they were being too hard on their students — and themselves!

    These five basic questions about ELLs can be answered with readily available data. One final piece of data, however, that’s not readily available—at least not yet—is the performance of former ELLs. The federal government advises states to monitor the progress of former ELLs for at least two years, but after that, the time can vary by state and district. By failing to track ELLs over the long-term, we lose the opportunity to celebrate their successes. For example, Kieffer and Thompson (2018) found that over a 12-year period, the scores of multilingual students in grades 4 and 8 on both the NAEP reading and math assessments improved two to three times more than those of monolingual students. This multilingual group included ELLs, former ELLs, and students from multilingual homes who had tested as English proficient when they entered kindergarten. Their study concluded that simply comparing ELLs’ performance relative to that of non-ELLs doesn’t give us a complete picture of the “hidden progress” of multilingual students.

    We need to do a better job at both a state and national level of tracking the progress of former ELLs. This is perhaps the most important ELL information of all.


Kieffer, M., & Thompson, K. (2018, August/September). Hidden progress of multilingual students on NAEP. Educational Researcher, 47(6), 391–398.

Menken, K., Funk, A., & Kleyn, T. (2011). Teachers at the epicenter: Engagement and resistance in a biliteracy program for “long-term English language learners” in the U.S. In Helot, C., & O Laoire, M. (Eds.), Language Policy for the Multilingual Classroom: Pedagogy of the Possible. Cleveldon, Avon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2011). Number of public school teachers and percentage of public school teachers who taught limited-English proficiency (LEP) or English language learner (ELL) students, by selected school and teacher characteristics: 2011–12. Schools and Staffing Survey. U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from

National Center for Education Statistics. (2018). Table 204.20. English language learner (ELL) students enrolled in public elementary and secondary schools, by state; selected years, fall 2000 through fall 2015. Digest of Education Statistics. U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from

Zong, J., & Batalova, J. (2015). The limited English proficient population in the United States. Migration Policy Institute. Retrieved from