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What is an English Language Learner (ELL)?

English Language Learners (ELL) are students who come from non-English speaking homes and who are learning English. Although many ELL students have developed basic communication skills in English, they still struggle with academic language. This disconnect can make classroom instruction difficult, and it requires modified instruction in the student’s academic courses.

How prevalent are ELL students?

The number of ELL students is growing rapidly in the United States. Today, nearly 10 percent of pre-K–2 students are ELL students. It is estimated that by 2025, 25 percent of students could be ELL students. And just like native English-speaking students, not all ELL students are alike.

Because they are still learning English, ELL students have difficulty keeping up with their native English-speaking peers.

Percent of ELLs Below Basic (NAEP 2015)

Reading Math
  ELLs Non-ELLs ELLs Non-ELLs
Fourth Grade 68% 27% 43% 15%
Eighth Grade 71% 21% 69% 26%

How can I help ELL students in my classroom?

ELL students are learning English in addition to their native language, which in itself is a challenge. It is crucial that we help ELL students comprehend what they’re hearing and learning in the classroom in any way we can. Just like native English-speaking students, it is important to check your ELL students’ understanding and let them know that it’s okay if they don’t understand. By consistently checking in with them, you ensure that your students are learning and grasping the content. Remember to check in often with your ELL students. Don’t assume everything is going well. It may also help to model for your students what they are expected to do or produce. Get in the habit of sharing your thought processes aloud. By thoroughly explaining what you’re asking of your students, ELL students can pick up on what is expected of them.

Why does it matter, anyway?

All students matter. These students just happen to be trying to learn English while they learn in English. It is crucial that we do our best to prepare them for college, career, and life and set them up for future success.

Resources and further reading

Ferlazzo, Larry. (2012). Do's & Don'ts for Teaching English-Language Learners. Edutopia. Retrieved from:
NEA. (2012). English Language Learners: Culture, Equity and Language. Retrieved from:

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