Dual Language Learners

Publication Date:

Aug 23, 2016

Key facts about dual language learners

  • In 2016, one in three (33 percent) U.S. children lived in a household where a language other than English is spoken. Dual language learners (DLL) have the potential to excel in an increasingly diverse society. However, their academic achievement lags behind that of children whose only home language is English.
  • Among children living in non-English language households, Spanish is by far the most prevalent household language, accounting for about two thirds of DLLs, or 16.1 million children in 2016.
  • Even while the proportion of children who are dual language learners has grown, a steadily declining number of children in these households speak English less than “very well”: from 2004 to 2016, the number decreased from 20 to 14 percent of all dual language learners older than four years.

Trends in dual language learners

There is no single consistent definition of dual language learners. The one used here takes an inclusive approach, counting as DLLs all children living in a household where one or more members speak a language other than English. We assume that these children, in addition to their exposure to a non-English language, have some degree of exposure to English. For children in this group who are five and older, we can further identify those who speak English less than “very well.”

From 2004 to 2016, the number of U.S. children living in households where a language other than English was spoken increased from 20.3 million to 24.3 million children. That is an increase from 28 to 33 percent of all children. From 2004 to 2012, the proportion of children in Spanish-language households increased from 19 to 22 percent, where it remained in 2016; the proportion of children in Asian- or Pacific Island-language households increased from 3 to 4 percent over that time. Those in other Indo-European-language households remained steady, at about 5 percent (Appendix 1).

Even while the proportion of children who are dual language learners has grown, a steadily declining number of children in these households speak English less than “very well”: from 2004 to 2016, the number decreased from 2.8 million to 2.3 million children. This represents a decrease from 20 to 14 percent of all dual language learners older than four years (Appendix 3).

The U.S. Department of Education estimates that, across all reporting public school districts in the nation (elementary and secondary grades), there were 4.8 million English language learner (ELL)[1] students (9 percent of all K-12 students) in the 2014-2015 school year.[2]

 

Differences by household language

Among children living in non-English language households, Spanish is by far the most prevalent household language, accounting for about two thirds of DLLs, or 16.1 million children in 2016. The next largest group (3.7 million children) are those in households speaking some other Indo-European language, such as French, German, Russian, or Hindi, followed by children in households using an Asian or Pacific Island language (3.0 million; Appendix 1).

Among children five and older living in non-English language households, the proportion speaking English less than “very well” was 14 percent in 2016. Children in households using an Asian or Pacific Island language had the highest percentage speaking English less than “very well” (15 percent), and those in households speaking a language that was not an Indo-European, Asian, or Pacific Island language were the least likely (11 percent; Appendix 3).

Differences by age

Younger children in non-English households are more likely than their older peers to speak English less than “very well.” In 2016, 15 percent of such children ages 5 to 12 spoke English less than “very well,” compared to 11 percent of children ages 13 to 17 (Appendix 3).

Differences by household income

Children living in households where a language other than English is spoken are more likely to be poor than are children in English-only households (24 versus 17 percent, in 2016). Child poverty rates are highest in households using languages in the “other” category (29 percent) and in Spanish-speaking households (28 percent); they are lower in households using Asian or Pacific Island languages (12 percent), and in households using Indo-European languages other than Spanish (15 percent; Appendix 2).

Children in poorer families are more likely to speak English less than “very well.” In 2016, 20 percent of DLL children in poor families (that is, those with incomes at or below the federal poverty level) spoke English less than “very well,” compared to 15 percent of DLL children in low-income families (those with incomes less than twice the federal poverty level), and 9 percent of DLL children in non-poor families (Appendix 3).

Differences by family structure

In 2016, children living in households where a language other than English is spoken were somewhat more likely to live with two parents than were children whose only language is English (65 and 61 percent, respectively). Children whose home language was non-Spanish, Indo-European were most likely to live with two parents (80 percent), followed by those speaking an Asian or Pacific Island language (79 percent), those in homes using “other” languages (72 percent), English-only (61 percent), and Spanish (58 percent; Appendix 2).

Differences by academic achievement

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) provides the only representative estimates of students’ academic achievement that are comparable over time and across states. Among the NAEP data are estimates of proficiency in reading and math, at fourth and eighth grades.

The NAEP assessments are not designed specifically with English language learners (ELLs)[3] in mind, and thus may not accurately reflect ELL students’ abilities. School districts are permitted to provide a number of testing accommodations for ELL students, but (as of 2017) fewer than half of tested ELLs received these.[4],[5] Still, NAEP data provide the most consistent benchmark to examine students’ progress over time. In turn, students’ progress reflects, in part, the capacity of schools to meet the educational needs of all enrolled children.

In reading at fourth grade, the proportion of ELL students achieving at the Basic level or above[6] has increased from 18 percent in 2000 to 32 percent in 2017. In math at eighth grade, 20 percent of ELLs were at the Basic level or above[7] in 2000, compared with 29 percent in 2017.

The families of ELLs are more likely to be poor than are those of non-ELLs, which may account for some of their lagging achievement, but ELLs also disproportionately attend public schools that have low test scores and ones that are segregated with respect to race, geography, and proportion of ELLs.[8] Other features of ELLs’ experience may also hamper their academic achievement. Limited English proficiency is associated with limited access to health and mental health care, and other social services.[9] In addition to learning two languages, DLLs also may have to adapt to two different sets of cultural expectations.[10] Pressure to speak English, along with discrimination and stigma, can lead to stress for ELLs.[11] Thus, multiple factors may contribute to ELLs’ lagging academic outcomes compared to monolingual students.

State and local estimates

State and local estimates on the number of children, ages five to 17, by language spoken at home and English-speaking ability, are available from American FactFinder at https://factfinder.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview.xhtml?pid=ACS_16_1YR_C16004&prodType=table.

Background

Definition

Data for this indicator are taken from a survey, with English and Spanish versions, that is mailed to households, with follow-ups by phone and in person. Prior to 2007, the survey was offered in English only. With the survey, information is also given on how to complete the survey by telephone in English, Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Korean, or Vietnamese. Follow-up may also include an in-person survey with an interpreter. More information on how the American Community Survey strives to be inclusive of people who do not speak English is available here: https://www.census.gov/programs-surveys/acs/methodology/design-and-methodology.html (Chapter 9).

As used here, a dual language learner (DLL) is a child living in a household where at least one person older than five years speaks a non-English language. The household language was recorded as the language spoken by the first non-English speaker on the following list: householder, spouse, parent, sibling, child, grandchild, other relative, stepchild, unmarried partner, housemate, and other. Thus, some children designated as DLLs may speak only English, particularly if the non-English-speaking household member is a non-relative. A list of languages included in the various categories is available here: https://www2.census.gov/programs-surveys/acs/tech_docs/subject_definitions/2015_ACSSubjectDefinitions.pdf (pages 140-141)

Survey respondents were also asked whether children, ages five years and older, who spoke a language other than English at home, spoke English “very well,” “well,” “not well,” or “not at all.” Children who spoke only English at home were included with those who spoke English “very well.”

Endnotes

[1] The Department defines English language learners as students served in programs of language assistance, such as English as a second language, high-intensity language training, and bilingual education.

[2] U.S. Department of Education. (2017). EDFacts data warehouse, 2014-15: LEP Enrolled. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/about/inits/ed/edfacts/data-files/school-status-data.html.

[3] The U.S. Department of Education uses “English language learner,” rather than dual language learner, so that is the term we used here in reference to school-age children.

[4] The U.S. Department of Education’s list of accommodations includes extended testing time, small-group or one-on-one testing, and test directions (and, for math, test items) read aloud in Spanish. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics. (2013). NAEP accommodations increase inclusiveness. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/about/accom_table.aspx.

[5] U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics. (2018). Summary data tables for national and state sample sizes, participation rates, proportions of SD and ELL students identified, and types of accommodations. Retrieved from https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/math_2017/files/2017_Technical_Appendix_Math_State.pdf.

[6] The National Assessment Governing Board for the NAEP defines the Basic level as follows:

“Fourth-grade students performing at the Basic level should be able to locate relevant information, make simple inferences, and use their understanding of the text to identify details that support a given interpretation or conclusion. Students should be able to interpret the meaning of a word as it is used in the text.

“When reading literary texts such as fiction, poetry, and literary nonfiction, fourth-grade students performing at the Basic level should be able to make simple inferences about characters, events, plot, and setting. They should be able to identify a problem in a story and relevant information that supports an interpretation of a text.

“When reading informational texts such as articles and excerpts from books, fourth-grade students performing at the Basic level should be able to identify the main purpose and an explicitly stated main idea, as well as gather information from various parts of a text to provide supporting information.”

U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics. (2015). The NAEP Reading Achievement Levels by Grade. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/reading/achieve.aspx#2009_grade4.

[7] The National Assessment Governing Board for the NAEP defines the Basic level as follows:

“Eighth-grade students performing at the Basic level should exhibit evidence of conceptual and procedural understanding in the five NAEP content areas. This level of performance signifies an understanding of arithmetic operations—including estimation—on whole numbers, decimals, fractions, and percents.

“Eighth-graders performing at the Basic level should complete problems correctly with the help of structural prompts such as diagrams, charts, and graphs. They should be able to solve problems in all NAEP content areas through the appropriate selection and use of strategies and technological tools—including calculators, computers, and geometric shapes. Students at this level also should be able to use fundamental algebraic and informal geometric concepts in problem solving.

“As they approach the Proficient level, students at the Basic level should be able to determine which of the available data are necessary and sufficient for correct solutions and use them in problem solving. However, these eighth-graders show limited skill in communicating mathematically.”

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2015). The NAEP mathematics achievement levels by grade. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/mathematics/achieve.aspx#grade8.

 

[8] Fry, R. (2008). The role of schools in the English language learner achievement gap. Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center. Retrieved from http://www.pewhispanic.org/2008/06/26/the-role-of-schools-in-the-english-language-learner-achievement-gap/.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Halle, T.G., Hair, E.C., Wandner, L., McNamara, M., & Chien, N. (2012). Predictors and outcomes of early vs. later English language proficiency among English language learners in the ECLS-K. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 27(1), 1-20.

[11] Winsler, A., Burchinal, M. R., Tien, H-C., et al. (2014). Early development among dual language learners: The roles of language use at home, maternal immigration, country of origin, and socio-demographic variables. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 29(4), 750-764.