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Understanding the English as a Second Language (ESL) Population

The best part of working in education is when one of your students finally understands something after working so hard to get there. This “aha” moment, as teachers often refer to it, comes at different times for different students, but it always feels incredibly rewarding.

A big part of teaching is recognizing that no two students are the same.  It takes a lot of time, patience, and some good old-fashioned trial and error to provide an equitable education to all students.

Each student who enters your classroom, whether in a brick-and-mortar building or virtually, has their own needs, their own abilities, and their own obstacles to face during the learning process.

English as a Second Language (ESL) students, while just as individually unique as any other student in your class, face the additional task of learning both the subject matter while trying to translate and understand the actual language from the teacher and students.   

It’s critical that teachers understand everything about these ESL learners and how best to teach them without bringing too much attention to these students, which might cause bullying or unwanted attention from other students.

With nearly 5 million ESL students in the United States, most teachers are likely to have students from this particular demographic in some classes.

In states like California,Texas, Florida, and New York, the ESL population is surging. States like Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina have seen large increases in their ESL populations in recent years.

Surprisingly, the majority of ESL students are native-born, with 85% of ESL students in preschool through 5th grade and 62% of students in 6th through 12th grades having been born in the US. So only a small portion of ESL students may be “dreamers”.  Dreamers are young undocumented immigrants.

The statistics on which languages your ESL students may speak primarily at home are interesting:

  • 75.2% speak Spanish or Castilian
  • 2.7% speak Arabic
  • 2.0% speak Chinese
  • 2.0% speak English
  • 1.5% speak Vietnamese
  • 0.8% speak Somali
  • 0.8% speak Russian
  • 0.7% speak Portuguese
  • 0.7% speak Haitian or Haitian Creole
  • 0.6% speak Hmong

As expected, the largest group of ESL students are from Hispanic backgrounds.

Another important statistic to note is that most ESL students attend public schools and many are concentrated in urban, low-performing schools with untrained or poorly trained teachers. Given this demographic, it should come as no surprise that only 2% of the nation’s ESL students are currently enrolled in gifted programs.

ESL students represent about 14% of all homeless children enrolled in public schools, and represented about 15% of students served by Title I Schoolwide Programs.  Parent involvement in these students’ education can often be lacking because the language barriers can often leave these parents uncomfortable attending school events and meetings. 

While all students deserve the best education our school systems and teachers can provide, understanding the additional challenges that these students face, and providing some additional support and assistance can make a huge difference in the lives of these children. 

Virtual education is a great educational resource for these students and families.  As we move into our next article on ESL students, we will outline why. 

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