Who are the ELLs in Your Classroom?

Who are the ELLs in Your Classroom?

by Debbie Zacarian, Judie Haynes

I'd like to introduce Dr. Debbie Zacarian, who co-authored Teaching English Language Learners Across the Content Areas with me. Debbie is the practitioner- research half of our team having worked in secondary education, educational administration and policy and the higher education level. We wanted to share information with you that impacts the lives of the ELLs in the United States.

English language learners represent a significant and growing population. Between 1992 and 2009, the number grew from 1.2 to 5.1 million and represented at least ten percent of the nation’s total population (NCES, 2004; García, Jensen, Scribner, 2009). Many estimate that the actual number is much higher than what has been reported (Capps, Fix, Murray, Ost, Passel, & Herwantoro, 2005). This unprecedented growth of ELLs in our schools is occurring while the nations total population remains relatively unchanged. Classrooms that had once been predominantly populated with monolingual English native-speakers are now filled with a continuously growing population of English language learners.

In literacy-oriented homes parents understand the value of literacy and school practices. That is, they can contribute to their child's education, as they are fundamentally aware of what schooling is about. Children from literacy-oriented families are a product of a technological and schooling society (Pransky, 2009).

Today about 66 % of the ELLs in U.S. schools come from non-literacy- oriented homes (Zacarian, 2011). Half of them were born in the United States. Parents in non-literacy oriented homes are not as formally educated as are those from literacy-orientated families. This is not to say that parents do not care about their children as much as literacy-oriented parents or want them to do well in school. But there is a distinct cultural difference between the two groups and it has deep meaning in terms of what must be considered to create an optimal learning environment for all learners.

Whether the ELLs in your school are from the United States, Korea or Nigeria, what must be considered first is their literacy orientation. We must look at the overall progress of ELLs in U.S. schools; which is very poor. Most are performing half as well as their native English-speaking peers and a significant number drop out of school.

Non-literacy oriented ELLs who are entering U.S. schools come from a variety of backgrounds. First, the majority is living in poverty. They may come from countries where their education was interrupted by war or natural disasters. They may have attended school regularly but the quality of education in their home countries was distinct from that of US schools and often did not represent the same amount, consistency, and quality of instructional materials and programming. Some ELLs from non-literacy oriented homes move from one place to another in the U.S. continuously. Others often travel back and forth from their native countries to the U.S.

For non-literacy-oriented ELLs to have sustained investment in school (Norton-Pierce), teachers have to be powerfully dedicated to understanding the backgrounds of ELLS from non-literacy backgrounds who are just entering our schools. What schools really need to focus on is providing English language development and helping non-literacy oriented students to obtain the literacy skills that they need to learn along side their peers.

We believe that it is paramount for educators to be pro-active in addressing the needs of ELLs from when they first enter school whether this is in kindergarten or high school. The absence comprehensive and specialized programs for ELLs from non-literacy oriented contributes heavily to the failures that are occurring. If we begin to focus on this area, only then can we hope to close the achievement gap that exists in the U.S.


Caps, R., Rix, M., Murray, J., Ost, J., Passel, J., & Herantoro, S. (2005). The new demography of America’s schools: Immigration and the No Child Left Behind Act. Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute.

García, E., Jesen, B.T. & Scribner, K.P. (April 2002(. The demographic imperative. Educational Leadership, 66(7) 8-13.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2004). English Language Learners in US Public Schools: 1994-2000. Retrieved December 10, 2010, from http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2004035

Norton Pierce, B. (1995) Social identity, investment, and language learning. TESOL Quarterly, 29, 1, 9-31.

Pransky, K (2008) The Hidden Realities of Teaching Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Young Learners, K-6: Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann

Zacarian, D. (2011). Transforming Schools for English Learners: a comprehensive framework for school leaders. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

About the Authors

Debbie Zacarian is co-author of Teaching English Language Learners Across the Content Areas and author of Transforming Schools for English Learners: a comprehensive framework for school leaders. Debbie is the practitioner- researcher havi

Judie Haynes is a former ESL teacher, author and professional development provider.