English Language Learners (ELLs) are the fastest growing group of students in the United
States, with nearly 41 percent of the nation’s ELLs attending schools in California (cited in
Berman, et al, 1995). By federal standards, students are considered to be ELLs when their
native language is other than English and their difficulties in understanding, reading, or writing
English impair their opportunities for experiencing academic achievement in Englishonly
classrooms and for participating fully in society (NCBE, 1996).
Between the 1980 and 1990 national census reports, the number of students who are ELLs
grew two and one-half times faster than the general student population, especially in large
urban areas. More than 9.9 million students come from language minority families and approximately
50 percent of these students are considered to be ELLs (Berman, et al, 1995).
California now has 1.5 million ELLs among the state’s 6 million K-12 students – or more
than one in five students. The number of ELLs in California has more than doubled in the last
decade (CDE, 1997).
In California, 80 percent of ELLs speak Spanish, making it the most common native language
of ELLs. Another 8 percent speak Cantonese, Vietnamese, or Hmong as their primary
language (UC Davis, 1997). Some demographers project that by the year 2050, more than 25
percent of the nation’s population will be Latino, and that the Asian population also will continue
to increase (Farley, 1997). These demographic changes not only challenge what society
considers the norm for language use in schools, but also challenge all aspects of the social
institutions that support what was once thought of as the “dominant culture.”
ELLs arrive at school displaying a wide range of linguistic and academic abilities and needs.
Some have attended school in their country of origin and enter schools here with developmentally
and age appropriate levels of native language and academic skills. Among ELLs