ESL Education in the U.S.

ASO Staff Writers
Updated August 15, 2023
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Helping English Language Learners Excel in School and Beyond

Over the past 10 years, English Language Learners (ELL) in grades K-12 have grown by 60 percent in the United States. Whether immigrating as a child or being born into a non-English speaking family in the U.S., English as a Second Language (ESL) programs are vital for helping children learn English and thereby learn other topics taught in school. While thousands of ESL teachers are preparing future generations for success, they can’t go it alone: students and parents must join with their teachers to build a learning community. This guide highlights the variety of English-learning programs available and provides resources to help students, parents and teachers get the most out of ESL education.

What is ESL?

ESL, or English as a Second Language, is a popular style of classroom teaching where students come together to learn English. Bilingual classrooms differ from ESL classes in distinct ways. Students in a bilingual classroom all speak the same native tongue, as does their teacher. Because students of all different languages, from Spanish to Tagalog to Mandarin, can come together in an ESL classroom, the teacher speaks only English since there is no way for them to know the languages of all students. In addition, ESL classrooms focus first and foremost on teacher students English, while bilingual classrooms give instruction in both languages.

ESL Levels of English Language Proficiency

As with other foreign language classes, ESL courses are typically differentiated by levels of language proficiency mastered by the students taking them. The levels for language mastery for ESL students include:

  1. 1

    Level One: Beginning

    Students may be able to state their name or answer basic yes/no questions, but their English vocabulary is very limited and, depending on their native tongue, may not be familiar with the English alphabet.

  2. 2

    Level Two: High Beginning

    Commonly used, monosyllabic words may be part of the student’s English vocabulary, but they are still very timid to display their skills. May be able to read/write basic words, but with much difficulty.

  3. 3

    Level Three: Intermediate

    Confidence begins building at this level, and even if students misuse words or struggle to understand, they’re more apt to take part in lessons. Their vocabulary is steadily growing.

  4. 4

    Level Four: High Intermediate

    There may still be a few grammar and vocabulary errors, but students are largely self-assured. Their self-confidence often means they are participating in lots of conversations in English outside of class and learning linguistic nuances rapidly.

  5. 5

    Level Five: Advanced

    Reading at this level should come easily, though students may want to keep a dictionary handy. Writing – specifically mastering grammar and syntax – may take longer, but students are nearing fluency.

In Depth: ELL Glossary

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    Commonly referred to as ELD (English Language Development) or ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages), ESL (English as a Second Language) is the process for non-native speakers to learn English.

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    English Language Learners are any students (youth or adults) who aren’t native speakers but are currently learning how to speak English.

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    English as a Foreign Language is similar to ESL, but denotes students who are learning English in their native home rather than a country whose official language is English. For example, students in Mexico learning English would be considered studying EFL.

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    Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages is a professional body of individuals who administer, research, and teach the best methods for learning English as non-native speakers.

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    ELP Standards

    English Language Proficiency Standards outline the different levels of language skills students should possess as they move through K-12 to meet college and career standards upon graduating high school.

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    Native Language

    Sometimes called the mother tongue, native language commonly refers to the first language a person learns in life or the official language of the region in which they were born.

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    Primary Language

    This term differs from native language by differentiating the first language a person learned from the primary language a person currently uses. For example, someone who immigrated from France to the U.S. and now speaks English in their day-to-day life would consider French their native language and English their primary language.

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    Bilingual individuals are those who can speak two different languages, though their proficiency levels in different dimensions (listening, speaking, reading, and writing) may vary across languages.

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    The level to which an individual can participate in the oral and written components of their non-native tongue.

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    Language Fluency

    Refers to the ability to comprehend, speak, read, and write a second language at a similar level to that of their primary language.

ESL Education in the U.S. Today: Fast Facts

  • As of 2013, Spanish speakers comprised 71 percent of all English Language Learning students in the United States.
  • The 2012-2013 school year included 4.85 million English Language Learners in schools across the United States.
  • Los Angeles has the largest population of ELL students in K-12, accounting for 23.1 percent of all enrolled learners.
  • More than 10 percent of all public school students in Alaska, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Washington D.C. are classified as English Language Learners.
  • Less than one percent of all public school teachers are qualified to teach ESL, meaning the current student-teacher ratio is 150:1.
  • The majority of school-aged English Language Learners are U.S. citizens. 62 percent of all ELL students in grades 6-12 at public schools were born in the U.S.

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ESL Resources for Students, Parents and Teachers

English can be a challenging language to learn – especially for people who didn’t grow up learning the complicated grammar rules, cultural uses of words, or region-specific pronunciations. The following list of resources can help teachers find meaningful methods of instruction, students to find fun and interactive ways to learn vocabulary and the rules of the language, and parents to empower their children along the way.


Whether looking to build skills in reading, writing, listening or speaking, the range of online resources for English Language Learners is truly impressive. Students who learn best by repetition can review flashcards, while visual learners are able to enjoy a vast collection of YouTube videos. Whichever learning style works best for you, chances are there more than enough resources available to boost learning.

Written Language

Helps students better their English vocabulary and grammar through the context of learning about current news and global affairs.
For ESP students focused on building their business vocabulary, VBE has an extensive list of words commonly used in this arena.
Want to test your knowledge of vocabulary? There are dozens of categorized quizzes provided on this website.
Operating as the globe’s biggest network of ESL learners and English speakers, this dynamic forum allows non-native speakers to ask any grammar questions they may have while learning English.
This website provides helpful guides and examples for learning English grammar concepts like adverb, relative clauses and verb tenses.
With a focus on vocabulary expansion and spelling, students can review thousands of words – including those commonly missed on TOEFL exams.
Whether trying to master homonyms, grammar, or slang, this website has a range of quizzes to help.

Oral Language

Great for students with limited amounts of time to study, these short audio lessons are broken down by specific categories.
This daily email teaches subscribers a new word every day, including its definition and pronunciation.
The BBC provides a roundup of common topics that frustrate non-native English speakers, including lots of tips about vocabulary.
English is filled with inconsistencies when it comes to pronunciations, but English Leap offers help by focusing on how letters combine to form different sounds.
This YouTube channel/website is run by an actual teacher who focuses heavily on different sounds and pronunciations, specifically within an American context.
This weekly podcasts tackles common topics in English language learning and discusses them in simple English to help listeners comprehend and retain the lessons.
The beauty of this podcast is its arrangement into different levels, making it easy for students just beginning lessons or polishing the finer points to find helpful content.
This YouTube channel/website features many of the same news and human interest stories found on other news outlets, but it’s broadcast at two-thirds the regular speed so non-native listeners can follow along more easily.


Whether a parent is a native speaker of English or learning the language alongside their children, a lot of resources can be found online to help their children learn while at home and also to understand their rights as an ELL family.

At Home Learning

Provided by Houghton Mifflin, this interactive site for kids is divided by Grades K-5 and Grades 6-8.
Geared to younger ELLs, this resource has a range of songs, games, rhymes, and finger-plays to introduce them to English.
This resource hosts a range of printable worksheets and flashcards as well as online games and songs that parents can use to engage their kids in language learning.
Hello World has more than 800 games and activities in English, all of which are completely free.
The IPD helps kids learn English words and has translations in French, German, Italian, and Spanish.
This simple but effective website allows young learners to watch a video about each letter of the alphabet.

Helpful Information

The U.S. Department of Education outlines the rights for every parent of an ELL student in America.
Your Dictionary offers a range of tips for helping children at home.
An easy-to-use, free online dictionary and thesaurus for quickly looking up English words.
The PTA provides Spanish translations of all their resources and parent guides.
This tip sheet by Reading Rockets provides information for parents of ELLs in English plus 10 other languages, with a special handout for children with disabilities.
The U.S. Department of Education provides this translated version of relevant information for Spanish-speaking parents.
The Center for Parent Information and Resources provides a spectrum of helpful information for parents whose native language is not English. All resources are available in English and Spanish.


The ever-increasing number of ELL students in America’s schools provides exciting opportunities for culture swapping amongst learners, but it can also be stressful for teachers who already have their plates full with other teaching commitments. The resources below are tailored to help alleviate the stress of lesson planning for busy educators.

Teaching Materials

This exhaustive website offers a wide range of resources for teaching all aspects of English to a variety of age groups and levels.
Using English offers 517 handouts and worksheets, 888 lesson plans, and a range of interactive online quizzes.
As the name implies, this website hosts a comprehensive supply of ESL resources, ranging from lesson plans to teaching tips.
An exhaustive array of activities, lesson plans, and additional resources can be found via this certification organization.
Provides a range of audio clips and pre/post listening activities for learners.
With helpful tips given for teachers across all grade levels, these helpful guides from Colorín Colorado provide information and handouts in both English and Spanish.
English Club provides tons of tips based on the types of classes an ESL teacher may have.

Research, Toolkits and Resources

CAL offers a series of briefs on ESL topics, including Common Core for ELLs and how to best used the sheltered instruction technique.
Edutopia offers several innovative, research-based strategies for teaching ELL, including incorporating photography, storytelling, and blogging.
Author Alba Ortiz looks at intervention models for non-native speakers with special needs and provides tips on creating the best learning environments.
The Educational Testing Service provides this in depth report on different factors for measuring a child’s ability to learn and discusses appropriate assessment models.
This professional body serves as the organizing group of TEFL teachers across the world and offers resources, scholarships, job boards, and an annual conference.
Provided by Colorín Colorado, this guide provides both practical information about engaging parents and bilingual videos and handouts.
Pearson created a professional development course for teachers interested in using this model of instruction.
TESOL is perhaps the best known name in teaching non-native speakers and hosts a variety of resources on their website.

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Laws and Regulations for ESL/ELL Education

Laws and regulations passed in the last four decades have been instrumental in securing the rights to education for all students, regardless of their English language skills. These rulings and passages have also provided helpful guidelines for educators and school administrators, helping them to create meaningful programs to ensure every student has a path to learning both English and other critical areas of study.


• Bilingual Education Act

Signed into law in 1968, the Bilingual Education Act was written as an amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965. This is generally considered the first federal legislation to allocate funding for bilingual education. Under this amendment, school districts with a need for bilingual education could request federal grants to fund staff training, research, program development and educational resources.


• Office for Civil Rights (OCR)

In 1970, the OCR created the first major legal memo addressing educational equality in terms of language barriers. The document stated federal law was being broken when non-native children were not able to participate in learning due to not understanding English. It also required all school districts to take affirmative steps to rectify the situation.


• Lau v. Nichols

Decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1974, this case upheld the OCR’s memo and asserted that all students must have the same opportunities to learn as their English-speaking peers; for that learning to be considered equal, the content must be accessible to them. The case also hit on the cornerstone of the argument by stating that education can only be achieved when students are able to understand the language being used.

• Equal Education Opportunity Act

Passed a few weeks after the Supreme Court’s ruling, Title II of the Education Amendments Act of 1974 extended rights to all students in every school district, regardless of whether or not they received federal or state funds. This Act was also crucial as it finally outlined what constituted educational rights for every student.


• No Child Left Behind

Signed by George Bush in 2002 to replace the Bilingual Education Act, NCLB included significant changes for ELL students and teachers. Maintaining proficiency in the child’s native language is no longer encouraged, making dual language programs difficult to continue. ELL grants are no longer competitive, meaning every school gets funding but it’s spread thinner. The result, especially for schools with high populations of ELLs, has been a steady decline in the quality of instruction they are able to provide.


• Every Student Succeeds Act

In 2015, President Obama reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) with this bipartisan measure. ESSA replaced the No Child Left Behind Act, and has significant impact on ELLs. Key groups such as TESOL note some of the measure’s strong points for ELLs, such as mandatory reporting of newcomer and long-term ELLs, continued funding of ELL programs and increased state accountability for ELLs. Find TESOL’s full report on the positive aspects and the shortcomings of the ESSA in regards to ELL education here.

From the Expert: The Challenges and the Opportunities in ESL Education

Alyssa Udovitsch

Alyssa Udovitsch studied English Literature at the University of North Texas before starting her teaching career in 2009. After teaching English for three years, she returned to school to complete a master’s in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) from the University of California. After teaching ESL classes and leading the ESL department in a North Texas middle school for two years, Alyssa and her husband moved to Nashville where she currently works as the ESL Coordinator for a charter school.

Q. How has legislation affected ESL programs in the U.S.

School districts often have ample flexibility when it comes to defining their ESL and ELD programs, and educators and administrators decide how they can best serve their ELL population.

With that being said, federal funding is an obstacle for schools when it comes to ESL and low-socioeconomic students.

Much of the funding for those students is spread very thin and is often not enough to provide teachers with the training and resources to become and continue to grow as English language teachers.

No Child Left Behind has left a significant impact on the overall state of education in the United States. With more focus on meeting measurable goals on standardized testing, ELL students were, and still are, being left behind. Failure to achieve on these tests leads to an increasing dropout rate for ELL students.

Before NCLB, there was a strong emphasis on bilingual education and the quality of English language programs. Under NCLB, bilingual efforts gave way to a new, more English-only focus on ESL education in the U.S. In addition, none of the issues that may cause significant negative impact to ELLs, like segregation or improper placement, are discussed in these revisions.

Q. How can parents best support students in an ESL Program?

Parents can support their children by encouraging literacy at home, whether in the first or second language. Literacy is literacy. If a child knows how to read and write in his or her first language, they are much more equipped to be successful in an ESL classroom and in school overall.

Students come to us in many different states of literacy development and language acquisition. Most students I have taught have not been able to read or write in their first language. That means, on day one, I’m teaching them to write maybe for the first time—and this happens in middle school! Imagine the amount of frustration one might feel trying to perform a completely new skill in a new language. When students experience these road-blocks, the immediate reaction will likely be to shut down or to act out; to feel defeated before they even get to the language part of it.

Having an emotional and academic support-network at home can support teachers’ efforts in the classroom. If students come home and are frustrated, parents can help by discussing their child’s frustration and brainstorming ways to overcome or to face those obstacles in a healthy and productive way. On the academic side of things, when students and are able to practice English with their parents, they are more likely to make progress in their classes. Obviously, having adequate support at home is a very complex issue for many immigrant families. Most work long hours and have many responsibilities that do not allow them the time to learn a new language. Sometimes they do not see their children long enough to connect with them after a long day of school and work, and this is the reality in which we live.

Both educators and parents must be active participants in local and state elections, and school board meetings. Lack of voice is what has lead American school systems into the dark ages regarding institutionalized racism, standardized testing, and unattainable, unfocused accountability measures, and it is the responsibility of educators and parents to act as advocates for their children.

Q. How can families and educators choose the best program for their child?

Families of English Learners need to have a basic understanding of language acquisition, to stay in contact with teachers and administrators, and to be informed about their school district’s policies regarding English language instruction.

Students are sometimes taught to abandon their literacy in their first language (L1), which makes literacy in a second language that much more difficult.

At the state and local level, schools have the ability to tailor their ESL programs to fit their ELL population. Some schools have a high population of ELL students, so they may offer sheltered instruction, while other schools may have a small population or don’t have the resources to offer such programs, thus placing ELL students in general education classes to learn in an immersion-type setting with some ELL support (that which is deemed appropriate for that particular school).

Educators must realize and accept that we are living in a multilingual world, and that English is not the only language students are bringing with them into the classroom. Honoring language, culture, and exploring diversity are simple ways teachers can provide adequate instruction to their students. When parents are part of the process of creating and developing the culture of these programs they stand to be much more successful and authentic.

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Understanding Program Options for English Language Learners

Since the introduction of federal laws mandating equal access to education for all students – regardless of native language – in the 1970s, a variety of different approaches and programs for teaching English Language Learners has emerged. While some focus exclusively on building oral and written skills in English, others seek to preserve students’ proficiency in their first language and encourage bilingualism. The following table highlights the most common ELL options available today.

  • ESL Pull-out

    Goals of the Program: Pull-out programs remove students from their regular classes for a period of language review. Students may be pulled individually or in groups, with the overarching goal of helping ELL keep up with their regular coursework. Students who are struggling to understand assignments or classroom instruction often comprise these classes/tutoring sessions.

    Expectations for Educators: Teachers of pull-out classes only need to speak English and often work with many different classes throughout the school if there aren’t enough ESL teachers. In addition to state-specific teacher credential requirements, ESL teachers likely need an add-on certification.

  • Sheltered Instruction

    Goals of the Program: Also called content-based instruction, these programs employ teachers to provide all required lessons of that grade level (Civics, English, history, math, science, etc.) in simplified English that ELL students can better grasp. By learning all subjects in this way, students are expected to gain a more thorough grasp of English quicker than a pull-out program.

    Expectations for Educations: Similar to ESL pull-out teachers, sheltered instructors must be certified educators in their state with content knowledge specific to their grade level. They’ll also need an ESL certification.

  • Newcomer Programs

    Goals of the Program: Created for students immigrating to the country at the secondary school level, newcomer programs are immersive classrooms where students can improve their language skills and learn about social, cultural, and classroom norms before integrating with English-speaking classmates.

    Expectations for Educations: These classes are taught in English and are most successful when certified teachers, guidance counselors, families and local community members take part in acclimating students.

  • Dual Immersion or Dual Language Program

    Goals of the Program: Comprised of roughly half native English speakers and half native non-English speakers, dual immersion (or two-way bilingual) classes are taught by bilingual teachers who instruct in both languages. The goal of these classes is for the entire class to become bilingual.

    Expectations for Educations: Certified teachers who are also bilingual are qualified for these roles. Depending on how the class is structured, they also need to be well-versed in an area of content.

  • Transitional Bilingual or Early-Exit Programs

    Goals of the Program: As the name implies, transitional classes help non-English students move from their native tongue to English via classes that gradually use more and more English as they progress. These classes typically begin in kindergarten and end by third grade, at which point all instruction is in English.

    Expectations for Educations: Because the class is taught in both English and another non-English language (typically Spanish), teachers must be bilingual in addition to teaching their chosen field of content. Regular teacher certification and licensure still applies.

  • Maintenance Bilingual or Late-Exit Programs

    Goals of the Program: While other programs are primarily focused with ensuring students grasp oral and written use of English, maintenance bilingual programs work to build a student’s English skills while also maintaining familiarity with their home language.

    Expectations for Educations: Because the class is taught in both English and another non-English language (typically Spanish), teachers must be bilingual in addition to teaching their chosen field of content. Regular certification and licensure still applies.

  • English for Specific Purposes (ESP)

    Goals of the Program: Unlike programs focused on developing the oral and written skills across the English language, ESP courses help students build their vocabulary and competence for specific sets of words. Common examples may include words used in academia, the sciences, business, or technology.

    Expectations for Educations: ESP courses are found at learning centers, vocational schools, and universities and may be taught by a variety of different instructors. Teachers generally need a bachelor’s degree and an ESP certification.

  • Adult Education ESL Programs

    Goals of the Program: The majority of programs reviewed above are specific to primary and secondary school students, but adult education ESL courses are also very popular and widely available. These classes help adult ELL build confidence and oral and written skills, and are often offered at times that can fit busy schedules.

    Expectations for Educations: Requirements for ESL teachers vary, but most should have a bachelor’s degree and an ESL certification.

Additional ESL/ELL Resources

Teachers or parents can use this website to help children learn English by listening to stories in English accompanied by animation.
This resource is specifically tailored to children whose native language is Chinese who are currently learning English.
This personalized web browser allows parents/teachers to set filters by reading level and subject area for children to use.
This game, provided by FunBrain, helps students recognized different parts of speech in a fun and memorable way.
This interactive website is designed to teach non-native speakers in grades 1-3 about English via nature-oriented stories and games.
Provided by the University of Pittsburgh, this site offers countless illustrations that can be used to describe English words.

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