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English Learners (see data for this topic)

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Why This Topic Is Important
Trends in English proficiency and primary languages spoken among children and families can be useful in projecting potential needs and planning appropriate services in health care, education, child care, and other settings. For example, quality health care requires effective communication between families and providers. Research shows that children in families with a primary language other than English experience disparities in health status, quality of health care services, and access to care, compared to children with English as a primary household language (1). Academically, children with limited English proficiency tend to have lower test scores than their native English-speaking peers. English Learners face the challenge of mastering content presented in the school curriculum at the same time they learn a new language (2, 3, 4). These circumstances create exceptional challenges for later educational attainment and socioeconomic success.

California’s public school system is charged with serving a diverse student body. In 2015 more than 2.6 million California students (43%) spoke a language other than English at home, compared to a national estimate of 22% among all children ages 5-17 (3, 5). More than 65 primary languages are reported among California students classified as English Learners (6). To ensure that children with limited English proficiency reach their maximum academic and health potential, it is critical for California’s education, health, social service, and community systems to be adequately prepared to meet the needs of the state’s increasingly diverse child and family population.
For more information on English Learners please see’s Research & Links section.

Sources for this narrative:

1. Flores, G., & Tomany-Korman, S. C. (2008). The language spoken at home and disparities in medical and dental health, access to care, and use of services in U.S. children. Pediatrics, 121(6), e1703-e1714. Retrieved from:

2. Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics. (2015). Language spoken at home and difficulty speaking English. In America’s children: Key national indicators of well-being, 2015. U.S. Government Printing Office. Retrieved from:

3. California Department of Education. (2016). Facts about English Learners in California. Retrieved from:

4. Fry, R. (2007). How far behind in math and reading are English language learners? Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project. Retrieved from:

5. KIDS COUNT Data Center. (2016). Children who speak a language other than English at home. Annie E. Casey Foundation. Retrieved from:

6. California Department of Education. (n.d.). State of California language group data - Statewide for 2014-15. Retrieved from:
Policy Implications
More than 1 in every 5 of California’s public school students—almost 1.4 million—have limited English proficiency (1). These children face a variety of educational challenges that policymakers and educators are working to address through targeted instruction, setting high expectations for academic achievement for all students, and improving dropout prevention policies. Currently, only about 70% of English Learners in the state’s public schools graduate from high school (2). Students who are learning English also often have parents with limited or no ability to speak English, which may result in barriers to accessing health care or other services that support academic achievement.

Policy options for addressing the challenges faced by children who are English Learners include:
  • Adopting practices with demonstrated effectiveness at the district and school level, such as: strategic use of academic assessment data; implementing a coherent, standards-based curriculum and program; using measurable and monitored achievement objectives; ensuring availability of teaching resources; securing district-level support for English Learners; using resource teachers for individualized programs; and using immersion techniques (such as Specially Designed Academic Instruction in English) to teach math to English Learners (3)
  • Setting school and district policies to incorporate formal and informal strategies to promote family and community engagement (4)
  • Ensuring that teacher candidates understand second language and literacy acquisition and how they inform effective instruction (5)
  • Improving access to publicly funded social services, including targeted outreach to non-English speakers for state child care subsidies, conducting public education on language access rights for medical patients and their families, and enforcing existing language access laws in health care settings (6, 7)
For more policy ideas and information on this topic see’s Research & Links section or visit the Urban Institute, UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, or the National Immigration Law Center. Also see Policy Implications on under Immigrants, and Reading and Math Proficiency.

Sources for this narrative:

1.  As cited on, English Learners in public schools. (2016). California Department of Education, DataQuest. Retrieved from:

2.  California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System. (n.d.). Cohort outcome data by program. California Department of Education. Retrieved from:

3.  Williams, T., et al. (2007). Similar English learner students, different results: Why do some schools do better? EdSource. Retrieved from:

4.  Lazarín, M., & Ortiz-Licon, F. (2010). Next generation charter schools: Meeting the needs of Latinos and English language learners. Center for American Progress & National Council of La Raza. Retrieved from:

5.  Santos, M., et al. (2011). Teacher development to support English language learners in the context of Common Core State Standards. Understanding Language Initiative. Retrieved from:

6.   Firgens, E., & Matthews, H. (2012). State child care policies for limited English proficient families. Center for Law and Social Policy. Retrieved from:

7.  Chen, A. H., et al. (2007). The legal framework for language access in healthcare settings: Title VI and beyond. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 22(Suppl. 2), 362-367. Retrieved from:
How Children Are Faring
In 2016, 22% of all California public school students were classified as English Learners, which equates to more than 1.3 million students with limited English proficiency. The percentage of English Learners remained around 22% to 26% between 1998-2016.

In 2016 and previous years, Spanish was by far the most common first language of students classified as English Learners, statewide and in virtually all counties with available data. Nearly one in five (18%) California public school students were Spanish-speaking English Learners in 2016; 4% were English Learners with a primary language other than Spanish. Following Spanish, the state’s most common non-English primary languages were Vietnamese and Mandarin.