What Does English-Language Learner Mean?

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Schools have to provide extra resources to English-language learners. That makes sense, but here’s the catch: There is no set definition of what it means to be an English-language learner.


A native Spanish-speaker living in Texas, for instance, might qualify as an English-language learner and receive additional resources: time devoted specifically to learning English or help understanding the curriculum in Spanish, for example.

But say that kid’s family moves just across the state line to Oklahoma. His new school district might not have the same definition of what it means to be an English-language learner and, all of a sudden, he might lose the extra resources.


The (lack of) policy leaves kids hanging in the middle.

As a smart new piece from Stateline, Pew Charitable Trusts’ news arm, points out, the absence of a definition or standard causes complications at the federal level. The government gives money to states to help districts educate English-learners, but since states have their own criteria for when someone qualifies as proficient, it’s hard to track exactly how states use it.

And they’re not giving out pennies, either. Stateline notes that in 2009-10, the U.S. Department of Education funneled nearly $700 million to states, D.C. and Puerto Rico to support English-language learners. The problem is likely to expand, too. The number of students learning English has grown in recent years.

Some states are looking at developing a common definition but, as Stateline points out, that’s not going to happen anytime soon. There are too many “political and policy thickets that need to be cleared.”


Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.

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