Home Language Survey Practices in the Initial Identification of English Learners in the United States

Issue/Topic: English Language Learner/Bilingual
Author(s): Bailey, Alison; Kelly, Kimberly
Organization(s): UCLA
Publication: Educational Policy
Published On: 5/18/2012

Federal law requires that states have a method for identifying students who need language-support services, but no method is mandated. Most states require a state- or district-created home language survey (HLS) as the first step in identifying students for further assessment. There is no standard home language survey in the United States; survey practices vary widely across states and may not provide valid and reliable information, raising issues of equity.

To review existing HLS practices, place wider attention on the validity concerns that arise from current HLS practices, and make recommendations to state and federal policymakers and educators

  • The use of home language surveys as an effective method for identifying English learner students warrants further scrutiny for two reasons:

    1. Home language surveys typically do not focus on the more relevant identification factors

    2. Some parents are reluctant to complete a home language survey accurately or at all.

  • Accuracy of parent reporting of English-language practices is critical to the validity of the home language survey.

  • Two factors are important when identifying potential English learner students:

    1. Current dominant home language

    2. Level of English exposure in other settings (such as preschool).

  • Poorly constructed home language surveys can lead to underidentification or overidentification of potential English learner students, which can be costly to states and districts and detrimental to students. Two elements of poor construction are:

    1. Ambiguous wording

    2. Including too few items on the survey makes the survey less meaningful for identifying potential English learner students, particularly if the questions do not focus on current language dominance and level of English exposure.

Policy Implications/Recommendations:

Federal-Level Recommendations

1. Provide state guidance. The U.S. Department of Education could document and provide information about reported best practices for survey implementation and interpretation. The department could also disseminate validation studies and encourage empirical validation of all states' practices.

2. Ensure transparency in the efforts of the Office for Civil Rights. The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has given confusing guidance about state interpretation of educational laws. The authors recommend that OCR do a better job at documenting the guidance they have given to individual states and to consider greater coordination across regional sites and states to help ensure the equitable interpretation of federal law.

State-Level Recommendations

1. Ensure transparency in initial identification practices. States need a transparent initial identification system in the areas of home language survey content, administration, interpretation/ramifications for students' further screening or assessment, and possible alternatives to the use of the home language survey, including:
  • Clarity on whether a state-created instrument is mandatory or a sample for districts to use as they create their own

  • Statements about the kinds of information the instrument is expected to yield and why the survey is meaningful

  • Clear guidelines for administrators and teachers on how to implement the home language survey

  • Clear rules for educators and families about how to act on the information gathered from the survey.

2. Validate survey instruments or require validation.

  • Collect basic data about how effective the home language survey is at accurately identifying English learner students. This data will help determine if it is underidentifying or overidentifying potential students.

  • Compare the effectiveness of different instruments across districts, particularly in states where districts are allowed or required to construct their own instrument.

  • Enhance the survey by asking questions about the students' degree of English-language exposure.

  • Rather than relying on only a home language survey, state or districts could suggest alternative screening measures.

Research Design:
Review of all states' home language survey practices to identify the types of state-level regulations. Case study of states to provide more detailed examples of home language survey practices and interpretation; conducted thematic coding of home language survey question phrasing and content. Review of research conducted on home language surveys as reporting instruments for language background.

Review of home language survey practices in all 50 states plus District of Columbia and in-depth case studies of practices in six states (CA, TX, CO, OR, WA, VT)

Year data is from:
Not specified


Data Collection and Analysis:
Home language survey procedures and documents were gathered from each state's education agency (or local education agency) directly and from their websites.


Reference in this Web site to any specific commercial products, processes or services, or the use of any trade, firm or corporation name is for the information and convenience of the public, and does not constitute endorsement or recommendation by the Education Commission of the States. Please contact Kathy Christie at 303-299-3613 or kchristie@ecs.org for further information regarding the information posting standards and user policies of the Education Commission of the States.