What is a Home Language Survey Form?

Demystifying the Home Language Survey as the Initial Key to Identifying English Learners

Many parents wonder how schools identify English learners (ELs). As an ESOL coordinator, I often explain to parents why a child was identified as an ELL student. Unfortunately, most parents don’t realize why schools use a home language survey and how to identify an English language learner.

Completing a school registration Home Language Survey (HLS) Form during a new student registration provides valuable information to schools. The school registration collects demographic and language information from all students.

The federal government requires that all schools administer a Home Language Survey Form to all families. For this reason, native English-speaking families must also complete the Home Language survey. The answers on the HLS form determine the next steps taken after school registration. In addition, schools share the information with the English language department to initiate a possible identification.

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What’s in a home language survey?

Most home language surveys contain similar questions about languages spoken in the home. Other questions in the survey ask about a child’s country of birth.

Some of the questions shown in a school registration home language survey may look like the following questions:

  • What is the primary language in the home, regardless of the language spoken by the student?
  • What language is most often spoken by the student?
  • Which language (s) did the student first acquire?
  • What language does the parent speak to the child?

When one or more of the above questions about the child notes a language other than English, the school begins a potential identification. At that point, a school educator determines if a screener is necessary. To assess language proficiency, the school uses an English language proficiency screener. The screener is often an online or paper-based test that assesses English language proficiency in listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Note that a school has 25 days to administer a language screener from registration.

The English language screener determines whether students can receive English language support or services. In other words, the screener determines whether the student is an ESL student. In most states, a score below 4.9 qualifies a student as an English language learner. A score of 5 or above determines that a student does not need English language services.

Why do schools assess English language proficiency?

There are various reasons behind the language proficiency screener. Federal law requires the assessment to identify students that need language instruction and support. The test results provide schools with the necessary information to plan language instruction for students.

For instance, educators can use the test results to see which areas of language need attention. Does the student need help understanding, speaking, reading, or writing? Program placement is also determined depending on the student’s needs.

A child scoring above a 4.9 in the WIDA screener test indicates that the child demonstrated language proficiency.  For schools, the results show that the child may possess the necessary language skills to do school academic work.   

What happens after my child becomes an ESL/ELL student?

Once a child is officially identified as ESL, he/she receives language instructional services. Language instructional services can vary in a school depending on resources and sometimes funds. A student might be scheduled into a designated class or receive small-group instruction at certain times. For English learners, the type of programming varies across schools.

Language instruction given to school students focuses on developing listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills. An annual English language test is administered once a child is officially identified as ESL—the annual test measures student language development progress obtained each school year. The assessment also determines when a child has acquired the necessary language skills to transition out of ESL services.

Can a parent stop a school from testing a child for ESL Services?

Although a parent has the right to decline English language development services, they cannot impede the administration of an entrance exam or the annual language assessment. The federal government requires the language assessment to ensure that students needing to improve English proficiency receive the necessary language instruction.

For this reason, schools do not need parental permission to assess a possible English Language Learner student. However, a school must administer and offer necessary language development services to all eligible students.

What happens if I decline language services for my child?

Once the school identifies a student as an English Language Learner, the school begins to provide language development services. The quality and quantity of English language development services depend on the available language instructional models in the school. When a parent declines language instructional services, they decline ongoing instruction in the areas where a child needs instructional support. 

Remember that language instruction targets a student’s specific language needs. I caution parents on declining services because this can reduce a child’s exposure to necessary instruction. Ongoing support from an ESL teacher can prepare students to do well on the annual test.


Remember that identification begins when a parent completes the Home language survey form. The form helps schools and educators figure out language development needs.

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