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Academic Language Drives English-Learner's Fluency Speed

By Corey Mitchell. Cross-posted from Learning the Language.

English language-learners who enter kindergarten with a basic grasp of academic language, "either in their primary language or in English," are more likely over time to be reclassified as former ELLs, a new analysis from Oregon State University has found.

Karen Thompson, an assistant professor of cultural and linguistic diversity in Oregon State University's College of Education, reviewed nine years of student data from the Los Angeles Unified schools to gauge how long it takes students to develop English proficiency.

Most research indicates that it takes students at least four years to become fluent in academic English, language that allows students to retell story or understand mathematical word problems.

Once students are reclassified as former ELLS, they no longer receive specific aid to support their English-language development.

Thompson's analysis shows that students who don't reach proficiency in that typical window, generally by the time they reach upper elementary, are less likely to ever do so. Those students share a common characteristic: they enter kindergarten with a limited command of academic language.

Students who aren't reclassified are more likely to score lower on academic tests and graduate high school at lower rates than their peers.

"This study shows that building literacy skills, in English or the child's native language, prior to kindergarten can be helpful," Thompson said in a release announcing the survey results. The ability, "is likely going to set them on a path to success," she said.

About 25 percent of students do not master English after nine years in L.A. Unified schools, Thompson found. Of those students, about 30 percent are in special education programs.

The Los Angeles Times has written about the L.A. Unified effort to support these long-term English-learners, students who have attended California schools for seven years or more and are still not fluent in English.

Roughly a third of students in the Los Angeles, the nation's second-largest school district, are ELLs.

   Time to Reclassification

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