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How Long Does It Take ELLs to Develop English Proficiency?

A study of seven high-poverty districts in the Seattle metropolitan area found that it took nearly four years for elementary school-aged English-language learners to develop English proficiency.

Researchers from Regional Education Laboratories Northwest tracked nearly 18,000 language-learner students in some of the lowest-performing school districts in Washington state. The districts are participants in the Road Map Project, a cradle-to-career program that aims to close the opportunity gap for low-income and minority students.

The question of how long it takes ELLs to develop English proficiency is on the minds of most educators because proficiency is "linked to academic success in other content areas," the researchers wrote. But they also point out the ongoing debate about what language proficiency means and how it's measured.

The longitudinal study presents findings on the numbers of years it took for ELLs to achieve a grade specific score on the state's English-language proficiency assessment. The participating students began kindergarten between the 2000-01 and 2007-08 school years and entered a Road Map Project district elementary school at any time between the beginning of kindergarten and the end of 5th grade.

On average, it took the students 3.8 years to reach English proficiency. But over the course of the study, almost 20 percent of students did not score high enough on the state exam to be reclassified.

The study produced a host of findings, including:

  • Girls, at 3.6 years, achieved reclassification faster than boys at 4 years.
  • Students who spoke Arabic, Amharic, and Korean as their first language took less time to achieve reclassification than the group average, while Samoan and Spanish speakers took longer.
  • English-learner students took less time to achieve reclassification in schools with high percentages of ELLs, racial/ethnic minority students, and students eligible for federal school lunch programs. 
  • Hispanic students, at 4.2 years, took longer to achieve reclassification than students of other races and ethnicities. Asian students, at 3.4 years, took less time.
  • Students eligible for special education took an average of 5.5 years to develop English proficiency, compared with 3.7 years for their peers in general education.
  • ELLs who entered a Road Map district school in 2nd through 5th grades with high English proficiency took longer to achieve reclassification than those who entered with low proficiency. Researchers suspect this is the case because the more advanced ELLs receive less instructional support from teachers and aides.

Between 2005 and 2013, the state of Washington witnessed a 70 percent growth in the number of English-language learners. Nearly a quarter of the state's ELL students are enrolled in the Road Map districts—Auburn, Federal Way, Highline, Kent, Renton, Seattle, and Tukwila. More than half of the ELL students in those districts fail to graduate on time.

The study did not examine factors such as home language literacy, education background, and parent education levels. Researchers also had to work around missing or incomplete data, including some information on initial English-language proficiency levels and program exit dates.

  English-language Learner Proficiency Study

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