How Long Does It Take Beginning English Learners to Become English Language Proficient? What the Research Says

Date 

September 2018

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English learner students bring strong assets—including bilingualism and biculturalism—to communities and schools. However, language learners vary in speed when it comes to reaching English proficiency and being reclassified as a former English learner student. Each student’s time to reclassification may depend on many observable factors, including student and school characteristics, as well as the state specific proficiency standards that English learners are required to meet before being eligible to be reclassified.

Our librarians compiled this list of available recent studies and articles on time to reclassification for English learners. These resources can help inform processes such as program planning and resource allocation for schools, districts and states.

State-Based Studies (Sorted by Date)

California: The Web of Reclassification for English Language Learners—A Cyclical Journey Waiting to Be Interrupted: Discussion of Realities, Challenges, and Opportunities (2018)

This article discusses the obstacles and opportunities associated with language minority student classification practices and, more specifically, English learner students' reclassification to fluent proficient status. The article discusses classification permanency for language minority students, provides an overview of national reclassification practices and takes a look at the practical application of California Department of Education's guidelines for reclassification of students from English learner to fluent English proficient.

California: English Learners’ Time to Reclassification: An Analysis (2017)

This study uses nine years of longitudinal, student-level data from the Los Angeles Unified School District to provide updated, empirically-based estimates of the time necessary for English learner students to become reclassified as proficient in English, as well as factors associated with variation in time to reclassification. To illustrate how different aspects of proficiency develop, estimates of the time necessary for English learners to attain six separate reclassification criteria are provided. Findings corroborate prior cross-sectional research suggesting that the development of full proficiency in a second language typically takes 4 to 7 years. However, after nine years in the district, approximately one-fourth of students had not been reclassified. There appears to be a reclassification window during the upper elementary grades, and students not reclassified by this point in time become less likely ever to do so.

Pennsylvania: Finding Their Stride: Kindergarten English Learners’ Time to Proficiency in Philadelphia (2017)

The School District of Philadelphia has seen an increase in its English learner student population. By 2014-15, 1 in 10 students was classified as an English learner. This study provides evidence on the progress toward English proficiency of English learners who entered the district in kindergarten across four cohorts of students: 2008–09 through 2011–12. The study examines students’ English proficiency upon entering school and the percentage who achieved proficiency within four years. The study found that:

  • About two-thirds of kindergarten English learners knew and used minimal English when they entered school
  • The percentage of students who were more proficient in English at school entry increased across cohorts between 2008–09 and 2011–12
  • Almost 60 percent of kindergarten English leaner achieved English proficiency within four years of starting school
  • Some groups of students were more likely than others to achieve proficiency within four years
  • Students who were more proficient in English when they entered school were more likely to reach proficiency within four years
  • More students became proficient in oral language (listening and speaking English) than in literacy (reading and writing English)

Texas: Time to Proficiency for Hispanic English Learner Students in Texas (2017)

This study examines the average time it took the 2005-06 cohort of first grade Hispanic English learner students in Texas public schools to attain English language proficiency and to demonstrate at least satisfactory academic performance in reading and math as measured by state standardized assessments. This longitudinal study also examined whether the time it took students to attain these key outcomes differed by enrollment in a public prekindergarten program; initial English proficiency level; the type of English learner program (English as a Second Language or bilingual); whether a parent had opted the student out of English learner services; and student background characteristics (gender, eligibility for the federal school lunch program, immigrant status, and participation in a special education program).

Nevada: The Achievement Progress of English Learner Students in Nevada (2016)

This study examines the cumulative progress of English learner students in Nevada in English language proficiency and in academic content knowledge in both reading and mathematics. This study identified students in grades kindergarten, 3, and 6 who were designated as English learner students in 2006-07 and examined their progress from 2006-07 through 2011-12 on the ELP test, the reading content test and the math content test as well as student characteristics. Based on Nevada’s annual measurable achievement objective 1 for English learners, English learners who started the study at the entry level should have been able to achieve reclassification as fluent English proficient students within four years of the start of the study. English learners did not generally achieve the expected rate of progress of gaining one level per year in English proficiency but rather advanced at different rates.

Utah: The Achievement Progress of English Learner Students in Utah (2016)

Utah’s annual measurable achievement objective 1 for English learner students—an average increase of slightly less than one English language proficiency level per school year—means that English learners should have passed the Utah Academic Language Proficiency Assessment within 1 to 6 years of the start of the study, depending on the proficiency level at which they started in 2006-07. For example, English learners who started the study at beginning proficiency (level 2) should have been able to achieve reclassification as fluent English proficient students within five years of the start of the study. According to this study, English learners did not generally achieve the expected rate of progress in English proficiency but rather advanced at different rates.

Washington: English Learner Student Characteristics and Time to Reclassification: An Example from Washington State (2016)

How long does it typically take English learner students to develop English language proficiency? And how does this time vary by student characteristics such as English proficiency at entry to kindergarten, gender and home language? The answers to these questions can provide valuable information to districts and schools. This study examines English learners who entered kindergarten between 2005-06 and 2011-12 in seven cohorts. It used a statistical model to estimate the time it would likely take English learners in seven districts to reach a grade-specific proficiency level on Washington's English language proficiency assessment and to be reclassified as former English learners, regardless of whether they had been reclassified within the study period. The study also examines how this time differs for subgroups of students, taking into account student demographic characteristics and differences between cohorts and schools.

Arizona: The Achievement Progress of English Learner Students in Arizona (2015)

This study followed three cohorts of English learner students in Arizona over six school years, 2006-07 through 2011-12, to assess their progress in English language proficiency and their academic progress in English language arts and math content knowledge. More than 90 percent of Arizona's English learners scored at or above the required level for reclassification as fluent English proficient students. Educators might consider devoting additional attention to improving teaching practices and support services to help the English learner subgroups with the poorest performance (i.e., students in higher grades, students eligible for special education services, students eligible for school lunch programs and/or and male students).

Massachusetts: Investigating Whether and When English Learners Are Reclassified Into Mainstream Classrooms in the United States: A Discrete-Time Survival Analysis (2014)

Using eight waves of longitudinal data on Massachusetts’ statewide kindergarten cohort of English learner students, this study examined English learners’ tenure in language-learning programs and their academic performance following reclassification as fluent English proficient. The study employed discrete-time survival analysis to estimate the average time to and grade of reclassification with and without controlling for socioeconomic status and home language. The average English learner exited three years after school entry or in second grade; however, the odds that a non-Spanish-speaking EL was reclassified were nearly twice that of their Spanish-speaking English learner classmates after controlling for income.

California: Reclassification Patterns Among Latino English Learner Students in Bilingual, Dual Immersion and English Immersion Classrooms (2014)

This paper examines timing to reclassification among Latino English learners in four distinct linguistic instructional environments: English immersion, transitional bilingual, maintenance bilingual and dual immersion. Using hazard analysis and 12 years of data from a large school district, the paper investigates whether reclassification timing, patterns, or barriers differ by linguistic program. The paper finds that Latino students enrolled in two language programs are reclassified at a slower pace in elementary school but have higher overall reclassification, English proficiency and academic threshold passage by the end of high school. The paper discusses the implications of these findings on accountability policies and educational opportunities in English learner programs.

New York and Florida: Time to English Proficiency for English language Learners in New York City and Miami-Dade County (2012)

To inform policy requiring English learner students to take the state assessments in English three years after entering the school system, this study examines the variation in the speed with which young English learners acquire minimum proficiency in English. The authors use data on New York City and Miami-Dade County English learners, focusing first on all students, then separately on subgroups of students according to their poverty status, gender, race/ethnicity and age of entry into the school system.

Other Resources

Understanding and Supporting the Educational Needs of Recently Arrived Immigrant English Learner Students: Lessons for State and Local Education Agencies (2018)

This report explores answers to three critical questions:

  1. Who are recently arrived immigrant English learner students?
  2. What are their educational needs?
  3. What school, district and state-level policies and practices are being implemented to support them?

It finds that most recently arrived immigrant English learners make rapid progress both academically and in terms of English acquisition, but these students likely need targeted supports for more than the one or three years identified in current federal definitions. It also finds that very few recently arrived immigrant English learners are proficient in English after three years in the U.S., and most remain at beginning levels of academic performance after this same time period.

The Development of English Language Proficiency in Grades K–12 (2017)

Chapter available for download. This research review on time to reclassification of English learner students begins with a discussion of methodological and other measurement issues associated with the use of reclassification tests. This chapter provides an in-depth discussion of psychometric issues resulting from the use of these tests. The second section examines factors that influence reclassification rates among English learners in grades K–12. This is followed by sections on retention and loss of the home language of English learners and on cross-linguistic aspects of English learners’ language development. The former is intended to provide an understanding of the language development of English learners and, in particular, the extent to which they do or do not become bilingual in English and their home language.