The most comprehensive work done in this field is the research conducted byWayne Thomas & Virginia Collier . Thomas & Collier studied the language acquisition of English language learners in a longitudinal study from 1982 to 1996. They wanted to find out how long it took students with no background in English to reach native-speaker performance (50th percentile) on norm-referenced tests. In addition, they looked at variables such as socioeconomic status, first language, programs used to learn English, and number of years of primary language schooling. In their study, Thomas & Collier found that the most significant variable in how long it takes to learn English is the amount of formal schooling students have received in their first language.
Here are some other conclusions from their study:
- Those students who were between 8-11 years old and had 2-3 years of native language education took 5-7 years to test at grade level in English.
- Students with little or no formal schooling who arrived before the age of eight, took 7-10 years to reach grade level norms in English language literacy.
- Students who were below grade level in native language literacy also took 7-10 years to reach the 50th percentile. Many of these students never reached grade level norms.
How do ELLs in ESL Programs Compare?English language learners receiving ESL services do not make more rapid progress in English than students in other types of programs.
It is a common belief that students in ESL programs outperform second language learners in any other type of progam. Research does not support this belief. Across different types of bilingual and ESL programs, Thomas & Collier found that:
- English language learners who received all of their schooling in English did extremely well in kindergarten through third grade. The gains these students made in English were dramatic.
- From fourth grade on through middle and high school, when the academic demands of the curriculum become more rigorous, the performance of these students fell substantially below the 50th percentile.Why did this happen? Native English speakers make an average gain of ten months each school year. However, English language learners only made a 6-8 month gain per school year. The gap between native-English and second language speakers widened from the 4th grade through high school.
- Students in Two-Way Bilingual Immersion and Developmental Bilingual programs reach the 50th percentile in both their native language and English by 4th or 5th grade in all subject areas. These students were able to sustain the gains made in English, and in some cases, to achieve even higher than typical Native-English-speaker performance as they move through the secondary years of school.
What Does this Research Mean for Schools?Bilingual programs are not always feasible, especially in school districts where students come from multiple language backgrounds. Here are the key considerations for school districts:
- Give students more time to develop English language academic skills. Don't rush K-3 students through your language support programs.
- Provide more support services to under-schooled upper elementary and middle school students. Remember that it will take them 7-10 years to reach grade level norms.
- Maintenance of native language in the home should be encouraged. Development of native language literacy should be fostered. Persuade parents to send their children to after-school and Saturday instruction in first language. If your school district has the requisite number of students, push for a developmental bilingual or two-way immersion program.