Four Years to English Proficiency

ThinkstockPhotos-177513411Study Finds English Learners in Seattle-Area Elementary Schools Successfully Reach Language and Literacy Targets in Nearly Four Years

A new Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Northwest study, prepared in partnership with seven Washington school districts, found that English language learners (ELLs) took 3.8 years on average to gain English proficiency. The study included nearly 18,000 students who attended district elementary schools between 2000 and 2013. The seven districts (Auburn, Federal Way, Highline, Kent, Renton, Seattle, and Tukwila) make up the Road Map Project, an initiative aimed at doubling the proportion of students who are college and career ready by 2020.

“Knowing the time that it takes students to develop English proficiency provides educators with a measure of how quickly they can expect students to progress and helps schools identify specific programs and practices that are successful in developing students’ language and literacy skills,” said REL Northwest’s Jason Greenberg Motamedi, author of the study.

The study found that ELLs entering school in grades three and four took more than a year longer to be reclassified as English proficient than those entering kindergarten. This suggests that additional attention and interventions should be given to students who are arriving later in elementary school. Additionally, nearly a fifth of the students had not reached English proficiency by the end of the eight years studied.

“Successfully moving students out of English learner status is critical to their academic success,” said Greenberg Motamedi. “Research shows that students who have not reached proficiency in English struggle to learn grade-level content, take longer to graduate, and graduate at much lower rates than their English-proficient peers.”

Greenberg Motamedi explained the study has triggered local conversations on how to provide similar levels and types of instructional support to all Road Map ELLs.

Over the past eight years, the number of students in Washington who speak a language other than English in the home increased more than 70%. Of those students, 44% are classified as ELLs.

Contrary to national trends, ELLs in Road Map districts who entered in grades two through five with the highest levels of English proficiency took longer to be reclassified as non-ELLs than those with the lowest proficiency. Also, students in schools with higher percentages of free or reduced-price lunch (FRL) eligibility were reclassified faster than students in schools with lower FRL eligibility rate

Download the full study, Time to reclassification: How long does it take English learner students in Washington Road Map districts to develop English proficiency?, at the Institute of Education Sciences website:


  1. I find it interesting to examine what one means by claiming a student is ready to be reclassified and is not Fully English Proficient. Apparently in Washington, the only criteria is the score on the annual English proficiency exam. In order to be considered fluent on prior studies, there were other criteria. I would be cautious about applying this 4 year expectation across all settings.

  2. I’m sure that this study will make a lot of policy makers very happy, especially those who only read the brief synopsis. I would encourage responsible reading of the full report, with special attention to the investigators’ own disclaimers particularly with regard to the ability to generalize to other contexts, their methodology for determining English proficiency and to the fact expressed in their own words, “This study has several limitations.” I have no doubt that there is value in this report, as long as we don’t accept the sound bite stand-in for the real thing. Read the report, people. Read the report.

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