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HomeLanguagesEnglishStudy Tracks Progress of English Learners

Study Tracks Progress of English Learners

A recent study out of Philadelphia tracked kindergartners who were learning English and found that four years later almost 60% had achieved proficiency, but more students had become proficient in oral language (listening and speaking English) than in literacy (reading and writing English). There were also major discrepancies between which groups of students had and had not mastered the language.

Not surprisingly, considering socio-economic factors and the prevalence of Spanish speakers in Philadelphia, students whose home language was Spanish were considerably less likely to reach proficiency than any other subgroup.

The study examined the progress toward English proficiency of English learners (Els) who entered the School District of Philadelphia in kindergarten during 2008–09 through 2011–12.

Using data from these four kindergarten cohorts, English proficiency upon entering school, the percentage who achieved proficiency within four years, and characteristics of students who were more likely to reach proficiency within four years were examined.


About two-thirds of kindergarten EL students knew and used minimal English when they entered school: 49% of the kindergarten EL students placed at the lowest English language proficiency (ELP) level at entrance to school (ELP Level 1), and an additional 19% placed at ELP Level 2. About 32% of the kindergarteners placed at ELP Levels 3, 4, 5, or 6.

​The percentage of students who were more proficient in English at school entry increased across cohorts between 2008–09 and 2011–12: 27% of students in the 2008–09 cohort placed at ELP Level 3 or above, compared to 41% of students in the 2011–12 cohort.

​ Almost 60% of kindergarten EL students achieved English proficiency within four years of starting school. By the end of first grade, 12% of the ELs who had entered in kindergarten had achieved English proficiency, and an additional 17% were proficient by the end of second grade. By the end of third grade, an additional 30% had reached English proficiency.

Some groups of students were more likely than others to achieve proficiency within four years. English proficiency rates were higher among female students and students who were not identified with a disability. Relative to Spanish speakers, students who spoke Arabic, Chinese, Khmer, or Vietnamese were more likely to achieve English proficiency within four years.

Students who were more proficient in English when they entered school were more likely to reach proficiency within four years: 53% of students who entered at ELP Level 1 reached proficiency within four years, compared to 62% and 68% of students who entered at ELP Levels 2 and 3, respectively.

More students became proficient in oral language than in literacy. Within four years, 81% of kindergarten ELs were proficient in oral language, compared to 63% in literacy. A key driver of the lower proficiency rate in literacy is writing, with a 48% proficiency rate.

The full report can be downloaded at



These analyses can inform goal setting for schools tracking kindergarten ELs’ progress toward English proficiency. This study can help to set ambitious but achievable proficiency targets for future cohorts. Targets for ELs could be set based on students’ entering English proficiency levels.

High-quality prekindergarten for ELs may boost English proficiency at entrance to kindergarten. Philadelphia’s universal prekindergarten program provides an opportunity to help the city’s youngest ELs begin school with less catching up to do in English. Research indicates that quality prekindergarten experiences can help ELs make rapid growth in both English proficiency and academic skills.

An area for continued work is supporting ELs in developing proficiency in writing. Given the substantial disparity in proficiency rates between writing and the other three language domains (speaking, listening, and reading), the district may want to develop a stronger focus on supporting these students in becoming effective writers in English.

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