How long does it take to learn English?

How long does it take to learn English?

by Judie Haynes

The most frequently asked question of ESL professionals by mainstream teachers, administrators, and even politicians concerns how long it should take English language learners to acquire English.

The Research

How long does it take to learn English? How long should students receive support in language? These are the most frequently asked questions by administrators, school board members and classroom teachers. The most comprehensive work done in this field is the research conducted by Wayne Thomas & Virginia Collier. Thomas&Collier studied the language acquisition of 700,000 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.

In one study, Thomas & Collier researched a group of Asian and Hispanic students from an affluent suburban school district receiving 1-3 hours second language support per day in a well-regarded ESL program . These students were generally exited from ESL in the first two years. All of the students researched were at or above grade level in native language literacy. Here are the results for students in this study.

This data holds true regardless of the home language, country of origin, and socioeconomic status. (Thomas & Collier, 1997).

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.

Those who teach in ESL programs would say that the above statement is false.They would assert that students in ESL programs outperformed 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:

This does not mean that all bilingual programs are more effective than all ESL or sheltered content programs. It is important to look beyond the program label. Are teachers qualified to teach English language learners? Are there sufficient materials.? What instructional methods are used? Are students exited into all English programs too quickly? Cummins (1998) notes that “quick-exit transitional bilingual education is an inferior model based on an inadequate theoretical assumption; this model aspires to monolingualism and does little to address the causes of bilingual students' underachievement.”

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:

Related Links

Comprehensible Input and Output
How do newcomers learn English? Can they soak up language by sitting in the mainstream classroom? Learn how Comprehensible Input and Output are important to the acquisition of a second language.

Explaining BICS and CALP
Classroom teachers need to understand the difference between social language and academic language acquisition. Here is a simple description of BICS and CALP as theorized by Jim Cummins.

Language Acquisition vs. Language Learning
Should grammar be taught to young elementary age English language learners? Learn what the difference is between language acquisition and language learning.

Pre-production and the Silent Period
If your new English language learner is not speaking, don't worry. Most newcomers go through a stage during which they do not produce language. This doesn't mean they are not learning.

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