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Most US ELLs can excel, can those who struggle be identified early?

Most non-native English- speaking children entering US schools at kindergarten are likely to catch up with their native English-speaking peers across all subjects by age 10, according to a report from Chicago University.

The researchers also examined the data on the 20 per cent of children who never ‘caught up’, and identified a set of characteristics which might help identify them when they enter school.

Previous American data has suggested that English Language Learners (ELL) continue to be at a disadvantage throughout English-medium education and are unlikely to ever be on a par, academically, with native English-speaking students. Indeed, this would seem to be the case when school leavers classed as ELL are compared with those that are not.

But this comparison gives a false picture, as many students who begin school classed as ELL become proficient and are no longer labelled ELL as school leavers. It is students who are still moving towards English proficiency that are under- performing generally.

The Chicago University report aimed to clarify this issue by analysing school data from 18,000 ELL children starting kindergarten (that’s UK year 1, aged 5-6), up to 8th grade (that’s UK year 9, age 13-14). These children began school in the years 2007-9 and made up 34 per cent of the school intake.

At these schools, English proficiency was tested (via the ACCESS test) within 30 days of enrolment if a parent or guardian indicated that the child’s first language was not English, and those scoring below a set score were classed as ELL: 90 per cent of the ELL children had Spanish as their first language.

In the US, ELLs are often put in special programmes for all or part of the school day. In general, the Chicago schools offer a bilingual program in English and Spanish (although in fact, many schools are found not to be providing the level of support mandated by law).

Far from languishing academically, 76 per cent of ELL pupils in the Chicago sample were tested as proficient in English and no longer classed as ELL by age 10 (US grade 5, UK year 6), and 78 per cent by age 13 (US grade 8, UK year 9). In fact, these students score as well as or better than their classmates across all subjects and had better school attendance.

However, the study also found a group of ELL pupils who, while making steady progress in English and other subjects, never caught up. The school records of this group showed they were mostly boys whose attendance tended to decline over time and who may have moved schools several times. While ELL students were generally from poorer income households – this was especially true of this group.

Pupils still classed as ELL at 13 were also more likely to have special educational needs, poorer reading scores and much poorer maths scores – so in need of academic support across the curriculum.

This suggests that this potentially left-behind group could be identified when they start school and offered targeted intervention and support. One of the first ways to identify this group is via their initial ACCESS scores, which were lower. But this is less straightforward than it appears, as it is quite challenging to accurately assess 5-year-olds for English language proficiency across all skill areas. Testing young children is controversial in general, so there is a need here for a carefully designed assessment.

A similar situation may well exist across the English-speaking world, in that a particular subgroup could be identified as soon as they start school for targeted intervention that might enable them to catch up.

The US is distinct from many Anglophone countries in that most ELL pupils there are Spanish speakers, making bilingual programs a feasible option. The report suggests that supporting the first language in this way may be part of the reason for the successful progression from ELL to non-ELL status.

However, the 10 per cent of pupils who had a different first language (2 per cent Polish, 1.5 per cent Cantonese and several under 1 per cent) were at least as likely to progress from ELL status to non-ELL status, which casts some doubt on the pivotal role of bilingual programs.


De la Torre, M., Blanchard, A, Allensworth, E. M. and Freire, S. (2019) English Learners in Chicago Public Schools, Chicago Consortium on School Researc

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Gill Ragsdale
Gill Ragsdale
Gill has a PhD in Evolutionary Psychology from Cambridge, and teaches Psychology with the Open University, but also holds an RSA-Cert TEFL. Gill has taught EFL in the UK, Turkey, Egypt and to the refugees in the Calais 'Jungle' in France. She currently teaches English to refugees in the UK.
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