How Long?

How long does it take students to reach age-appropriate levels of achievement in academic subjects? (Note: this is not the same as native-like proficiency in English, which is only ever really achieved by children who start learning English at a very young age).

Jim Cummins (1981), looking at data from Toronto, found that, “on average”, it took ELL students 5 to 7 years to catch up with native speakers in “academic aspects of English”

Conversational aspects of proficiency reached peer-appropriate levels usually within about two years of exposure to L2 but a period of five to seven years was required, on average, for immigrant students to approach grade norms in academic aspects of English. (Cummins 2000, p.58)

However, Thomas and Collier (1997) found that pupils who arrived between the ages of 8 and 11, who had received at least 2–5 years of schooling through their first language in their home country, were the ones who took 5–7 years to reach age-appropriate levels. Children who entered an English immersion system before the age of age 8 were found to require 7–10 years or more.

Virginia Collier. later joined by Wayne Thomas, (Collier 1987; Collier and Thomas 1989) researched the progress of immigrant students in a relatively affluent, suburban school district that had a highly regarded ESL programme. 65% of the roughly 3500 students they studied were of Asian descent, 20% were Hispanic and the remainder from around 75 different language groups. These students received between 1 and 3 hours of ESL each day in classes of 6 to 12 students, and for the rest of the day joined the mainstream class. They found that students who arrived between the ages of 8 and 11, who had received at least 2-5 years of schooling taught through their first language in their home country took 5-7 years to reach age-appropriate levels of achievement. Those who arrived before the age of 8 required 7-10 years or more. It was thought this difference was down to formal schooling in their L1: children below the age of 8 simply hadn’t had as much L1 schooling as children over 8. The slowest age group were 12 to 15 year olds who, it was projected, would take 6 to 8 years to reach grade level norms: in other words, they didn’t have enough time to catch up with their native speaking peers.

Shohamy (1999), researching in Israel, found that it took 7-9 years for immigrant students to achieve at a similar level as native speakers of Hebrew in literacy.

Hakuta et al. (2000), researching in two Californian school districts, found that it took oral proficiency 3 to 5 years to develop while it took 4 to 7 years to develop academic English proficiency.

Referring to his own and others’ research (listed above), Jim Cummins (2000, p.58) wrote that “it generally takes a minimum of about 5 years (and frequently much longer) for them to catch up to native-speakers in academic aspects of language.


Cummins (1981), Age on arrival and immigrant second language learning in Canada. Applied Linguistics 2: 132-149

Collier (1987), Age and rate of acquisition of second language for academic purposes. TESOL Quarterly 21: 617-641

Shohamy (1999), Unity and diversity in language policy

Hakuta, Butler and Witt (2000), How long does it take English learners to attain proficiency?

Cummins (2000), Language, Power and Pedagogy.

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