Accelerating language learning through personalization and practice

Asian teacher and African American female elementary student standing in front of classroom

How long does it take for English learners to become proficient? Studies of students of various ages and circumstances using different definitions of proficiency and research methods have found that it takes between three and seven years. A new study from the Regional Education Laboratory at Education Northwest that followed eight cohorts of English language learners, a total of almost 18,000 students, came up with an average amount of time to proficiency of 3.8 years, which is at the low end of that range. The study also found, as would be expected, students who received help in learning English at a younger age reached proficiency more quickly.

But two findings jumped out at me because they suggest ways schools can impede or accelerate English learners’ pace toward proficiency. One is that 2nd to 5th grade students who were more fluent in English than their peers when they entered the schools that were being studied actually took longer to be reclassified as proficient. The other is that students who enrolled in schools with higher percentages of low-income, racial or ethnic minority, and English learners took less time to reach proficiency.

Educators at the study schools speculated that the reason students who start out more skilled in speaking and reading English took longer to become fully proficient was that they did not receive as much individualized attention and support. Understandably, the educators’ triaged the needs of their students and devoted more time to helping those who had the farthest to go. It’s also possible to speculate that students in schools with more peers with needs like theirs are less likely to get lost in the crowd.

Both findings indicate ways to address the learning needs of all English learners more effectively. I’ve written and spoken elsewhere about how we can use technology to create opportunities for English learners to practice conversational skills that they need for academic classrooms and school and other social situations that can bolster their academic learning. We all need guided practice, support when we struggle, and specific feedback to help us improve at any skill. But, in a classroom setting, it’s simply not feasible for a teacher to interact one-on-one with every student to gauge their proficiency level and give them practice, targeted assistance, and personalized learning assignments. To help teachers do this, we are developing a device-based practice and feedback system that uses human—like avatars that converse with students and give them immediate feedback to improve their skills. We call it Dialogue for Language Learners. The avatars speak, gesture, show facial expressions, and change their posture—just as a human would when speaking. Students interpret what they observe and hear and record their spoken responses. The system then provides their teacher with a wealth of data on their performance.

The northwest REL undertook the study at the request of a group of seven high-poverty districts in the Seattle metropolitan area that are deploying a “collective action” strategy for closing achievement gaps based on income, ethnicity, and language. Their strategy is to align and leverage all of the resources of a surrounding community for supporting students and learning. Schools, philanthropists, youth development organizations, libraries, and health and housing agencies all share data, collaborate, and create systems to help ensure that all students’ needs are met so they are better able to concentrate on academic learning.

Research on English language acquisition rates reminds us that all of these other services are designed to create the conditions that enable teachers to teach and students to learn more effectively. Technology and the opportunities for learning that it affords must be part of the mix.


About the Author

Steve Ferrara is a former vice president for performance assessment at Pearson and headed the Center for NextGen Learning & Assessment. He lead the design, implementation, and evaluation of performance assessments. He began his career as a high school special education teacher. Then, he directed Maryland’s state accountability testing system for 12 years and designed its end-of-course exams and the highly regarded Maryland School Performance Assessment program. He also designed and implemented performance assessments for grade-level student achievement, English language proficiency, and alternate assessment for students with significant cognitive disabilities. Next, he joined the American Institutes of Research where he managed, designed, and oversaw research projects. Most recently, Dr. Ferrara was with CTB McGraw-Hill, where he worked on standard setting in several states and served as the lead research scientist for the District of Columbia’s statewide assessment program. He holds doctorate and Educational Specialist degrees in Educational Psychology and Measurement from Stanford University, a master’s degree in Special Education from Boston State College, and a bachelor’s degree in English and Journalism from the University of Massachusetts.