How long should it take for an English Language Learner (a student learning English as a second language) to read at grade level?
Longer than many parents want.
I am working with an ELL fifth grader from another country. I tested her by having her read a list of basic English words, all of which she said she knew. Then I had her read passages at a second, third and fourth grade level, and answer questions.
What I noticed is that she could score 100% on the second and third grade questions, providing the questions were multiple choice. If she had to write a definition, she could copy what the passage said, but she could not paraphrase the words. If she had to write sentences in her own words, she couldn’t do it. If she could say the sentences aloud rather than write them, she couldn’t do it.
This is typical. Multiple choice responses are easiest since the answer is provided; you just have to identify it. Putting ideas into your own words is harder because you must rely on vocabulary which might not be in the passage and you must create sentences, a task which calls on so many skills—vocabulary, grammar, syntax, subject-verb agreement, pronoun case, articles—the list goes on and on. A person can learn to read English without learning to speak or to write, but in the US students are tested verbally and in writing, and of course both skills are needed for 21st century success.
Another factor to consider when judging how long learning to read will take is whether English is spoken at home. For this student, it is not. She cannot ask a parent what a word means. She cannot hear proper pronunciation. She is on her own.
Still another factor is the student’s motivation to learn English. My student is motivated. She focuses for the full hour we are together and completes her homework.
The mother of this student hoped that her daughter would learn to read quickly enough to be ready for fifth grade state exams in three months. I told the mother that is unlikely, watching sadness fill her eyes.
Could it happen? Yes, for an extremely intelligent and motivated learner living in an enriched English environment. But is it likely? No. Becoming fluent in a language takes time, more time than many parents want.