Do EAL pupils need an extra year to learn English?

Since 2002, all third grade (Year 4) pupils in Florida are required to obtain specific state-wide reading test scores in order to progress to the fourth grade (Year 5). A new NBER working paper considers whether this third grade retention policy, which includes additional teaching and support in reading, might be particularly beneficial for pupils with English as an additional language (EAL).

David N Figlio and Umut Özek used longitudinal data for all pupils between grades three and ten (Years 4 to 11) from 12 US school districts in Florida in order to examine the short-, medium- and long-term effects of repeating the third grade on EAL pupils’ English skills, as measured by their reading test scores, the length of time needed for them to reach required levels of English proficiency, and their course choice in middle and high school.

The results find that repeating the third grade (Year 4) can help to improve the English skills of EAL pupils, and that the benefits are even greater for EAL pupils born outside of the US, pupils whose first language is Spanish, and pupils in lower-poverty elementary schools.

Specifically, they suggest that EAL pupils who repeat the third grade:

  • do better on reading test scores in elementary and middle school
  • reach the required levels of English proficiency in half the time
  • are less likely to take a remedial English course in middle school
  • are more likely to take an advanced course in maths and science in middle school
  • are more likely to take college credit-bearing courses in high school.

Source: An extra year to learn English? Early grade retention and the human capital development of English learners (January 2019), NBER Working Paper No. 25472, National Bureau of Economics Research

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