How long does it take to achieve academically in a second language in Queensland schools: Answering vexing questions through collaboration and partnership

Year: 2016

Author: Kettle, Margaret, Creagh, Sue, Alford, Jennifer

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

A commonly asked question about second language learners is how long they take to acquire English for schooling (Hakuta, Butler, & Witt, 2000). In the Queensland context, the question is how long school students using Standard Australian English as an additional language (EAL) need support before they can achieve independently at the same academic level as their English-speaking peers? In 2014, 11.7% of students in state schools were identified as having a language background other than English. The Queensland Department of Education and Training (DET) has a mandate to support EAL students to meet their age-cohort academic expectations (DET, 2016; DETE, 2005-2014). This study brought together researchers and DET to address the How Long question. Consistently policy-makers and researchers have relied on foundational work conducted in Canada and the US in the 1980s. For example, a much applied timeframe is Collier’s (1987) finding that it takes 5-7 years for young EAL learners to achieve parity with key predicators of achievement including Age on Arrival and prior schooling. Despite the need to identify timeframes and variables including support across schooling in Australia, no empirical work has been conducted here.In collaboration with DET, this project investigated the contemporary conditions of EAL academic achievement. Using a comprehensive set of DET enrolment, NAPLaN and A-E assessment data for two Queensland regions, the research involved a comparative analysis of the longitudinal NAPLaN performance of EAL and English speaking students between the years of 2009 (year 3) and 2015 (year 9), across three different timeframes (2009-2015; 2011-2015, 2013-2015). The objective was to determine how long it takes EAL learners to converge academically with their English speaking peers. Building on this analysis, students reaching academic parity quickly and those who were slower were identified using A to E grades. Researchers interviewed the students, their teachers and principals to identify the conditions impacting rates of achievement. In this paper, we share the findings of the study and the collaborative processes underpinning the partnership with DET. This project exemplifies a fruitful research-practice partnership (RPP), notably shared orientations to improving school practices and educational outcomes; the sharing of administrative data to research pressing local issues; and recognition of the potential of research for government decision-making. We acknowledge that the differing institutional requirements guiding researchers and government bodies mean that complex negotiation over time is inevitable and important for quality research that has impact where it matters. Collier, V. P. (1987). Age and rate of acquisition of second language for academic purposes. TESOL Quarterly, 21(4), 617-641.Department of Education and Training (DET) 2016. English as an additional language or dialect (EAL/D) learners. Retrieved from of Education, Training and Employment (2005-2014). Education. Retrieved from, K., Butler, Y.G. & Witt, D. (2000) How Long Does It Take English Learners to Attain Proficiency? Retrieved from