Immigration myth busted: Students learning English fast

When Giselle Martinez started kindergarten at south Modesto's Bret Harte Elementary, her English vocabulary consisted of just a handful of words.

The second-grader now speaks English with confidence and proudly dug through a classroom book bin recently to show off her most recent accomplishment: an 80-page book she read on her own.

"I felt proud of myself and happy," said Giselle, who speaks only Spanish at home.

Several new sets of data suggest that "English learners" like Giselle are picking up the language faster.

In fact, the figures show fewer English learners in California public schools, period. The number of students statewide who aren't proficient in English dropped to its lowest level in about a decade during 2010.

It's not that fewer English-language learners are enrolling in school. The number of students who don't speak English at home is significantly higher today than it was a decade ago. About 11 of every 12 kindergartners from those homes are deemed English learners.

But those children are being reclassified quickly.

Foreign language students who demonstrate proficiency in English, mostly through standardized testing, are classified as "fluent- English-proficient."

Fluent-English-proficient students outnumbered English learners in grades six through 12 during 2009, the most recent year for which data are available. A decade prior, that could be said only for students in grades 10 through 12.

The trend has broad implications. It's hard to succeed in California without speaking English. Educators say learning English early helps improve students' overall achievement.

English-proficient children also can serve as a bridge between their parents and society. About 100,000 local children over age 5 live in a household where the primary language is not English, U.S. Census Bureau figures show. Seventy percent of those children speak English "very well," a much higher rate than the adults living with them. That percentage is growing.

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