School districts are rethinking how to tailor instruction for kids learning English after report shows that older elementary school students may be missing out on basics.

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Students in South Seattle and six South King County districts speak 167 different languages, a linguistic diversity on par with New York City’s school system, which tops 180.

Kids who don’t speak English proficiently when they enter school are classified as English Language Learners and get extra help with English so they can tackle the rest of their education.

On average, kids spend almost four years in an English-language program, according to a recent study of elementary school age students by Education Northwest, one of 10 regional research labs sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education.

Kids who start out with better English generally spend less time in such programs, but researchers found a surprising exception for kids starting school in 2nd through 5th grade.

Students who already had middle-range English skills when they began instruction stayed longer than kids who were just starting to learn English.

The report was requested by the Road Map Project,  an initiative that’s seeking, by 2020, to double the number of students who are ready for college or careers.  It covers south Seattle as well as Auburn, Federal Way, Highline, Kent, Renton and Tukwila.

The report found that only 47 percent of students in grades 2-5 who had advanced English skills graduated from an English-language program in four years.  In comparison,  69 percent of the students whose skills were considered basic when they began had moved on.

That result didn’t make sense to the researchers, said the study’s author, Jason Greenberg Motamedi, but he said the districts’ volunteered a possible explanation:

Kids who come in with more advanced English skills miss out on the basic phonics instruction linking sounds and letters that kids typically get when they’re first learning the language.

“It’s what all of us get in kindergarten,” he said. “But if you come in in 4th grade, you’re not going to learn that stuff. They’re going to stick you in a class and you’re going to learn the difference between an adjective and an adverb.”

Educators are concerned about kids who are spending five years or more in English-language programs and are looking for ways to better tailor instruction to reflect a diverse group of students, said Roxana Norouzi of One America, an immigrant advocacy organization that’s part of the Road Map effort.

“The goal is really for kids at the elementary level not to get stuck in ELL programs for a long period of time,”  said Norouzi, Director of Education & Integration Policy for One America.

Greenberg Motamedi said a report expected in a few months will look at other differences in how long students spend in ELL programs.

For example, girls leave ELL programs faster than boys, but girls also  start out with better skills. Researchers want to know if it’s the head start in proficiency that explains the difference or possibly something gender-related.

“Is it something about the way girls learn or is it just the fact that they’re coming in with more language skills?” he asked.

Across Washington State, the number of students who speak a language other than English rose more than 70 percent over eight years to a total of almost 220,000 in the 2012- 2013 school year, according to Education Northwest. Almost half of those kids were classified as English Language Learners and about one in five of them attended a Road Map school.