Almost 29 per cent of elementary school students served by the Peel District School Board need help with their English despite being born in Canada, according to numbers released to CBC News.
The board serves 87,807 elementary students in Peel region, west of Toronto. Of those, the numbers suggest 39,062 need extra English instruction.
Of those, 25,227 students were born in Canada, the board said. Those students are labelled English Language Learners (ELL) — those whose first language is not English and who require additional help to gain proficiency in the language.
Poleen Grewal, who co-ordinates special education and instruction at the school board, said one of the reasons Canadian-born children need ELL help is because they're only exposed to their mother tongues at home.
"A lot of the caregivers at home are not speaking English," she said. "Parents are working, you know how it is with newly immigrated families."
Zainab Khatib, 11, is a Grade 6 student at Thorn Lodge School in Mississauga who receives ESL help. She was born in Minnesota and moved to Canada when she was around five or six, she says.
Khatib speaks Urdu at home, even though her parents, who are originally from Karachi, Pakistan, speak English.
"It's easier for them to understand Urdu than if I'm speaking in English," she said.
Sandeep Agarwal, a professor at the school of urban and regional planning at Ryerson University, said he is not surprised by the numbers.
He said the numbers in Peel may be the result of some immigrant parents working long hours and not being able to keep track of how their children are progressing in school.
"You know as they grow up they'll get to the university, and if we don't tackle the problem here then we will see the problem cropping up elsewhere in the system," he said.
The percentage of students who require help with English does drop sharply as they get older.
Numbers from Peel Region show that while more than 50 per cent of students are in ELL in Grade 1, that number drops to less than 39 per cent by the time they reach Grade 6 and 27 per cent by Grade 8.
CBC News also asked the Toronto District School Board how many Canadian-born students receive ELL help. The board says there are many, but it doesn't keep track of the exact number.