Children who have lower English-language abilities than their peers benefit the most from programs like Head Start and public preschool—but researchers say they aren’t yet sure exactly how or why.
New research involving young Latino and Spanish-speaking children confirms that widely available public programs help dual-language learners make important academic gains.
“We know that early childhood is a critical period for children who are dual-language learners,” says Virginia Buysse, senior scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute (FPG) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“Many of them face the difficult task of learning a new language while acquiring essential skills to be ready for kindergarten.”
Dual-language learners represent a large and rapidly growing group of children in the US, Buysse says. In 2006, nearly one in three children enrolled in Head Start or Early Head Start lived in a household in which a language other than English was spoken.
Dual-language learners enter kindergarten with skills that differ substantially from their peers, says co-author and fellow FPG senior scientist Ellen Peisner-Feinberg.
Learning gap widens
“English proficiency has been linked to school performance, educational attainment, and the future economic mobility of Latino students. These children lag behind their peers when they begin school, though, and the gap only widens as they grow older.”
Improving language skills in turn provides a foundation for learning in other content areas, Buysse says. “But relatively few studies have evaluated the effects of early care and education programs for dual-language learners.”
In 2007, the National Task Force on Early Childhood Education for Hispanics had referred to this knowledge gap as one of the most important unanswered questions within the field of early childhood education.
Buysse and Peisner-Feinberg wanted to gauge the current state of research and conducted a comprehensive review of the latest studies, screening 4,000 initial candidates from several academic databases before determining 25 that met their rigorous selection criteria.
Their findings are published in the journal Early Childhood Research Quarterly.
The dearth of top-caliber research itself was an important finding, Buysse says. “This is a surprisingly small group of studies, given the number of children under the age of five in this country who do not speak English as their home language.”
Head Start works
Almost all of the studies focused on Latino or Spanish-speaking children who were 3–5 years old. Most were in enrolled in center-based early childhood programs.
On the basis of these scientifically sound studies, the researchers did find evidence to suggest that dual-language learners benefit from attending widely available, well regulated early child-hood programs, such as Head Start or state-funded public pre-k.
Moreover, these programs may be more beneficial for children who begin school with lower English-language abilities and less exposure to English—findings consistent with previous research.
“We also found some support across several studies both for using English as the language of instruction and for incorporating the home language into strategies that focused on language and literacy,” Buysse says.
“And none of the studies detected any negative effects of early education programs and instructional practices that target dual-language learners.”
The researchers say the small sample sizes and other methodological challenges necessitate more research in order to demonstrate exactly which interventions truly hold the most promise for dual-language learners.
Researchers from Boston College and Temple University contributed to the study.
Source UNC-Chapel Hill