Research on English language learners often focuses on whether children learn more when they are taught only in English or more when they are taught partly in the language they speak at home. A new paper by Wen-Jui Han, a professor at the New York University Silver School of Social Work, sheds light on a different question: how the characteristics of an ELL student’s school affects his or her ability to catch up academically with native English-speaking peers.
Han’s analysis, published in the Jan./Feb. 2012 issue of Child Development, demonstrated that although most ELL students with a Spanish-speaking background score lower than their English-speaking peers on kindergarten reading and math assessments, ELL students improved their academic performance faster than their native-English speaking peers. Han also found that when she controlled for a student’s school and home environment, bilingual students caught up to white, English-speaking students by fifth grade.
“I wanted to do this study because I really believe that when you can speak two languages, it’s an important asset,” Han said.
The study examined data on 16,380 children from the federal government’s Early Childhood Longitudinal Study Kindergarten Cohort (ECLS-K). White, non-Hispanic children were used as a control group for children from non-English language backgrounds. The data was collected between 1998 and 2004.
In math, the scores of English monolingual students stayed roughly the same throughout elementary school. But during the period of time represented in the sample, both bilingual children and monolingual children who spoke no English upon entering kindergarten made much greater gains in math from kindergarten to fifth grade than their English monolingual peers. Latino students who were either English-dominant bilinguals or spoke a mix of English and Spanish improved in math by over 4 percent, while Spanish-dominant bilingual and Spanish monolingual Latino students’ math scores improved by 13.9 and 9.2 percent, respectively. Asian bilingual students experienced slightly smaller gains in math, but their scores were higher to begin with and closer to the scores of white monolingual students.
Reading scores showed smaller gains, but once again the improvements made by bilingual and non-English monolingual students between kindergarten and fifth grade were often greater than gains made by white monolingual students. Bilingual Latino students who spoke mostly Spanish in kindergarten (as opposed to a mix of Spanish and English or mostly English) were an exception: They showed little change in reading scores between kindergarten and fifth grade.
In her analysis, Han found that the family characteristics of ELL students, such as family income and parents’ level of education, accounted for about one-third of the lower reading scores of children speaking a non-English language in fifth grade. School characteristics, such as whether the school provided special services to ELL families, or had facilities such as music rooms and computers, also had a significant effect on whether ELL students caught up to their English monolingual peers. (Han controlled for whether a school received Title I and/or Migrant Education Program funds from the federal government, both programs that indicate a school serves a low-income population and may lack monetary resources. So the difference in school characteristics is not strictly a byproduct of some schools being better funded than others.)
The analysis did not examine whether these children attended pre-K prior to entering kindergarten, which could account for some students advancing faster than others. Han also did not dive into the effects of different instructional programs, such as English-only or bilingual education, but she did look at the hours per day and number of years students spent in these services, concluding that further research is needed to assess their impact and quality.
Han considers the findings about the importance of good school facilities and teacher outreach to ELL families to be the most important parts of her analysis. “When teachers really put in effort, when teachers are reaching out to do home visits, when teachers reach out and have more meetings with parents, when teachers send notes home with parents—those kind of things work,” she said.