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New Research Shows Social Skills and Mixed-Language Play Help ELLs Learn English

Published:  June 24, 2013

A new study provides evidence of the direct link between social and academic skill building during early childhood. The article, “Understanding Influences of Play on Second Language Learning,” is by Ruth Piker of California State University – Long Beach, and was published in the most recent issue of the Journal of Early Childhood Research. Piker uses developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky’s “concept of play as rule driven” to analyze how non-native English speakers develop skills in English through structured play with both native speakers and other dual-language learners.

Piker aims to identify social behaviors that are especially productive for linguistic development. She studied four dual-language learners in a Head Start classroom, documenting and recording their behaviors via 50 three-hour observation sessions over the course of one academic year. Though the students’ social skills and English proficiency varied, Piker found their “learning of English appeared to be influenced in particular ways by their social relationships with their peers.”


In her analysis, Piker identified “optimal language learning opportunities” for each of the children. Students got the most—and best—practice using “extended and complex English language” when playing in “mixed-language groups.” When playing with other dual-language learners, they usually spoke their primary language, but mixed-language groups often provided scaffolded opportunities to practice English, alongside the grounding familiarity of hearing occasional Spanish.

Low English proficiency can serve as a social barrier for dual-language students. Piker found that native speakers and dual-language peers often abandoned attempts to play in the face of communication breakdowns, which made mixed-language groups particularly hard to form and sustain. But she noted hopeful instances in which dual-language learners with relatively strong English skills served as social conduits for students with less English exposure. One dual-language learner, for instance, was particularly successful at taking on positions of authority when playing with her peers. At various points, she “guided the group of children in English and Spanish on a pretend flight to Mexico” and “on a day at the beach.” In these scenarios, she leveraged implicit playtime rules to smooth over language breakdowns, which prolonged her linguistic engagement with native English-speaking students. Even better, she frequently served as a social conduit for dual-language learning peers with less English proficiency.

In an interview with Early Ed Watch, Pinker suggested, “Teachers should remember that children learn linguistic, social, emotional, and cognitive skills during extended periods of play…[but] not just any play. Rather, teachers must be intentional in creating an environment that stimulates conversation and social interactions with their peers and adults.”

Piker’s conclusions echo a recent report from the Center for Early Care and Education Research, on effective strategies for dual-language instruction in early childhood. In that study, researchers found that full-blown English immersion for young dual-language learners can undercut the development of crucial social skills. In contrast, when students are allowed to continue developing their native language at school, they are more likely to acquire the social and developmental skills that help foster academic gains. Piker’s research reiterates that social skills are an essential part of linguistic development in early childhood. 

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