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Language Barrier Reinforced by Poverty, Study Finds

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While children of parents who speak a language other than English in general have more educational difficulties than other children, the degree of those difficulties varies widely with the socio-economic and educational status of the parents and the academic quality of the schools the children attend.

That is the principal finding of a new analysis by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federally supported research arm of the Education Commission of the States, of its data from the 1979-80 national assessment of reading comprehension.

The assessment involved survey responses and test scores of 77,000 students--9-year-olds, 13-year-olds, and 17-year-olds--from a variety of economic and ethnic backgrounds.

The study, written by Rexford Brown, the education commission's director of publications, concludes that the educational situation of what the naep researchers call "other-language" students "is not simply the consequence of a mismatch between students' home language and the language of instruction in the schools." It is "language dominance coupled with poverty or coupled with discriminatory treatment or coupled with both that makes the greatest difference" in academic performance.

"In and of itself, being from a home in which English is not the dominant language does not mean that you're going to be a poor reader," said Roy Forbes, associate executive director of the commission. "It is language in conjunction with other variables that makes poor readers."

Above National Average

In fact, the researchers point out, 13- and 17-year-old "other-language" students who attend good urban schools or private schools, whose homes contain many books, and who have at least one parent with college-level education, score above the national average for their age in reading comprehension.

In none of the three age groups covered by the 1980 assessment, however, did "other-language" stu-dents outperform their English-language peers of similar backgrounds.

The reading-comprehension scores of students from foreign language-dominant families were an average of 6.4 points below the mean score of 58 percent for 9-year-olds, 7.7 percent below the 74 percent mean for 13-year-olds, and 6.7 percent below the mean of 79.1 percent for 17-year olds, the naep study showed.

The new analysis also revealed, according to the report, racial and cultural variations in the performance of "other-language" students.

Among 17-year-olds, white "oth-er-language" students scored about a percentage point below the national average and 5 points below white students for whom English is the dominant language; black "other-language" students scored 26 points below the national average and 14 points below their English-dominant peers; Hispanic "other-language" students scored 9 points below the average, as did their English-dominant peers.

The study did not address the effect of bilingual education on academic performance, but Mr. Brown said the report "definitely has some things that people in bilingual education should be interested in."

Some students from families that speak foreign languages are better readers than others, Mr. Brown said, because they are exposed to more interesting reading materials in the home than they see in schools.

The report is entitled Students From Homes in Which English Is Not the Dominant Language: Who Are They and How Well Do They Read?--ce

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