Published Online: June 4, 1997

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Bilingual & Immigrant Education

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Knowing a second language can help children learn to read more quickly and easily than their monolingual peers, according to a new study.

The study, published in the May issue of the American Psychological Association's journal Developmental Psychology, was based on tests run with 134 children ages 4 and 5. Thirty-four were English speakers only, 47 were bilingual in French and English, and 53 spoke both Chinese and English.

The bilingual children generally spoke both languages at home and were also exposed to their native tongues in preschool. All the children could identify printed letters and their sounds but could not read on their own.

"Preschoolers who speak one language can usually recite the alphabet and spell their names but cannot read without the help of pictures," said Ellen Bialystok, a psychology professor at York University in Ontario, Canada, and the study's author. "But bilingual preschoolers can read sooner because they are able to recognize symbolic relations between letters, characters, and sounds without having visual objects."

One test involved showing the children a card with a word placed under the named object's picture. The children were then asked to identify the word when it was moved to a different picture. The scores for the bilingual children as a group were twice as high as for the monolingual children--even the 4-year-old bilingual youngsters scored higher than the 5-year-old monolingual children.

The Institute for Research in English Acquisition and Development has issued a follow-up analysis of a massive study on language-minority children released earlier this year by the National Research Council.

The 483-page NRC study summarized current research and outlined priorities for the future. Last month, the Amherst, Mass.-based institute, known as READ, responded with its own effort to guide the ongoing debate over the best ways to teach children who speak a language other than English.

While the organization often criticizes bilingual education, on one central point the group's review concurs with the NRC report: Rather than trying to prove whether English-only or bilingual approaches work best, policymakers should focus on developing effective instruction for language-minority students regardless of what label the program carries. ("The Politics of Language," March 5, 1997, and "Politics Found To Hinder Research on LEP Students," Jan. 22, 1997.)

Copies of the review are available for $5 each from READ by calling or faxing (413) 256-0034.

--LYNN SCHNAIBERG lschnaib@epe.org

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