Spanish-speaking parents looking to help their children learn English should start by developing their literacy and numeracy in their first language, according to recently published research from the University of Missouri.
The research found that Spanish-speaking preschoolers experience significant improvements in English acquisition during preschool when they have a good grasp of letters and basic math skills in their home language.
The findings strongly suggest that early education programs that connect children’s word and math knowledge in Spanish to those in English can boost school readiness for Spanish-speaking children, setting them on the path to English proficiency.
Researchers from the University of Missouri, Pennsylvania State University, and Arizona State University examined the link between knowledge that preschool-aged children already possess in Spanish, namely letter and number recognition, and their gains in those same areas of English.
The team found that preschool-aged children who had strong letter and math abilities in Spanish entering preschool made more gains in those English skills over the course of the school year than classmates who didn’t.
“Even if parents can’t speak English or know very little English, they can foster English learning by reading to their children and by talking about and doing math in Spanish. Doing so will greatly improve the child’s ability to keep up in an English classroom setting,” said Francisco Palermo, an assistant professor in the University of Missouri’s College of Human Environmental Sciences, who served as lead researcher.
It’s not immediately clear that these findings have direct application to ELLs who speak languages other than Spanish at home.
“Whether that is the case for other languages, is open and up for debate,” Palermo said.
While at least two-thirds of English-learners in K-12 schools are Spanish speakers, more than 1 million ELLs speak languages such as Arabic, Mandarin, and Vietnamese that have vastly different alphabets and grammar structures.
But the research does support several stories published in Education Week’s 2016 special report, Teaching America’s English-Language Learners.
One of the stories explored the parent engagement efforts at a San Jose, Calif., elementary school, where a principal opens the school library 50 minutes before the first bell and 50 minutes after the final bell. The principal wanted to encourage parents, who may not otherwise have access to books, to spend time reading with their children. Here’s a link to an Education Week live chat with that principal and another San Jose Unified educator discussed their efforts to partner with the families of ELLs to boost literacy.
Another piece examined the push in Tulsa, Okla., to develop English-language-learner literacy in prekindergarten classes. Mounting evidence shows that exposure to language instruction boosts young children’s odds of stronger academic achievement later on.
As first appeared in Applied Psycholinguistics 2016. Reprinted with permission from the author.
Here’s a look at the research:
Photo Credit: Pre-K student Kailyn Walker reaches for a book in her classroom at the Dual Language Academy in Tulsa, Okla., where 50 percent of children are English-learners and students are taught in English and Spanish. --Shane Bevel for Education Week
A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.