English-Language Learners

Very Early Exposure to English Can Help ELLs Flourish, Study Finds

By Corey Mitchell — July 19, 2017 3 min read
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Consistently exposing English-learner students to the language before they begin their formal education could pave their path to bilingualism, according to new research from the University of Washington.

A research team from the university’s Institute of Learning & Brain Sciences traveled to Madrid, Spain, to work with English-learners there, using a language-intensive, small-group, play-based method that demonstrated encouraging results.

The tutored children outperformed peers who were enrolled in traditional bilingual programs, speaking in English five times as often and retaining their language skills more than four months after the program ended.

Published in the academic journal Mind, Brain and Education, the research offers insight into how to teach English to young children whose parents don’t speak the language.

If the research team can reproduce the results in the United States, the work could have implications for how and when the nation’s English-learners are taught the language.

Even waiting until kindergarten to introduce English-learners to English could hinder efforts to help them learn the language, the lead researchers argue.

“What we’re finding here is that ... you don’t need a whole lot of time to expose babies to another language and have them start developing these bilingual skills,” said Naja Ferjan Ramirez, a research scientist at the University of Washington. “It’s just that doing this earlier, as opposed to later, is much more efficient from the brain’s perspective.”

Ferjan Ramirez and co-author Patricia Kuhl, a professor of speech and hearing sciences and co-director of the institute, designed the study, and hand-picked and trained a team of University of Washington students and recent graduates before sending them to Spain.

Close to 300 infants and children, from ages 7 months to nearly 3 years old, were split into two groups: Children who received daily, hour-long English tutoring sessions for 18 weeks, and those who remained in an existing bilingual program.

All the children were enrolled in public child care centers in Spain.

The children in the first group spent that hour in small groups with University of Washington tutors. Using a play-based method, the tutors spoke to the children in what the researchers called “infant-directed speech” or “parentese"—the high-pitched, simple grammar speech style parents use to talk to babies.

In the bilingual program, children spent two hours a week in a traditional classroom setting with higher student-teacher ratios.

The differences in performance were stark.

By the end of the 18-week program, children in the University of Washington program spoke an average of 74 English words or phrases per hour. The students in the traditional bilingual program only spoke 13 English words or phrases.

The study found that the native language skills of the children in the experimental program were not negatively affected by introducing a second language.

“Some people are still concerned that bilingualism causes confusion, or that it slows down language learning,” Ferjan Ramirez said. “Science does not support either one of these two arguments.”

While the researchers want to adapt the programs stateside in hopes of transferring the lessons learned in Madrid to families in the United States, they do acknowledge that smaller class sizes, highly-motivated tutors, and other variables could have influenced the study’s results.

“We have this existing program that worked in Spain for Spanish children learning English,” Ferjan Ramirez said. “We definitely believe that it has to work in the United States as well.”

But the conditions to reproduce the results, at least on a grand scale, may not exist in the United States because of early-childhood policies and cultural divides.

Though a growing number of states are pushing for increased access to prekindergarten classes for 4-year-old ELLs, participation among Hispanics, and English-learners in particular, often lags behind other groups.

Historically, Hispanic parents have been less likely to enroll their children in early-childhood-education programs and Head Start, the federal education program designed to support the needs of low-income children and get them ready for elementary school.

Even when families want to enroll in early-childhood programs, transportation and costs can emerge as roadblocks.

For Further Reading

Building ELLs’ Early Literacy is Crucial

Pre-K Literacy Key to English-Language Learner Reclassification, Study Finds

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.