“Bilingualism and Academic Achievement,” a study by Wen-Jui Han of the Silver School of
Social Work, focuses on Latino and Asian English Language Learners to examine the connection
between bilingualism and the children’s academic trajectories during early school years—with particular attention paid to how school environments affect both.

The study, published in the January/February 2012 issue of Child Development, found that, not surprisingly, upon entry to kindergarten, children speaking a non-English language tended to have lower reading and math scores than their English-speaking peers, largely due to their generally disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds. However, the study showed schools can play an important role in shaping these children’s academic trajectories. In particular, more English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction was helpful for children’s reading, whereas having more services for English Language Learners (ELL) families was beneficial to students learning math.

For the study, the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study—Kindergarten cohort was used to track more than 16,000 children across the United States from their kindergarten year through the fifth grade. Of these children, 58 percent are non-Hispanic white and 14 percent of the children speak a language other than English at home. Five groups of children’s language background were created by a combination of the language they spoke at home and their English proficiency measured at school: English Monolinguals (75 percent), English-Dominant Bilinguals (8 percent), Mixed Bilinguals (8 percent), Non-English-Dominant Bilinguals (5 percent), and Non-English Monolinguals (4 percent).

Overall, the results show that despite starting with lower reading and math scores in kindergarten, Mixed Bilingual children fully closed the reading and math gaps with their white English Monolingual peers by fifth grade. However, because Non-English-Dominant Bilinguals and Non-English Monolinguals started with significantly lower reading and math scores compared to their white English Monolingual peers, and because they did not have significantly faster learning rates, by fifth grade they still had significantly lower scores in both subjects.

Approximately 5.1 million ELL students from more than 350 language backgrounds are enrolled in Pre-K to 12 in U.S. public schools, and 60 percent of all ELL children are in grades K-5. Latino and Asian children have been and are projected to be rapidly growing racial and ethnic groups in the United States, and often do not speak English at home. Lack of fluency in English was once considered a major reason for the long-held finding that ELL children exhibit generally poorer academic performance than native-born, non-Hispanic white children. Given that all academic tests are evaluated in English, the trend to help students become English proficient as fast as possible seems to make sense on the surface. However, recent research on the benefits of bilingualism to children’s academic performance challenges this common-sense perspective. English-only services run the risk of shifting ELL children to English mono-lingualism at the expense of developing their native language abilities. This study may serve as a reminder of the value of nurturing ELL students and offer valuable empirical evidence on the importance of school resources for ELL children’s academic trajectories. In addition, with Non-English Monolingual children—and to a degree Non-English-Dominant Bilingual children—lagging behind, schools and teachers must focus more specifically on these students.

This research was supported by the Foundation for Child Development PK-3 Initiative.

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