English Language Learners Benefit from Preschool

May 15, 2012

By Emily Firgens

A new study from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) finds that the early reading skills of children from linguistically isolated households (those without any adult English speaker) can significantly improve with participation in a center-based care program the year before kindergarten. Over half of 4-year-olds in California, where the study focused on children of immigrants, and almost 20 percent of young children of immigrants in California live in linguistically isolated households with little or no exposure to English. Children whose parents do not speak English and who receive little exposure to English prior to entering school often begin kindergarten lagging behind their peers in school readiness skills.

While the report finds improved early reading skills among linguistically isolated children, the size of gains were similar to those made by children of U.S. natives and would not close the achievement gap between these children and their English speaking peers. The report's authors suggest that early education programs targeted toward linguistically isolated children might have a greater impact in reducing gaps in school readiness skills. The study also found no improvements in early mathematics skills for linguistically isolated children.

As preschool and other early learning programs address English language learners' school readiness, it's important that programs help develop English language skills and promote children's native language. Recent studies underscore the benefits of being bilingual, such as helping individuals sort through noise and focus on important speech sounds and ignore those that are unimportant.  

Supporting a child's native language helps them to develop and master a second language. One way states can support a child's dual language learning is through Early Learning Guidelines that address the goal of preserving a child's native language, while also learning English. Teachers also need a set of skills to understand how to support dual language learning. It's important for early childhood programs to have teachers who are bilingual in a child's native language, or who learn common words and phrases in a child's native language to use with them. Indeed, providing ELLs with early learning programs that promote both English language development and retention of their native language could develop bilingual skills that will not only prepare them for school but will provide continued benefits throughout their entire lives.

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