The key finding of the study, by the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at UNC Chapel Hill, tends of refute conventional wisdom that English-only pre-kindergarten programs help close achievement gaps among children from different racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups.
“Many early childhood programs are moving toward a system that may isolate children who are learning English, leaving them at risk for social and language problems,” Gisele Crawford, a research associate at the institute and an author of the study, to appear in the April issue of Early Education and Development.
“Programs that have the potential to mitigate the achievement gap between children from different racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups may be doing just the opposite,” Crawford said. “This study suggests that, too often, inequities already are present in early educational experiences between non-English speaking and English-speaking children.”
Compared to English-only teachers, researchers found that teachers who included Spanish said their Spanish-speaking students experienced less aggression, bullying and teasing by their classmates, and they rated them higher in social skills. Spanish-speaking teachers also spoke more often with the children and had better teacher-student relationships.
Teachers used Spanish with Spanish-speaking children less than 20 percent of the time. And almost a quarter of Spanish-speaking children had teachers who never spoke a word of Spanish in the classroom.
When speaking directly to Spanish-speaking students, teachers who did include Spanish still used English two-thirds of the time. Yet when teachers spoke Spanish, they had more elaborate conversations with the children. Neither the amount of Spanish nor English spoken by teachers affected the children’s English proficiency.
The amount of Spanish that teachers spoke with children also was also significantly related to teachers’ ratings of children’s frustration tolerance, assertiveness, task orientation and peer social skills – the higher the proportion of English interactions, the more likely that teachers said children had conduct and learning problems and a low tolerance for frustration.
“Given the increasing number of foreign-born preschoolers, it is critical to address the claims made by the ‘English-only’ movement, particularly as they fuel public policy decisions,” said Florence Chang, lead author of the study. “An English-is-best approach largely ignores the complexities and stressors of children’s transitions into early childhood and school.”