UNC News Services
CHAPEL HILL â€“ Contrary to conventional wisdom, English-only pre-kindergarten classrooms may not help native Spanish-speaking children become better prepared for school. According to research by FPG Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Spanish-speaking children had better social skills when their teachers spoke some Spanish.
â€œMany 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,â€ said an author of the study, Gisele Crawford, a research associate at FPG. The study will be published in the April issue of Early Education and Development.
â€œPrograms that have the potential to mitigate the achievement gap between children from different racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups may be doing just the opposite. This study suggests that, too often, iniquities already are present in early educational experiences between non-English speaking and English-speaking children,â€ Crawford said.
The study included teachersâ€™ evaluations of their students. 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 childrenâ€™s English proficiency.
The amount of Spanish that teachers spoke with children was also significantly related to teachersâ€™ ratings of childrenâ€™s frustration tolerance, assertiveness, task orientation and peer social skillsâ€”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.
â€œGiven the increasing number of foreign-born preschoolers, it is critical to address the claims made by the â€˜English-onlyâ€™ movement, particularly as they fuel public policy decisions,â€ said Florence Chang, lead author and former FPG researcher. â€œAn English-is-best approach largely ignores the complexities and stressors of childrenâ€™s transitions into early childhood and school.â€
Study participants included 345 Spanish-speaking pre-kindergartners in 161 pre-k programs. Most (89 percent) live below 150 percent of the federal poverty level and the majority (61 percent) did not speak English at home. Sixty-one percent attended half-day programs in a public school building. Most children attended programs where the majority of their classmates were Hispanicâ€”78 percent of the classes were more than 50 percent Hispanic children. Forty-four percent of teachers were Hispanic; 38 percent were white; 6 percent were black; 4 percent were Asian; and 8 percent were multiracial.
Bilingual researchers observed childrenâ€™s experiences within their classroom and measured teacherâ€™s language interactions. Trained observers rated childrenâ€™s interactions with teachers on a continuum from more passive to more elaborated interactions, and their social behaviors were observed.
Teachers answered 38 questions in the fall and spring regarding each childâ€™s social and behavior skills. In the spring, teachers rated their relationship with the child. Spanish-proficient data collectors were trained to assess each child.