Bilingual Preschools Improve Academic Performance, But Few Schools Offer Them


Education Secretary Julia Keleher visits students at a school in Catano, Puerto Rico in March. PHOTO: NBC News

Children who attend preschool programs are more prepared for school compared to those who don’t attend preschool. According to a 2017 report by the Brookings Institution and Duke University, children who attend pre-K are more likely to succeed in literacy and math compared to those who don’t attend early learning programs.

Dual-language learners, in particular, have been shown to benefit from strong bilingual preschool programs. Of bilingual learners under the age of eight, Hispanic children make up 62%, white children make up 16%, Asian children make up 15%, and black children make up 6%.

Karla Medina-Gomez, whose parents emigrated from Ecuador, told NBC News that she didn’t know what would happen when enrolled her two oldest children into a state-funded preschool program in Newark, New Jersey.

“One of my first questions when I went to register them was: ‘Well, what’s going to happen? They don’t know how to speak English,'” Medina-Gomez said.

Fortunately, the preschool program included bilingual teachers and aides. The classroom also eased the linguistic transition for children by labeling objects in English, Spanish, and Portuguese. The bilingual nature of the program, Medina-Gomez said, is what helped ensure her children’s current academic success.

“Had they not gone to preschool and maybe started kindergarten, I’m sure they probably would have been more ESL,” said Medina-Gomez.

Children naturally acquire language skills during their first eight years of life. They learn languages through songs, imitation, repetition, and games.

In fact, a recent study published in the Boston Globe has found that the window to learn new languages as efficiently as a young child closes by age 17. The earlier children learn a second language the more fluent they’re able to become.

Yet many American preschool programs vary when it comes to the support of bilingual students. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University, only five out of the 35 state preschool programs in Kansas, Maine, Minnesota, Nevada, and Texas employed seven out of nine surveyed policies.

These surveyed policies include screen and assessing children in their first language, providing extra funding, and permitting bilingual instruction.

Additionally, despite research showing that a highly-qualified teacher is incredibly important for student achievement, only six of the states’ required teachers to have the qualifications necessary to educate preschool bilingual learners.

“This is the second time we’ve surveyed states on policies that support dual-language learners,” said Steven Barnett, the senior co-director and founder of NIEER. “Unfortunately, not much has improved.”

Only three preschool programs in five states required their teachers to have a bilingual certification. Barnett said that schools need to hire more teachers who are capable of handling a wider range of challenges that students who learn two or more languages may face.

“Teachers need to understand how those children are learning and developing in terms of language and literacy and what they can do to support that,” said Barnett. Otherwise, bilingual children aren’t receiving the same academic benefits as their peers.

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