Research on the literacy and language development of Spanish-speaking English language learners

VIAS Subproject 1
Predicting Growth in Spanish-speaking Children’s Reading: PreK to Eighth Grade


Teacher helping boy readThe study’s longitudinal design enabled the examination of patterns of change and growth over time, helping us to understand the reading and language development of Spanish-speaking children reading in English, the factors that predict their developmental trajectories, and the specific skills that are susceptible to change. To our knowledge, there are no other studies that span this time period and examine the influence of child, home, and school characteristics on language minority learners’ reading development.

Research Goals

  • Improve our understanding of Spanish-speaking language minority learners’ developmental trajectories (pre-K–Grade 8) of reading

  • Examine the influence of social (e.g., demographics), cultural (e.g., home literacy practices), and linguistic (e.g., language proficiency in Spanish and English) factors on developmental trajectories of reading

  • Gain insight into the source of difficulties of language minority learners who are struggling readers

Description of Project Work and Findings

Sample Characteristics

In year 1 of the VIAS program project grant (2007-2008 academic year), when the children in our sample were in fifth grade, we successfully re-recruited 173 families who had participated in the longitudinal study in the previous program project. The following year (2008-2009), when the children were in sixth grade, there was some attrition, but we were able to recruit 188 students from the earlier study via better contact with one school district. In year 3 (2009-2010), 172 children and their families participated in the study. In our last year of data collection (2010-2011), 181 students and their families participated.

For every participant recruited into the second phase of the study (VIAS), a phone interview was administered to every parent/guardian to gather demographic as well as language exposure and use data, replicating data collected during the first phase of the study. We also administered the demographic questionnaire in the last year of data collection. The questionnaire, adapted from a demographic questionnaire designed by the DeLSS project, was prepared in Spanish and English. Findings indicated that the great majority of children were born in the United States and nearly all parents identified their children as Latino. In contrast, a large majority of mothers were born outside the United States. Although there was some variability in maternal education, more than one third of mothers had less than a high school education, and 50% of families lived in poverty or deep poverty. In the final year of the study (2010-2011), children were enrolled in 79 different urban schools (range = 1–7 students per school). Nearly all students were enrolled in public schools, with the majority of these schools receiving Title I funds (73%).

With regard to language exposure and use,at study entry when students were 4 years old, all but three parents reported hoping that their child would grow up to be a Spanish-English bilingual; 47% of parents or guardians reported using only or mostly Spanishat home with children; none of the children received all of their input at home in English. When students reached age 14, 43% of parents reported using only or mostly Spanish at home with their children, with only 1% of children receiving all their input in English.

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During the first phase of the study in the previous program project (2001–2005), standardized and researcher-developed measures of language and literacy in Spanish and English were administered to children annually, including the Woodcock Language Proficiency Battery—Revised (WLPB-R) and the Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing (CTOPP).
During the second phase of the study in VIAS (2007–2011), we used the same measures of basic reading processes and additional assessments in different years. We incorporated the Test of Word Reading Efficiency (TOWRE) to assess word reading fluency in English and Spanish, the Syntactic Similarities subtest from the Test of Reading Comprehension (TORC) to measure students’ understanding of meaningfully similar but syntactically different sentence structures, and the Gates-MacGinitie Reading Test to measure English reading comprehension. (Please see Appendix 1.2.1 for more details on the measures used.)

We also included some new measures such as the Reader Self-Perception Scale (RSPS) and the Meta-comprehension Strategy Index (MSI). These measures, which assess students’ perceptions of their reading skills and elicit the strategies that they use to decode and comprehend text, provide new insight into adolescent readers’ thoughts and processes surrounding reading. Seeking to examine other contextual factors that influence these group achievements, we included the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale, the School Climate Survey, and a researcher-developed measure that examines peer relationships, self-efficacy, and academic self-esteem, with the goal of examining the relationship between these contextual factors and academic achievement.

Additionally, we conducted in-depth interviews with a subsample of 25 families to investigate parents’ perceptions of the quality of schooling, achievement, and aspirations for their child’s educational future. Using the results of these interviews, we designed a parent and student survey to investigate their educational decisions, aspirations, understanding of schooling, and their knowledge of the path to college. This survey was analyzed and used to design a second mixed-methods study, with a larger sample and a more in-depth qualitative interview looking into parent and student access to information about schooling and educational resources, and aspirations for their educational future. We randomly selected 48 families—12 per site, with an equal number of boys and girls—for our subsample.

Finally, in light of the longitudinal design and our desire to maintain its integrity in the final year of data collection, we administered the full battery of standardized tests of language and literacy, and the same parent demographic questionnaire that we used in year 1 when students were in fifth grade.

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Participating children were tested at nine time points across the two program projects: fall and spring of preschool, kindergarten, first grade, second grade, fifth grade, sixth grade, seventh grade, and eighth grade. Extensive training sessions on the administration of the student assessment battery were conducted for all research assistants each year. For students aged 4.5 through 7 years, the assessments were conducted in a quiet room at the children’s schools. In the later phase of the study, when the students were older (ages 11 to 14), the assessments were conducted primarily at children’s homes, in nearby public libraries, or at children’s after-school programs. We did have one site (Lawrence, MA) where assessments in the second phase were sometimes conducted in the school. Research assistants submitted completed testing material within one week of conducting the assessments. The completed testing protocols were checked to ensure that all subtests were administered correctly, and then they were entered into a data file. Each year, children received a $25 gift card as a thank you for their participation. In addition, in the summer we followed up with each participating family by sending a thank you card and asking for their updated contact information, since we found that for many this information changed every few months. We facilitated the collection of this information by including a self-addressed, stamped postcard for parents to return to us.
In addition to the student data in the longitudinal sample, we conducted the mixed methods studies, collecting in-depth qualitative interviews and survey data from parents and students described in the last section.


Analyses conducted that integrate findings from the first program project grant indicate that  language-based competencies, such as vocabulary knowledge, are lasting sources of difficulty for many Spanish-speaking language minority learners in the United States, including those children – like our participants – educated entirely in U.S. schools starting in preschool. There is a gap between many Spanish-speaking language minority learners’ word-reading skills and vocabulary knowledge, and ultimately, their underdeveloped reading comprehension. By strengthening the language environments that are part of the everyday school experiences of students from non-English-speaking or low-income homes, or both, educators can support children as they develop the language-based competencies needed to access the school curriculum. Providing such environments requires considerable shifts in the way reading is assessed and taught. Ultimately, it is recommended that educators augment students’ literacy rates, particularly those of language minority learners, by paying greater attention to sustained, comprehensive, and deep language-based instruction, and by using assessments that capture complex thinking and learning.

Another set of analyses examined the influence of contextual factors on reading development (measured through quantitative reading development data), students’ household characteristics (parent surveys), and parental understandings of their children’s achievements and schooling (captured through qualitative interviews).The first set of parent interviews (n = 25) asked parents about their child’s education from many angles, including indicators of good schools, teachers, their child’s achievement, and their aspirations for their children. Overall, the study findings exposed disconcerting trends in children and families’ trajectories, as well as disconnects between the home and school. In interpreting these interviews, we focused primarily on data patterns related to the parents of low achievers. We found that these parents are attending to their child’s academic behaviors and looking for signs of academic performance, but their sources of information are not “hard” indicators—ones that provide an assessment of performance. Many of these parents were interpreting a lack of direct message from educators about academic difficulties and children’s ongoing and regular completion of homework as indicators of satisfactory performance. Their notions of a better future and more opportunities for their child were clear, but they lacked specific information about the mechanisms and processes to leverage such aspirations, at least in the educational domain.

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More recently, a larger set of interviews (48 parents, 48 students) was collected, with the aim of confirming and extending the previously described findings. Specifically, these interviews were designed to examine parents’ and students’ understandings of indicators of academic progress, perceptions about schools, access to information, and aspirations for the students’ educational future. The results from this qualitative analysis will be combined with the findings from the larger quantitative dataset to enrich the developmental conclusions that can be drawn from subproject 1.

A mixed-method study with a subsample of students, designed to shed light on the comprehension processes of Spanish-speaking adolescent language minority learners experiencing reading difficulties, indicated that the participants were actively engaged in the comprehension process and employed a suite of reading comprehension strategies when determining test answers. However, these strategic processes did not necessarily result in comprehension as was intended or in correct answer choices. These results present a mixed story with respect to adolescent struggling readers. While the students demonstrated active reading, their strategies were ultimately insufficient for effective comprehension, likely because they were not accompanied by relevant, well-developed content knowledge and language skills.
At the time this report was prepared, further analyses are integrating the numerous facets of this longitudinal developmental study and portraying key implications for the field. Key questions being addressed include: 1) What are the patterns of development of students’ Spanish and English vocabulary knowledge, word-reading skills, and reading comprehension from early childhood through early adolescence and how do rates of growth compare to national norms? 2) How do Latino parents describe their children’s academic progress, schools, and post-secondary planning and options? 3) How do their children’s perceptions compare?

Initial findings from these culminating analyses show that Spanish and English word-reading and oral language development slowed over time. For our sample, word-reading achievement plateaued at or near the national average range in both languages; however, the students’ vocabulary development in both languages remained an area of concern. Further, students’ reading comprehension development appears to have slowed over time and remained consistently two grade levels below the norm throughout the middle school years. Findings drawn from the parent and student interviews will shed light on how participants perceive indicators of academic progress and how this understanding of achievement and schooling bears on aspirations for their educational future.

Selected Dissemination Activities

The findings of the subproject have been shared with the field in presentations at numerous professional conferences and meetings. The Principal Investigator and her team have shared findings from the research study with the field, including presentations at the meeting of the American Educational Research Association (2010, 2012); Scientific Studies of Reading Annual Conference (2010); Immigration, Education, and Language: A Spain/USA Perspective (2009); National Academy of Sciences Panel Workshop (2009); and the European Association for Research on Learning and Instruction (EARLI) Annual Conference. The Principal Investigator also presented a keynote based on project findings conducted for the Center for Research on the Educational Achievement and Teaching of English Language Learners (CREATE) in October 2012.

Subproject 1: Table of Instruments Used in the Study Download the PDF.

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Principal Investigator

Nonie K. Lesaux
Harvard University Graduate School of Education

Research Team

Armida Lizarraga
Harvard University Graduate School of Education

Jeannette Mancilla-Martinez
Harvard University Graduate School of Education and University of California, Irvine