Research on the literacy and language development of Spanish-speaking English language learners
VIAS Subproject 2
Early Childhood Intervention Study:
Improving the Language and Literacy Skills of Spanish-English Bilingual Kindergarteners
This longitudinal intervention explored the oral language proficiency and literacy development of kindergarten children from Spanish-speaking backgrounds. The intervention attempted to improve children’s language and early literacy skills through the implementation of a program that combined English and Spanish treatments. The study built on knowledge gained from the ongoing Early Childhood Study of Language and Literacy Development of Spanish Speaking Children (ECS) and took into account the limitations of previous research by addressing the specific vocabulary needs of the ELL student population. The classroom intervention was informed by recent research in teaching vocabulary to young children (August & Gray, 2010) and the work of Graves (2006), which served as the unifying theoretical framework in this research program. The home intervention was informed by the Project EASE home intervention (Jordan, Snow, & Porsche, 2000), research on family literacy through Project Flame (Rodriguez-Brown, 2003, 2008) and the Intergenerational Literacy Program (Paratore, 2001).
The present study differed from previous work focusing on vocabulary for ELL students in that it matched English language development in classrooms with Spanish language development in the home. Conceptually, the classroom and home interventions were linked by targeting similar language and literacy skills. Practically, these components were linked by using the same books in the classroom and in the home. This approach was designed to provide maximum vocabulary exposure in both Spanish and English, while making connections between the school and home learning environments.
The first two years of the study were focused on designing, developing, and piloting the family literacy intervention and the classroom intervention. The purpose of the development phase was to create instructional units that target ELL students, are relevant to and promote oral language skills for kindergarten children, and are culturally appropriate for Spanish-speaking families. In Year 2, the intervention program was piloted in two school sites with high numbers of Spanish-speaking kindergarten children. In Year 3, the study was expanded to include a larger sample of Spanish-speaking kindergarten children, and three conditions were tested: English classroom intervention, Spanish home intervention linked to English classroom intervention, and no intervention (control group). In Years 4 and 5, we followed participants from kindergarten to second grade to examine the long-term effects of the interventions and to establish growth trajectories for their language and literacy development.
The goal of this longitudinal study was to design and implement an intervention program to improve the language skills of Spanish-English bilingual kindergarten students and to assess the impact of the intervention on their early literacy skills. The intervention program focused on improving vocabulary and extended discourse skills, aspects of children’s oral language skills that have been shown to be related to literacy outcomes and that research has identified as areas of weakness for young bilingual students. The intervention program was developed and tested with kindergarten children from Spanish-speaking backgrounds assigned to one of three groups during implementation—English classroom intervention, Spanish home intervention linked to English classroom intervention, or a no-intervention control group.
The study was designed to answer the following research questions:
Does participation in either of the intervention models result in Spanish and/or English language and/or literacy gains above those of the control group?
Which type of intervention generates the greatest language and literacy gains—English classroom intervention or Spanish home intervention linked to English classroom intervention?
Do the intervention effects differ for children with different language and literacy skills at the start of the study? Which groups of learners show the greatest gains and for which type of intervention?
What are the long-term effects of the intervention? Do results/gains on oral English skills persist over time as students move from kindergarten to first and second grade? What is the relationship between short-term effects of the intervention on oral English skills and long-term effects on English literacy?
This study has important theoretical and practical implications for programs, schools, and districts that are working with young bilingual English language learner (ELL) students. It expands on the findings on language and literacy skills from the Early Childhood Study of Language and Literacy Development of Spanish-Speaking Children (ECS), conducted by Patton Tabors and Mariela Páez during the first program project, Acquiring Literacy in English. In particular, it adds to the intervention literature that has targeted literacy skills in young Spanish-English bilingual children. From a policy perspective, this study provides information about possible interventions to be implemented with ELL students to increase their chances for academic success in American schools.
Description of Project Work and Findings
Development and Pilot Implementation of Intervention Program
The first two years of the study were focused on designing, developing, and piloting the family literacy intervention and the classroom intervention. The purpose of the design and development phase was to create instructional units that target English language learners, are relevant to and promote oral language skills for kindergarten children, and are culturally appropriate for Spanish-speaking families. The classroom intervention consisted of four thematic units organized around a four-week structure. Weekly lessons were based on interactive shared reading, pre-teaching activities for academic vocabulary, structured vocabulary activities for basic words, visual and kinesthetic review of words, and story content.
The home intervention consisted of four sessions (one per month) parallel to the classroom intervention units. In each two-hour session, researchers worked with parents to teach them how to develop children’s language and early literacy skills through interactive shared reading in students’ first language, Spanish.
We also worked on the development and piloting of data collection instruments and assessments to be used in the research study including the KLS Semantic Assessment, which measures the vocabulary targeted during the program intervention. In Year 2, the intervention program was implemented in two school sites with high numbers of Spanish-speaking kindergarten children. The pilot study assessed the effectiveness of the design and implementation of the intervention program. Three conditions were tested: English classroom intervention, Spanish home intervention linked to English classroom intervention, and no intervention (control group). A total of eight teachers participated (four intervention and four control) in two school sites. Classrooms were randomly assigned to intervention and control conditions, and pre- and post-intervention data were collected for 48 students (27 intervention and 21 control) and 12 parents. The analysis provided the opportunity to modify the intervention program and refine the instruments used in subsequent data collection activities.
Implementation of the Intervention Program
In Year 3, the study was expanded to include a larger sample of Spanish-speaking kindergarten children, and three conditions were tested: English classroom intervention, Spanish home intervention linked to English classroom intervention, and no intervention (control group). Implementation during Year 3 consisted of a 16-week intervention program delivered across four months. Two intervention and two control schools, with a total of 16 teachers, participated in the study (eight intervention, eight control). We collected pre- and post-intervention data for a total of 148 students (61 control condition, 43 classroom-only condition, and 44 home-plus-classroom condition).
One to three weeks prior to the intervention, a standardized assessment battery and a researcher-developed assessment were individually administered to students for the purpose of assessing their language and literacy skills. All assessments were administered to both intervention and control students pre- and post-intervention. The English classroom intervention consisted of four scripted lessons per week for the four-month period. In the home-plus-classroom intervention, parents received monthly training sessions and were provided with weekly home activities during the four-month period concurrent with the classroom intervention. Post-intervention data were collected for each child within one to three weeks after the intervention had ended.
Data collection involved the use of a variety of instruments and data sources, including standardized tests, observational measures, and interview protocols. The table in the appendix presents the instruments and data sources used in the study. Standardized assessments in English and Spanish were administered to students to measure their language and literacy skills. We also administered the KLS Semantic Assessment to measure students’ knowledge of the vocabulary targeted in the intervention program. This assessment contains randomly selected words from each unit for a total of 20 basic words and 16 key words, which represent 20% of the total number of words that are part of the intervention. Data collection related to classrooms included observations of the classrooms’ language and literacy environments, fidelity measures for the intervention, and school and teacher questionnaires. The home intervention data collection included the administration of a short demographic questionnaire at the beginning of the intervention to all participating families. A total of 109 questionnaires were completed representing a 74% response rate. Families who participated in the home intervention program submitted weekly evaluation forms reporting on their activities and readings, and completed a follow-up interview at the end of the year.
Fidelity of implementation was measured through teacher observations during the kindergarten implementation. Each teacher was observed eight to ten times during the duration of the intervention for a total of 65 observations. Classroom fidelity observations revealed that teachers were confident and comfortable with the intervention materials. The mean fidelity scores for individual teachers ranged from 82.49% to 100%, with a total mean of 96.0% and a standard deviation of 11.6%. There were no significant mean differences between teachers or schools. Overall, the intervention was delivered regularly with a high level of fidelity.
Results of intervention effects indicated that the home-plus-classroom intervention had significantly bigger gains than the control condition in the KLS receptive skills for target vocabulary words. Also, we found significantly higher gains for the home-plus-classroom and classroom-only intervention groups in the KLS expressive skills compared to the control condition. Families who participated in the home intervention program reported high levels of engagement with the intervention and an increase in the frequency of parent-child shared reading at home. However, there were no statistically significant differences between the treatment groups in the standardized assessments. These results demonstrate the potential for combining efforts in schools and at home to improve students’ vocabulary skills.
Home visits to a small group of parents (n = 6) who participated in the intervention program were added to the data collection activities to better understand the language and literacy practices of Latino mothers with their bilingual children, and to investigate the impact of participation in the program. Results from the home visits showed that the mothers gained a heightened awareness of the importance of reading in their home language and had increased both the number of books in the home and the frequency of reading events. Mothers reported that the intervention program allowed them to actively connect their children’s school learning with reading at home. The analysis of observation data confirmed the mothers’ use of strategies presented through the intervention program.
In Year 4, we followed intervention and control group participants into first grade for a delayed posttest. Measures included the battery of assessments used in the previous year as well as some additional measures used by the VIAS research program. Data were collected for a total of 105 students (42 control condition, 31 classroom-only condition, and 32 home-plus-classroom condition). Vocabulary gains demonstrated in the researcher-developed measure in Year 3 continued to be significant between intervention and control groups in first grade with gains in the classroom-only and home-plus-classroom conditions being larger than the control condition. Similarly to previous findings, we found no statistically significant differences between the treatment groups in the standardized assessments in first grade. Individual growth modeling of change in children’s language and literacy skills over time showed significant growth for all groups and no differences by treatment groups. The results also showed that students who started out higher on Spanish oral language skills had faster rates of growth in English vocabulary skills.
In Year 5, students who participated in the implementation study during Year 3 were followed into second grade. Data collection was undertaken during the spring of their second grade year (64 total; 35 control condition, 17 classroom-only condition, and 12 home-plus-classroom condition). This follow-up sample was considerably smaller than the sample followed during first grade (Year 4) due to changes in school settings. Data collection included student assessments, teacher interviews, and classroom observations. Measures included the battery of assessments used in previous years that examine language and literacy development in English and Spanish. Ongoing data analyses are focusing on how children’s language and literacy skills change over time.
In addition, based on the advice of the program’s Advisory Committee, the scope of the study was expanded to include an examination of the institutionalization of the intervention program developed by this project. We investigated the continued use of the intervention in the participating kindergarten classrooms by following the two schools sites (8 teachers) that have continued to instruct using our program. Data collection for this new cohort of kindergarten students included pre- and post- assessment of the kindergarten students (n=126; 55 control condition and 71 intervention condition), teacher interviews, and classroom observations targeting fidelity of implementation. Systematic investigation of teachers’ implementation and adaptations to the curriculum, along with factors that promote intervention sustainability, were examined through classroom observations and teacher interviews with participating classrooms.
We found significant differences between the control and intervention groups in the KLS Semantic Assessment measure, indicating that students who participated in the intervention continue to learn the words targeted by the intervention. Results also showed no significant differences between the groups in the English and Spanish standardized assessments.
In year 6, the final year of work, the focus was on completing all remaining data processing activities for the project and supporting efforts for dissemination including publications and presentations. The research team engaged in conducting analyses to measure how children’s language and literacy skills change over time from kindergarten to second grade, and to determine the long-term effects of the intervention. Ongoing work includes examination of the rate of individual growth over time for both English and Spanish, the variables that influence that rate, and whether growth rates differ for different subsamples within the study (i.e., children who participated in the different types of intervention programs vs. children in the control group).
Selected Dissemination Activities
The Principal Investigator and her team have shared findings from the research study with the field, including presentations at the meetings of the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading (2009), American Educational Research Association (2010, 2011, and 2012), and Society for Research in Child Development (2011), and at the Bilingual Research Conference (2013), as an invited speaker. The team also presented findings regarding patterns of language and literacy development for Spanish-speaking children at the 12th International Congress for the Study of Child Language. Dr. Páez presented project findings at a meeting co-convened by The Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University and the Children’s Defense Fund (2011). Ms. Venkatesh, Ms. Hunter, and Dr. Páez also presented at the Massachusetts Association of Teachers of Speakers of Other Languages conference (2013).
August, D., & Gray, J. (2010). Developing comprehension in English language learners: Research and promising practices. In K. Ganske & D. Fisher (Eds.), Comprehension across the curriculum: Perspectives and practices K-12 (pp. 225-245). New York: Guilford Press.
Graves, M. F. (2006). The vocabulary book: Learning and instruction. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
Jordan, G. E., Snow, C. E., & Porche, M. V. (2000). Project EASE: The effect of a family literacy project on kindergarten students’ early literacy skills. Reading Research Quarterly, 35(4), 524-546.
Paratore, J. R. (2001). Opening doors, opening opportunities: Family literacy in an urban community. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Rodriguez-Brown, F. V. (2003). Family literacy in English language learning communities: Issues related to program development, implementation, and practice. In A. Debruin-Parecki & B. Krol-Sinclair (Eds.), Family literacy: From theory to practice (pp. 126-146). Washington, DC: International Reading Association.
Subproject 2: Table of Instruments Used in the Study Download the PDF.