Florida State researcher wins $2.8 million to study school readiness of Spanish-speaking children

Christopher J. Lonigan

A Florida State University researcher has won a $2.8 million federal grant to study ways to increase the school readiness skills and subsequent academic achievement of Spanish-speaking children in the United States.

Christopher Lonigan, a psychology professor and associate director of the Florida Center for Reading Research, and a team of researchers will evaluate the benefits of an academically focused preschool curriculum they developed versus more traditional early childhood programs. Their work is being supported by a five-year grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

"Children who are Spanish-speaking English language learners are one of the fastest growing school populations in the United States," Lonigan said. "A variety of data sources indicate that these children as a group are at a significant risk of educational difficulties as they advance through school. Despite this risk, there have been few previous studies that provide clear evidence of ways in which teachers and schools can help promote these children’s successes."

A substantial number of children who are Spanish-speaking English language learners enter kindergarten with low levels of key early literacy and math skills, and studies suggest that many of these young children are at risk of later problems in reading and mathematics. Understanding how instructional activities can be used to prevent problems will provide educators with important tools for enhancing school readiness, according to Lonigan.

In addition to evaluating the benefits of the Literacy Express Comprehensive Preschool Curriculum, which Lonigan’s team developed, the researchers will compare the benefits of teaching Spanish-speaking 4-year-olds using only English versus teaching them in Spanish first and English later. Lonigan’s previous studies indicate that using a modified two-way bilingual approach is most effective.

"The language that is used to deliver instruction to these students is a question that is both significant and highly controversial," he said. "Most generally, such decisions are made on strongly held philosophical or political beliefs. Rarely have such decisions been made and policies established on the basis of sound scientific evidence concerning the instructional model that provides children with the best educational outcome."

For example, several states such as California have passed ballot initiatives that restrict the educational methods and programs of instruction for elementary school children. At the federal level, the Bilingual Education Act of 1968 was repealed in 2002 and replaced with the English Acquisition Act, which emphasizes English rather than bilingual instruction.

In addition to low math and literacy skills, children for whom English is not their first language are more likely to have lower overall academic achievement and higher grade repetition and drop-out rates than their peers. Therefore, how to best serve the educational needs of Spanish-speaking children is paramount, especially when considering the number of school-age Latino students is estimated to reach 16 million, or 25 percent of the total student population, by 2030. In addition to Lonigan, the research team includes Beth Phillips, assistant professor in the Florida State Department of Educational Psychology and Learning Systems and faculty associate of the Florida Center for Reading Research, JoAnn Farver of the University of Southern California and Kimberly McDowell of Wichita State University.

The research will be conducted in preschools that serve a large number of Spanish-speaking children in Florida, California, New Mexico and Kansas. Overall, more than 100 preschool centers and approximately 1,200 preschool children will participate in the project.