Feb. 13, 2020
Empowering children with instruction that fills and prevents academic gaps is an essential component of building an equitable education system. Where gaps have formed, intervention programs are key. For dual language learners (DLLs), young children who speak another language at home and learn English at school, studies have shown that intervention programs emphasizing both their home language and English are most effective, though these programs are not yet universally implemented. This may be related to a number of factors, including the availability and number of bilingual intervention teachers, misalignment in scheduling for adequate small group instruction, and a lack of appropriate resources.
A new study by Trina D. Spencer, Meghan Moran, Marilyn S. Thompson, Douglas B. Petersen, and M. Adelaida Restrepo, explored the degree to which a bilingual early intervention curriculum could enhance children’s early literacy skills. The oral language skills targeted, such as vocabulary, narrative retelling, and listening comprehension, play a critical role in supporting kindergarten readiness and reading comprehension.
Across 25 Head Start classrooms in a southwestern state, researchers randomly selected half as control group classrooms, following the traditional Creative Curriculum, and half as the treatment group, supplementing with the bilingual intervention curriculum. The 81 pre-K students in the treatment and control groups were between three- and five-years-old. All of the children spoke Spanish as their home language and earned low marks on researchers’ initial English screening exam.
The study utilized Puente de Cuentos*, or Bridge Made of Stories, which is a narrative intervention program, designed by three of the researchers, to boost DLLs’ oral language development. The curriculum featured 36 English stories and 36 Spanish stories, divided into three 12-story modules, that were implemented over eight to 10 weeks. Each story highlighted two target vocabulary words, with corresponding image cards to be used throughout the day. Vocabulary words included 36 verbs and adjectives in English and 36 verbs and adjectives in Spanish.
Typical weekly implementation included two English whole-group lessons for all students, and two Spanish small-group lessons and two English small-group lessons for the participants in the treatment group. Each scripted lesson featured a read aloud of the selected story and activities that encouraged children to engage with the vocabulary and retell the narrative independently or with their classmates. Families of the children in the intervention group were provided with a set of activities in Spanish and strategies to practice vocabulary and retelling at home.
The researchers found that the intervention curriculum substantially improved childrens’ narrative, vocabulary, and comprehension skills in English and Spanish. Children in the treatment group scored an average of 30 percent higher in English retelling and 18 percent higher in Spanish retelling. They scored 18-24 percent higher and 12 percent higher on English and Spanish vocabulary measures than their peers, and 21 and 24 percent higher when matching sentences read aloud in English and Spanish to their corresponding images. Lastly, children in the intervention group scored 19 percent higher than their peers when answering comprehension questions in English.
When surveyed, teachers gave high ratings to the acceptability and feasibility of the intervention curriculum, suggesting that it “was perceived as useful and doable.” Teachers rated the program more effective than others they’ve encountered that focused on language development and gave high scores to the curriculum’s content, activities, and structure. As the researchers explained, “most of the teachers planned to continue using Puente de Cuentos after the study,” which indicates a “fit between the intervention and their values, students, and setting.”
While the study showed positive results, researchers flagged several implementation challenges as potential limitations of the study. Three of the treatment group classes had no Spanish-speaking educators, so instruction could only be provided in English. The curriculum mitigated this shortcoming by encouraging family engagement, which may have supplemented lost instructional time or created “a better English-Spanish instructional balance.” While all early education curricula should provide family engagement activities that extend children’s learning in their home language, reliance on families to scaffold instruction is not a real solution.
Time was another barrier to implementation, an obstacle with which many teachers and schools are all too familiar. Because of limitations in scheduling and timing, only three children in each class were able to participate in the small-group interventions each day. If students weren’t one of the chosen three, but still qualified for small-group intervention, they were left to participate in whole-group instruction with the rest of their class and didn’t receive the same differentiated support.
The results of this study reemphasize the need to prioritize home language instruction alongside English instruction to bolster children’s literacy in both languages, the importance of removing barriers to access and enrollment so that all children who are DLLs have learning opportunities that promote early literacy, and the necessity of high-quality dual language curricula that teachers can implement with ease. The study also elevates the need to consider instructional time, the capacity and linguistic abilities of staff, and the availability resources to purchase and implement intervention materials. Bilingual early intervention should be treated as an educational right, and a promise that the education system won’t let children fall behind just as they’re getting started.
*Please note, this is not an endorsement of any specific curriculum, but a reflection on a study examining the effects of a bilingual intervention curriculum on pre-K students.