Oral language skills of Spanish-speaking English language learners: The impact of high-quality native language exposure


This study examined the relation between young English language learners’ (ELL) native oral language skills and their language input in transitional bilingual education kindergarten classrooms. Spanishspeaking ELLs’ (n = 101) Spanish expressive language skills were assessed using the memory for sentences and picture vocabulary subtests of the Woodcock Language Proficiency Battery—Revised. Samples of transitional bilingual education teachers’ (n = 21) speech were recorded and coded for syntactic complexity and vocabulary usage. Results revealed considerable variation in ELLs’ language scores, with overall performance below the normative sample. There was also wide variation in teachers’ speech across classrooms. Hierarchical linear modeling revealed that gains in ELLs’ expressive language skills were positively related to the diversity of teachers’ vocabulary and teachers’ syntactic complexity. These findings suggest that the quality of teachers’ language input, not just the quantity of their input, plays a significant role in the language learning trajectories of ELLs. A growing body of research provides evidence of a relation between language input and young children’s language development. In particular, the variation in young monolingual children’s oral language skills has been linked to the amount and type of input to which they are exposed in their monolingual environments (e.g., Hart & Risely, 1995; Hoff, 2003; Hoff-Ginsberg, 1998; Hoff & Naigles, 2002, Huttenlocher, Haight, Bryk, Seltzer, & Lyons, 1991; Huttenlocher, Vasilyeva, Cymerman, & Levine, 2002; Huttenlocher, Waterfall, Vasilyeva, Vevea, & Hedges, 2007; Pan, Rowe, Snow, & Singer, 2005). In light of current demographic shifts in the United States (see Capps et al., 2005), it is important to also examine the © Cambridge University Press 2012 0142-7164/12 $15.00 Applied Psycholinguistics 34:4 674 Gámez & Levine: Oral language skills of Spanish-speaking English language learners input factors that impact the development of children who are negotiating more than one language in language-mixed environments. A number of factors impact our motivation to understand the input features associated with robust oral language skills in dual-language learning children, particularly children who are English language learners (ELLs). First, there are approximately 5.3 million children learning English as a second language in US schools (NCELA, 2010). These ELL children are particularly concentrated in the early elementary grades, with over 44% in pre-kindergarten through third grade (Kindler, 2002), and over 70% from Spanish speaking homes (Fry & Gonzales, 2008). Moreover, ELLs constitute the fastest growing student population in the United States: from 1995 to 2005, ELL enrollment increased by more than 60%, whereas enrollment for the total student population increased by less than 3% (NCELA, 2006). Second, many ELLs have poor language and literacy outcomes (for a review, see August & Shanahan, 2006). In particular, ELLs exhibit lower than expected native (first language [L1]) and English (second language [L2]) oral language skills on average when compared to monolingual norms, although there are wide variations in skill levels (e.g., Páez, Tabors, & Lopez, 2007). The low L1 skills of many ELL children are of particular concern because early oral language skills are associated with later reading comprehension, which is often cited as the skill that matters most for academic success (National Early Literacy Panel [NELP], 2008; Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998). The fact that some ELLs may have low L1 skills despite receiving significant amounts of exposure to their native language at home (Capps et al., 2005) and in some cases at school (Kindler, 2002), raises the possibility that it is the quality rather than the quantity of L1 exposure that impacts their native language development as well as their subsequent L2 learning and school success. Yet, previous research with the ELL population has focused mainly on the effects of differing amounts of L1 and L2 exposure in the home (e.g., Oller & Eilers, 2002) and at school (see review in Lindholm-Leary & Borsato, 2006), paying minimal attention to the quality of the language input this population is exposed to at home or in their language-mixed classrooms. In order to expand the existing knowledge base, our study examines the quality of the L1 language input in ELLs’ language-mixed transitional bilingual education (TBE) classrooms. At the early grades, TBE classrooms provide young Spanish-speaking ELLs with instruction in Spanish, their native language, as well as in English (see Genesee, 1999, for a description of different bilingual program models). We specifically examine the Spanish syntactic complexity and vocabulary usage that teachers address to their Spanish-speaking ELLs in TBE classrooms and the relation of this input to the development of student’s Spanish oral language skills. ELLS’ ORAL LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT: WITHINAND BETWEEN-GROUP DIFFERENCES A review of research on ELLs revealed that only about 25% of studies have examined ELLs’ oral language development, with the vast majority focusing instead on their literacy achievement (Saunders & O’Brien, 2007). Many studies that have examined ELLs’ oral language development report generally low Applied Psycholinguistics 34:4 675 Gámez & Levine: Oral language skills of Spanish-speaking English language learners performance on standardized measures of L1 and L2 proficiency (Hammer, Davison, Lawrence, & Miccio, 2009; Mancilla-Martinez & Lesaux, 2011; Miccio, Tabors, Páez, Hammer, & Wagstaff, 2005; Páez et al., 2007). In particular, Páez et al. (2007) report that at the start of preschool, Spanish-speaking ELLs, on average, performed more than 2 SD below the national mean of monolingual Spanish speakers on standardized measures of expressive language, including sentence memory and vocabulary knowledge. Mancilla-Martinez and Lesaux (2011) replicated these findings with a subsample from Páez et al.’s (2007) study and showed that by middle school (i.e., seventh grade), their sample continued to perform poorly (>2 SD below the national mean) on both of these measures in Spanish. Children in the Páez ELL sample, who had been educated in English-only classrooms since school entry, scored relatively higher in English (∼1 SD below the national mean of monolingual English speakers). The low oral L1 performance of many ELLs is especially noteworthy given evidence showing a link between children’s early oral language skills and their later literacy outcomes (NELP, 2008; Snow et al., 1998). Most relevant to the present study are studies examining within language relations of oral language and reading skills for ELLs attending bilingual programs that provide L1 instruction. In one such longitudinal investigation of Spanish-speaking ELLs enrolled in a TBE program, the results showed that Spanish expressive language (i.e., vocabulary knowledge, sentence memory) in kindergarten was a strong predictor of Spanish reading comprehension by second grade (Manis, Lindsey, & Bailey, 2004). A follow-up study with the same Spanish-speaking ELL group revealed that native oral language skills (i.e., vocabulary, listening comprehension) in third grade predicted their Spanish reading comprehension in sixth grade (Nakamoto, Lindsey, & Manis, 2008). In addition to within-language effects, cross-linguistic influences of L1 on L2 skills have also been documented (Genesee, Lindholm, Saunders, & Christian, 2005). First, in the studies cited above, expressive language skills were consistently correlated between the L1 and L2, and this was seen as early as kindergarten (see also Lindsey, Manis, & Bailey, 2003). Second, L1 and L2 reading comprehension also tend to be positively correlated (see also Lindsey et al., 2003; Proctor, August, Snow, & Barr, 2010). Third, there is some evidence that L1 oral language skills predict L2 reading comprehension (August & Shanahan, 2006), at least for children who receive L1 literacy instruction (August et al., 2006). For instance, the study by Manis et al. (2004) demonstrated a cross-linguistic transfer effect from L1 expressive language skills to L2 reading comprehension in second grade, with developing L2 skills mediating the L1 contribution. By early adolescence, however, the predictive value of oral language (i.e., vocabulary and listening comprehension) on reading comprehension was much stronger within language than across the two languages, likely because of the L2 literacy instruction children received once they transitioned into mainstream, English-only elementary school classrooms (Nakamoto et al., 2008). In fact, when literacy instruction occurs only in the L2, cross-language effects of L1 oral language skills and reading-related skills in the L2 are generally not found (Gottardo & Mueller, 2009; Mancilla-Martinez & Lesaux, 2010). This is in contrast to the findings of Proctor, Carlo, August, and Snow (2005) that Spanish–English biliterate fourth Applied Psycholinguistics 34:4 676 Gámez & Levine: Oral language skills of Spanish-speaking English language learners graders show a positive relation between L1 vocabulary and English reading comprehension. Findings showing a relation between L1 and L2 oral language and reading skills, as well as the potential cross-linguistic influences of L1 oral language skills on L2 reading outcomes, highlight the need to investigate the factors that promote the development of ELLs’ early oral language skills in their native language. It is important to note that ELLs’ demographic information may, in part, explain their low oral language skills; ELLs disproportionately live in poverty and are born to parents with low education and literacy rates (Capps et al., 2005; Fry & Gonzales, 2008; Hernandez, Denton, & Macartney, 2008). However, it is worth noting that even within this group, which carries risk factors associated with low academic success, there are wide individual differences, raising the possibility that input factors explain some of this variation. ACCOUNTING FOR VARIABILITY IN LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT Monolingual environments A growing body of research on monolingual English speakers implicates variations in linguistic input at home and at school as contributing to individual variation in children’s language development (Hoff, 2006). The bulk of this research has investigated language input in the home environment, at the very early stages of language development. Although Furrow, Nelson, and Benedict (1979) found a positive relation between mothers’ shorter mean length of utterances and their 18-month-olds’ development of syntax, most research suggests that young children whose input consists of longer utterances evidence more advanced levels of syntactic development than those exposed to shorter utterances (e.g., Harkness, 1977, Hoff-Ginsberg, 1998). Huttenlocher et al. (2002) found a significant relation between the proportion of multiclause sentences mothers used and the production of multiclause sentences in 3and 4-year-olds. In terms of vocabulary development, research has shown that exposure to longer mean length of utterances, richer vocabulary, and larger amounts of speech is positively related to young children’s vocabulary size (e.g., Bornstein, Haynes, & Painter, 1998; Hart & Risley, 1995; Hoff & Naigles, 2002; Huttenlocher et al., 1991; Pan et al., 2005). Little research has directly examined the specific linguistic features of teachers’ speech in the classroom on school-aged children’s language skills, specifically, syntax (Huttenlocher et al., 2002) and vocabulary skills (Bowers & Vasilyeva, 2011; Dickinson & Porche, 2011). Generally, in classroom studies where the focus is on the linguistic environment, the level of analysis has involved broad measures of language use, for example, amount of talk (i.e., teacher–student interactions by minute: Connor, Morrison, & Slominski, 2006), amount of instruction (i.e., in teacher-managed vs. child-managed instruction: Connor, Morrison, & Underwood, 2007), type of interaction style (i.e., didactic vs. cognitively demanding talk: Dickinson & Smith, 1991; Smith & Dickinson, 1994) or instructional moves made by the teacher (e.g., modeling: see review in Lawrence & Snow, 2011). Moreover, like the studies of young children’s home environments, the few linguistically detailed classroom studies have been situated within monolingual environments. Applied Psycholinguistics 34:4 677 Gámez & Levine: Oral language skills of Spanish-speaking English language learners For example, although the classroom sample in Bowers and Vasilyeva’s (2011) study included ELLs, the study centered on mainstream, English-only classrooms and preschool children’s English language development. Existing studies of teacher input in monolingual, mainstream classrooms show substantial variation in the type and amount of teacher talk. Moreover, these studies show that this variation, in part, accounts for differences in children’s language skills, mirroring the findings from the studies of parent input at home. Specifically, in terms of syntactic development, Huttenlocher et al. (2002) found that the proportion of multiclause utterances used by preschool teachers was positively related to growth in their preschool students’ syntactic comprehension. In terms of vocabulary development, Dickinson and Porche (2011) found that preschool teachers’ use of sophisticated vocabulary predicted children’s later reading comprehension in fourth grade, with effects mediated by children’s kindergarten vocabulary and literacy skills. Bowers and Vasilyeva (2011) also showed that the diversity of preschool teachers’ words was positively related to their monolingual children’s English vocabulary growth. They also found a positive association between the number of English word tokens preschool teachers produced and preschool ELLs’ English vocabulary growth. However, they found that the mean number of words per utterance (i.e., a measure of structural complexity) was negatively associated with ELLs’ English vocabulary growth, and not significantly associated with English-monolinguals’ vocabulary growth. In sum, the existing literature, which has primarily focused on monolingual children, indicates that the quality of the input (i.e., syntactic complexity, vocabulary diversity, and sophistication) explains significant amounts of variation in children’s language development. Much less is known about how characteristics of input relate to the language development in ELL children who are acquiring multiple languages. Given the current demographic shifts, there is a pressing need to also study the relation of input to the native language development of ELL children. Language-mixed environments A relatively smaller, but growing body of literature also shows that the amount of early home input is related to ELLs’ native language development (De Houwer, 2007; Oller & Eilers, 2002; Pearson, Fernandez, Lewedeg, & Oller, 1997). As Pearson and colleagues (e.g., Oller & Pearson, 2002; Pearson et al., 1997) explain, the amount of exposure ELLs receive in their native language at home varies substantially. Moreover, some ELL children may receive about equal amounts of exposure to two languages whereas others receive more exposure to one language than the other. Further, it has been documented that the relative amount of exposure in each language is positively related to children’s language skills in that language. In one study, Pearson et al. (1997) found that for dual-language learning toddlers, the more exposure children had to a language, the larger their vocabulary size was in that language. Therefore, a factor that may explain the observed individual differences in L1 performance within the ELL group is minimal exposure to the L1. Applied Psycholinguistics 34:4 678 Gámez & Levine: Oral language skills of Spanish-speaking English language learners Research in the area of language maintenance and shift among immigrant generations in the United States reveals that immigrants tend to eventually make a shift away from the native language toward English dominance (e.g., Rumbaut, Massey, & Bean, 2006; Veltman, 1983; Zentella, 1997). This shift toward English across immigrant generations is important for the present study given that the majority of children in US schools who have limited-English proficiency are USborn children of immigrants (Capps et al., 2005). As Kohnert and Pham (2010; and Kohnert, 2008) argue, factors such as participation in English-only schools, which may limit the opportunities and motivation to use the L1 outside of the home, and the low social status of minority languages, such as Spanish in the United States, may contribute to an early plateau or regression of L1 skills. Therefore, for continued L1 development, ELLs require both home support and early instruction in that language at school (see Duursma et al., 2007; Winsler, Dı́az, Espinosa, & Rodrı́guez, 1999). However, and in contrast to the literature base on the language development of monolingual English-speaking children, very few studies have attempted to study the quality of the input to which ELLs are exposed in their language-mixed classrooms. As noted, the majority of studies have instead focused on studying the quantity of language input on L2 development (see review in Lindholm-Leary & Borsato, 2006). In one study by Bowers and Vasilyeva (2011) that measured the structural complexity of teacher speech, low levels of structural complexity, albeit in English, were found to be beneficial for preschool ELLs; but this contrasts with the bulk of research on monolinguals, which shows a positive relation between young children’s language skills and the complexity of their speech input (e.g., Hoff-Ginsberg, 1998; Huttenlocher et al., 2002). This discrepancy warrants further examination of the features of language input that are associated with ELLs’ language development.

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@inproceedings{Gmez2013OralLS, title={Oral language skills of Spanish-speaking English language learners: The impact of high-quality native language exposure}, author={Perla B G{\'a}mez}, year={2013} }