Spanish-speaking children learn English faster when parents read to them in their native language

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Researchers are busting the myth that multiple languages can confuse kids in the classroom

Researchers from the University of Delaware have found that reading to Spanish-speaking children in their native language can help them better understand the English language. Their study shows that these children are more likely to excel in reading and writing in English when exposed to their native tongue at an early age.

“This suggests that well-developed Spanish reading proficiency early on likely plays a greater role in English reading development than a student’s proficiency in speaking English,” said researcher Steven Amendum.

Seeing a boost in reading levels

Amendum and his team evaluated students from the time they were in kindergarten until they were in the fourth grade. All participants were read to by their parents in Spanish and were reading on their own to try to master English. 

Ultimately, the study revealed that early exposure to Spanish was crucial to children developing sharper English reading and speaking skills. This came as a surprise to the researchers because of how young the children were at the beginning of the study. 

“Many studies have shown cross-language transfer but not necessarily at such an early age, and we are not aware of any studies that have shown how that influence lasts across such a long learning spectrum,” Amendum said. 

Students who weren’t as advanced in their Spanish reading at a younger age were more likely to continue to fall behind as they got older in both reading and speaking English. However, those with a stronger grasp of reading Spanish not only caught up to expected reading and speaking levels in English, but they eventually outperformed other Spanish readers. 

According to the researchers, this study highlights the importance of maintaining the native language, as it can be crucial to kids’ development and understanding of other languages. 

“We can’t ignore native language,” said Amendum. “Helping kids become bilingual and biliterate is always a great long-term outcome for kids. We want to support a child’s native early reading and language skills, and to help teachers and families understand how they can use a first language to help students learn a second language, while continuing to develop their native language.” 

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