Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

How first-language instruction transfers to majority-language skills

Abstract

With an increasing number of immigrant children in many countries, questions of how to prepare them for further education become highly salient. Few studies have examined the effect of first-language instruction on children’s engagement in school and how that may later transfer into better majority-language outcomes. A randomized controlled trial in Denmark (n = 230) took an asset-based approach to students’ cultural and linguistic backgrounds. We found that first-language instruction of majority-language learners (average age 7.1 years) reduced their behavioural problems in school and increased their school satisfaction and their parents’ engagement. We saw no immediate effect on their spoken first-language skills, but one year after the intervention ended, their reading skills in the majority language were substantially improved. Half of this improvement could be explained by reduced behavioural problems. The results thereby indicate that an asset-based approach to students’ linguistic and cultural backgrounds can help to ensure that first-language instruction transfers into majority-language skills.

This is a preview of subscription content

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from$8.99

All prices are NET prices.

Fig. 1: Examples of teaching material and student schoolwork.
Fig. 2: Effects on reading scores one year after the intervention ended.
Fig. 3: Effects on engagement and spoken-language skills at the end of the intervention period.
Fig. 4: Total effect and indirect effect mediated via the reduction in students’ behavioural problems as measured by the SDQ.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available from Statistics Denmark, but restrictions apply to the availability of these data, which were used under licence for the current study and so are not publicly available. The data are, however, available from the authors upon reasonable request and with the permission of Statistics Denmark.

References

  1. 1.

    Peri, G. Immigrants, productivity, and labor markets. J. Econ. Perspect. 30, 3–30 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2.

    UNHCR. https://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/mediterranean (accessed 7 September 2021).

  3. 3.

    Goldenberg, C. in Handbook of Reading Research vol. 4 (eds Kamil, M. L. et al.) 684–710 (Routledge, 2011).

  4. 4.

    August, D. & Shanahan, T. (eds) Developing Literacy in Second-Language Learners (Routledge, 2006).

  5. 5.

    Cheung, A. C. K. & Slavin, R. E. Effective reading programs for Spanish-dominant English language learners (ELLs) in the elementary grades: a synthesis of research. Rev. Educ. Res. 82, 351–395 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6.

    Bleses, D. et al. Forskningskortlaegning om Laeseindsatser Overfor Tosprogede Elever (Ministry of Education, 2013).

  7. 7.

    Cummins, J. Linguistic interdependence and the educational development of bilingual children. Rev. Educ. Res. 49, 222–251 (1979).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8.

    Snow, C. E. Perspectives on second-language development: implications for bilingual education. Educ. Res. 21, 16–19 (1992).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9.

    Proctor, C. P., August, D., Snow, C. & Barr, C. D. The interdependence continuum: a perspective on the nature of Spanish–English bilingual reading comprehension. Biling. Res. J. 33, 5–20 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10.

    Cummins, J. Empowering minority students: a framework for intervention. Harv. Educ. Rev. 56, 18–37 (1986).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11.

    Angrist, J. D. & Lavy, V. The effect of a change in language of instruction on the returns to schooling in Morocco. J. Labor Econ. 15, S48–S76 (1997).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12.

    Cummins, J. in Pedagogies of Difference: Rethinking Education for Social Justice (ed. Trifonas, P. P.) 39–58 (Routledge, 2003).

  13. 13.

    Cummins, J. Teaching minoritized students: are additive approaches legitimate? Harv. Educ. Rev. 87, 404–425 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14.

    Harry, B. & Klingner, J. Discarding the deficit model. Educ. Leadersh. 64, 16–21 (2007).

    Google Scholar 

  15. 15.

    Valencia, R. R. (ed.) Dismantling Contemporary Deficit Thinking: Educational Thought and Practice (Routledge, 2010).

  16. 16.

    Fitton, L., McIlraith, A. L. & Wood, C. L. Shared book reading interventions with English learners: a meta-analysis. Rev. Educ. Res. 88, 712–751 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17.

    Grøver, V., Rydland, V., Gustafsson, J.-E. & Snow, C. E. Shared book reading in preschool supports bilingual children’s second-language learning: a cluster-randomized trial. Child Dev. 91, 2192–2210 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18.

    Andersen, S. C. & Nielsen, H. S. Reading intervention with a growth mindset approach improves children’s skills. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 113, 12111–12113 (2016).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19.

    Dowdall, N. et al. Shared picture book reading interventions for child language development: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Child Dev. 91, e383–e399 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20.

    Grøver, V. in The Routledge International Handbook of Early Literacy Education (eds Kucirkova, N. et al.) 284–295 (Routledge, 2017).

  21. 21.

    Wasik, B. A., Bond, M. A. & Hindman, A. The effects of a language and literacy intervention on Head Start children and teachers. J. Educ. Psychol. 98, 63–74 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. 22.

    Liang, L. A., Peterson, C. A. & Graves, M. F. Investigating two approaches to fostering children’s comprehension of literature. Read. Psychol. 26, 387–400 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23.

    Saunders, W. M. & Goldenberg, C. Effects of instructional conversations and literature logs on limited- and fluent-English-proficient students’ story comprehension and thematic understanding. Elem. Sch. J. 99, 277–301 (1999).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24.

    Carlo, M. S. et al. Closing the gap: addressing the vocabulary needs of English-language learners in bilingual and mainstream classrooms. Read. Res. Q. 39, 188–215 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25.

    Llosa, L. et al. Impact of a large-scale science intervention focused on English language learners. Am. Educ. Res. J. 53, 395–424 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26.

    National Research Council Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children (National Academies Press, 1998).

  27. 27.

    National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Future (National Academies Press, 2017).

  28. 28.

    Plante, A. J. A Study of Effectiveness of the Connecticut ‘Pairing’ Model of Bilingual/Bicultural Education (Connecticut Staff Development Cooperative, 1976).

  29. 29.

    Bleses, D., Lum, J., Hoejen, A. & Vach, W. Sprogvurdering af Boern i Treårsalderen, Inden Skolestart og i Boernehaveklassen (Boerne- og Socialministeriet, 2010).

  30. 30.

    Bleses, D., Vach, W., Joergensen, R. N. & Worm, T. The internal validity and acceptability of the Danish SI-3: a language screening instrument for 3-year-olds. J. Speech Lang. Hear. Res. 53, 490–507 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. 31.

    Goodman, R. The Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire: a research note. J. Child Psychol. Psychiatry 38, 581–586 (1997).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  32. 32.

    Baron, R. M. & Kenny, D. A. The moderator-mediator variable distinction in social psychological research: conceptual, strategic, and statistical considerations. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 51, 1173–1182 (1986).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  33. 33.

    Imai, K., Keele, L. & Yamamoto, T. Identification, inference and sensitivity analysis for causal mediation effects. Stat. Sci. 25, 51–71 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. 34.

    Andersen, S. C., Humlum, M. K. & Nandrup, A. B. Increasing instruction time in school does increase learning. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 113, 7481–7484 (2016).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  35. 35.

    Greevy, R., Lu, B., Silber, J. H. & Rosenbaum, P. Optimal multivariate matching before randomization. Biostatistics 5, 263–275 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. 36.

    Lu, B., Greevy, R., Xu, X. & Beck, C. Optimal nonbipartite matching and its statistical applications. Am. Stat. 65, 21–30 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. 37.

    Preacher, K. J. & Hayes, A. F. SPSS and SAS procedures for estimating indirect effects in simple mediation models. Behav. Res. Methods Instrum. Comput. 36, 717–731 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

The Ministry of Education was in charge of developing the programme. We thank VIA University College (especially M. V. Christensen) for the collection of data on student skills, and Rambøll Management (especially L. R. Hanssen) for administering the intervention and conducting the qualitative studies. We thank D. August and E. Hoff for valuable comments on an earlier draft of the manuscript. We also thank L. Ringgaard, M. E. Kjær and N. B. Laursen for excellent research assistance. The Danish Ministry of Education funded the implementation and evaluation of the randomized controlled trial. We thank Spar Nord Fonden (no grant number; M.K.H.), the Rockwool Foundation (no grant number; S.C.A.) and TrygFonden (no grant number; S.C.A.) for additional financial support to carry out this project. The Ministry of Education played a role in study design and data collection. The Ministry of Education had no role in the analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript. The remaining funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

S.C.A., T.S.G. and M.K.H. contributed equally to the project.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Simon Calmar Andersen.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Peer review informationNature Human Behaviour thanks James Cummins, Joshua Lawrence and C. Patrick Proctor for their contribution to the peer review of this work. Peer reviewer reports are available.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Methods, Results, Figs. 1 and 2, Tables 1–13 and References.

Reporting Summary

Peer Review Information

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Andersen, S.C., Guul, T.S. & Humlum, M.K. How first-language instruction transfers to majority-language skills. Nat Hum Behav (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-021-01200-x

Download citation

Search

Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing