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How first-language instruction transfers to majority-language skills


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.

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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.


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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.

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

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Simon Calmar Andersen.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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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.

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Supplementary Information

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

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Andersen, S.C., Guul, T.S. & Humlum, M.K. How first-language instruction transfers to majority-language skills. Nat Hum Behav (2021).

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