Preschoolers' language skills improve more when they're placed with more-skilled peers

October 26, 2011

Preschool children with relatively poor language skills improve more if they are placed in classrooms with high-achieving students, a new study found.

Researchers found that children with relatively poor language skills either didn't improve over the course of one academic year, or actually lost ground in development of language skills, when they were placed with other low-achieving students.

The results have important implications because many preschool programs in the United States are targeted to children in poverty, who may exhibit lags in their development of language skills, said Laura Justice, lead author of the study and professor in the School of Teaching and Learning at Ohio State University.

"The way preschool works in the United States, we tend to cluster kids who have relatively low language skills in the same classrooms, and that is not good for their language development," Justice said.

"We need to pay more attention to the composition of preschool classrooms."

Justice conducted the study with Yaacov Petscher and Christopher Schatschneider of Florida State University and Andrew Mashburn of the University of Virginia. Their findings appear in the new issue of the journal Child Development.

More than 80 percent of American children participate in preschool, Justice said. About half of these children attend preschool programs that are subsidized through state and/or federal dollars, the majority of which only enroll children in poverty.

Because children in poverty face increased risk for poor language skills, that means kids with low skills are often clustered together, she said.

The study involved 338 children enrolled in 49 preschool classrooms. The children completed a variety of standardized measures of their language skills in the fall of the academic year. The measures were repeated in the spring, giving the researchers a test of their improvement over the year.

These measures examined the children's grammar skills and vocabulary and ability to discuss what was happening in a wordless picture book.

The researchers also assessed the instructional quality of the children's classrooms to ensure that differences in children's reading skills weren't the result simply of the quality of teaching.

Results showed that children with low initial language skills who were placed in the lowest-ability classes tended to lose ground over the course of the academic year. However, low-skilled students in average-ability classes improved their language skills between fall and spring.

High-ability students don't suffer by being placed in classrooms with lower-ability students, Justice said. High-ability students improved their scores whether they were in low-ability or average-ability classrooms.

"Children with high language abilities don't seem to be effected by the other kids in their class," she said.

The researchers also found that the reference status of the students mattered – in other words, their standing relative to the other students in their classroom.

For example, the findings showed that the very lowest-ability students in the low-ability classrooms did improve their language skills over the course of the year – presumably because the other students in the class, while low ability, still had greater language skills than they did.

These results can't explain how peers affect the language skills of preschoolers, Justice said. It may be through direction interaction among the children, or it may involve how teacher expectations and efficacy differs depending on the composition of their classrooms.

But the results do suggest that "tracking" students into high and low achievement classrooms may be short-changing the students who most need help.

"If we really want to help lift kids out of poverty, and use preschool as a way to make that happen, we need to reconsider how we provide that education," Justice said.

"Classrooms that blend students from different backgrounds are the best way to provide the boost that poor students need."

Explore further: Pre-K students benefit when teachers are supportive

More information:

Related Stories

Pre-K students benefit when teachers are supportive

May 15, 2008

States are investing considerable amounts of money in pre-kindergarten programs for 4-year-olds. A new study finds that the quality of interactions between teachers and children plays a key role in accounting for gains in ...

Brighter pupils raise the bar for classmates

December 16, 2010

Primary-school pupils in England typically do better in key stage 2 English and maths tests when they are taught with more able children. But children who are close to the average of their classmates (at key stage 1) benefit ...

Preschool beneficial, but should offer more, study finds

February 1, 2011

As more states consider universal preschool programs, a new study led by a Michigan State University scholar suggests that two years of pre-K is beneficial – although more time should be spent on teaching certain skills.

Recommended for you

From a very old skeleton, new insights on ancient migrations

October 9, 2015

Three years ago, a group of researchers found a cave in Ethiopia with a secret: it held the 4,500-year-old remains of a man, with his head resting on a rock pillow, his hands folded under his face, and stone flake tools surrounding ...

Mexican site yields new details of sacrifice of Spaniards

October 9, 2015

It was one of the worst defeats in one of history's most dramatic conquests: Only a year after Hernan Cortes landed in Mexico, hundreds of people in a Spanish-led convey were captured, sacrificed and apparently eaten.

Who you gonna trust? How power affects our faith in others

October 6, 2015

One of the ongoing themes of the current presidential campaign is that Americans are becoming increasingly distrustful of those who walk the corridors of power – Exhibit A being the Republican presidential primary, in which ...

Ancient genome from Africa sequenced for the first time

October 8, 2015

The first ancient human genome from Africa to be sequenced has revealed that a wave of migration back into Africa from Western Eurasia around 3,000 years ago was up to twice as significant as previously thought, and affected ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.