In one of the largest studies of written language development among bilingual students to date, a team of researchers at universities across the United States found that a lack of adequate access to educational resources in one’s native language can have an adverse effect upon students’ writing skills.
The study, which was recently published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, focused on a group of 374 elementary school students in the U.S. whose primary home language was Spanish. The researchers concluded that, when students’ language of instruction differs from their native language, they are less likely to perform well on writing tasks in the target language (in this case, English), ultimately emphasizing the importance of providing language accommodations for English learners (ELs).
“You’re asking these kids to write academically in a second language, but they’re not getting any academic instruction in their native language,” Michael Orosco, an associate professor at the University of Kansas who was involved with the research project, told PHYS.org. “We’re seeing students struggling in writing, largely because we’re not emphasizing it enough early.”
The researchers note that, while similar research has been conducted in reading and mathematics, comparatively little research has been done regarding writing. The study focused on three cognitive processes that are particularly involved in writing: phonological awareness, working memory, and oral language development. The researchers had the students perform tasks in order to measure these cognitive abilities in both Spanish and English, and then had the students perform a narrative writing task in English.
Numerous relationships between the cognitive skills and the students’ written performance were found in the study. Phonological awareness in both languages — that is, the learners’ ability to distinguish words and the sounds that make them up — was a strong predictor of good performance on the writing exam. Similarly, working memory was also strongly correlated with strong writing abilities. However, oral language development in Spanish was negatively correlated with performance on the English writing task — these findings led the researchers to the conclusion that bilingual education accommodations for ELs are critical to improving students’ writing abilities in the target language.
“Native language instruction plays an important role in the development of biliteracy and cross-linguistic transfer for emerging bilinguals,” the study reads. “Therefore, it would be beneficial to provide diverse language-learning opportunities (e.g., bilingual instruction in schools) to ELs.”