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About 6 months after immigrating to the U.S., my parents enrolled me in Head Start. I was three years old and stayed in the program until I enrolled in kindergarten. I have a handful of memories of my time in Head Start: I really liked the oatmeal they served us at breakfast and there was one teacher who was particularly mean. As a young dual language learner (DLL), Head Start likely provided me with a boost in my vocabulary development and early numeracy.

My parents were determined to have my sister and me learn English quickly. They only spoke English with us at home, and sent me to Head Start to help immerse me in the language. For better or worse, the plan worked. I entered kindergarten completely fluent in English and was never classified as an English Learner (unlike my older sister). I wonder whether my story would have been different if I hadn’t attended Head Start from such an early age. As far as I can tell, my two years in an early education program had a positive impact on my early development.

A recent study by a group of researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Ounce of Prevention Fund and the Educare Learning Network Investigative Team corroborates my anecdotal experience. They use data from implementation studies of 12 Educare sites to examine whether age of entry and time spent in the program were related to differences in children’s language and social-emotional development for both English-only children and dual language learners.

Educare is a research-based early childhood education program for low-income children ages birth to five. The program is full-day, and a majority of lead teachers have a B.A. It also includes: small student to staff ratios, ongoing professional development/coaching for teachers, continuous use of data to drive improvements, and family engagement via home visits and parent conferences. Each Educare site participates in an implementation study conducted by a local evaluator who collects data on family characteristics, child outcomes and program quality.

Two facets of the program are especially relevant for DLLs. First, Educare sites make efforts to hire staff fluent in DLL students’ home languages. The researchers note that Spanish is the home language of 95 percent of DLLs in Educare. As a result of Educare’s focus on home language, 70 percent of these children are in classrooms where at least one adult speaks Spanish. Second, most instruction takes place in English, but students do receive some support in their home language.

This study utilized the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT) to measure children’s English language skills. The PPVT consists of the following: the assessor says a word aloud, the child is shown four pictures and must select the one that best shows the meaning of the word. Teachers also rated their students on three measures of social-emotional development (initiative, self-control and behavior concerns). Importantly, these assessments were given multiple times over multiple years (in the spring and fall, from the ages of 1 to 5).

So what did the researchers find? The earlier a child entered the program, the higher they scored on the PPVT. The same held true for the amount of time the child was enrolled in Educare, “Children who entered the Educare programs as infants and remained through their preschool years demonstrated the highest English language scores at age 5.” That is, early ed supports vocabulary best when students start early and stick with it.

And the program’s effects were the strongest for DLLs. To help illustrate this finding, let’s compare the PPVT scores of DLL children who entered the Educare program at different ages. DLLs who entered the program at the age of 1 had higher a PPVT score when tested at age 3 than DLL children who entered the program at the age of 3. Specifically, early entry DLLs had a PPVT score of 88.5 and late entry DLLs had a score of 74.1. Gaps between English only children weren’t nearly this large. Additionally, DLL children who entered the program at a later age made the largest gains over the shorter time they were enrolled.

The program also had a positive impact on DLLs’ social-emotional development. These children scored higher in teacher ratings of initiative and self-control the longer they were in the program. As the authors point out, this finding is consistent with other research highlighting that DLLs often have the same or better social-emotional skills than non-DLLs.

Importantly, Educare implementation studies include a measure of DLLs’ Spanish language skills. The Preschool Language Scale (in Spanish) is given to children whose home language is Spanish and measures their comprehension and expressive language. This study showed that the Spanish language skills of DLLs who attended Educare did not deteriorate. In fact, these children continued to gain Spanish language skills as they grew older.

To be sure, this study has limitations. Children were not randomly assigned to start earlier or later and Educare benefits from a large infusion of philanthropic dollars (20 percent of the program’s costs are covered by private donors). But taken together with the growing literature base, the authors are able to draw a few key takeaways and implications for DLLs in particular.

Let’s start with the most obvious: DLLs “particularly benefit” from early and continued attendance in a high-quality early education program. This is supported by a growing number of studies demonstrating the benefits of early education for DLLs and immigrant children.

The authors also posit that “more years of exposure to high-quality EEC would seem to be associated with an important advantage for DLL children, namely higher English receptive language scores upon entry to school.” In other words, sustained participation in a strong early education program could help reduce the achievement gap seen between DLLs and their non-DLL peers at kindergarten entry.

The policy implications are clear cut — enroll children into high-quality early education programs at an earlier age and keep them enrolled. If only it were this simple! Even as states and districts make efforts to expand early education, the enrollment rates of Hispanic, DLL, and/or immigrant children are lower compared to other groups. In order to realize the positive impacts of early education on DLLs, deliberate efforts must be made to  ensure that families have access to information and assistance enrolling their children into these potentially transformative programs.

Note: This post is part of New America’s Dual Language Learners National Work Group. Click here for more information on this team’s work.