Stubborn achievement gaps remain between disadvantaged students and their peers

Reform efforts, including No Child Left Behind (NCLB), aim to reduce the achievement gaps between disadvantaged and minority students and their wealthier white peers. Children with limited spoken English have limited readiness for learning to read, whether they come from disadvantaged English-speaking homes or from families for whom English is a second language. Researchers observed language in young children’s homes during the period when they are learning language most intensely (one-and-a-half to two years of age).

Results reveal that there are significant differences in the amount and quality of English-speaking parents’ language interactions depending on the parents’ education and economic level. By the time children were three years old, those from low-income families had smaller vocabularies and were adding new words at a slower place, even though they were using language appropriately. The rate of vocabulary growth at age three predicted language skills at ages nine and 10. It is hypothesized that these early language differences are responsible for differences in reading readiness and achievement in the elementary grades. Researchers conclude that slow vocabulary development hinders reading achievement for both low-income English-speaking and bilingual children.

Data suggests that groups of underperforming students seldom make up even small amounts of lost ground. Even the smallest gaps between third-graders persist throughout elementary school. Low-income and minority students can make up lost ground only by learning faster than other students.

Preventing disparities from emerging may be more efficient

Given the difficulties educators find in eliminating achievement disparities between groups of students, preventing disparities from emerging may be the more efficient approach.

NCLB requires that all students read proficiently by the end of third grade. Data showing that even English-speaking students do not make up for preschool language deficiencies indicates that instruction in English as a second language probably can not be postponed until children enter kindergarten or first grade. If all children are to have well-developed English oral language skills to facilitate reading instruction in first grade, intensive early childhood programs are necessary. K-12 literacy emphasizes reading and writing. Students from low-income or minority homes with less developed oral English-language skills need intensive oral-language development preceding reading instruction.

In addition, children who are behind academically need more time to learn if they are to close achievement gaps. Options such as one-to-one tutoring, summer school, and after-school and Saturday programs can provide the additional learning time needed.

“When Do Children Fall Behind? What Can Be Done?”, Phi Delta Kappan, Volume 85, Number 10, June 2004, pp. 751-761.

Published in ERN September 2004 Volume 17 Number 6

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