Primary pupils who learn in a language other than the one they speak at home start out with poorer listening and reading skills, but “catch up” with native-speaking peers within one school year, researchers have found.
In a paper in the British Educational Research Journal, researchers from Ghent University in Belgium also looked at how pupils' listening and reading comprehension was affected by the proportion of their classmates who spoke a different language at home.
They found that classes with a greater proportion of non-native-speaking students achieved lower than average results at the start of the year, but by the end of the year this link had "disappeared".
They focused on 683 seven- and eight-year-olds living in Flanders, Belgium, attending “segregated” primary schools – meaning schools with high numbers of pupils from immigrant families.
In these schools, at least 50 per of pupils did not speak the language used by teachers – Dutch – at home. At some of the schools, the proportion was far higher.
The researchers found that “listening comprehension” – the ability to understand the meaning of words and the relationship between them – was poorer at the start of the year in students with a home language other than Dutch.
Students in a class with a greater proportion of non-native-speaking students started on average with poorer results than those in classes with more native-speaking pupils.
Non-native speakers 'progress faster'
However, the researchers found that the non-native-speaking students made more progress across the year than their native-speaking peers.
By the end of the year, the “negative relationship” between a greater proportion of non-native speakers in a class and poorer listening comprehension had “disappeared”.
“It seems that over the course of the second grade, non-native speakers were able to catch up regarding listening comprehension,” the researchers concluded.
They said that their results suggested that "changing the compositional situation"– for example by reducing the proportion of non-native speakers in a particular class – was "not sufficient to improve language results and progress in segregated schools".