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High quality preschools have been shown to reduce achievement gaps for children from low-SES backgrounds, but less is known about how these programs may reduce racial/ethnic gaps (Weiland & Yoshikawa, 2013). Research suggests that vocabulary development varies by students’ language background, race/ethnicity, and socioeconomic status (SES; Morgan et al., 2015). Yet, studies investigating the effects of preschool on language outcomes usually classify students by SES, language background, or race/ethnicity without considering the intersectionality across these subgroups (Peisner-Feinberg et al., 2014). Because many dual language learners (DLLs) enter school with smaller English vocabularies than their native English-speaking peers, they may be vulnerable to literacy difficulties in the later school years (e.g. Neuman & Dickinson, 2011). To expand our understanding of DLL preschoolers’ vocabulary development, we ask: Does vocabulary growth in the preschool year vary by racial/ethnic background and DLL status?
In the fall and spring of the 2016-17 academic year, the research team collected language assessments using the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT-IV; Dunn & Dunn, 2007) on 298 students attending one high quality preschool program in the northeastern U.S. Overall, preschoolers gained an average of .49 SD units across the academic year.
An analysis of scores by race/ethnicity shows that in the fall of preschool, White students demonstrated statistically higher vocabulary knowledge (M = 90.27; SD=25.92) than Asian (M =71.17; SD=27.56), Black (M = 69.60; SD=24.04), and Latino (M = 64.87; SD=25.06) students. No statistically significant differences in vocabulary growth were evident among the latter three racial/ethnic groups. At the end of the school year, gaps between White and other racial/ethnic groups were still evident, decreasing slightly with Black (20.7 vs 18.2 points) and Asian (19.1 vs 14.4 points) students, and increasing slightly with Latino students (25.4 vs 26.9 points) (Figure 1).
Examining vocabulary performance by linguistic backgrounds revealed that DLLs had lower fall PPVT scores (M=58.06, SD=23.95) than non-DLLs’ (M=83.09, SD=26.25; t(285)=-8.01, p<.001). However, DLLs experienced significantly greater gains in vocabulary across the preschool year (0.59 SD units) than non-DLLs (0.43 SD units; t(279)=2.18, p<.05) (Figure 1).
Within the subgroup of DLLs, we found evidence of racial/ethnic gaps between White students and their Latino, Asian, and Black peers (Figure 2). While these gaps were not statistically significant at the beginning or end of the school year, it is worth noting that they widened from Fall to Spring: among DLLs, the White-Black gap more than doubled (from 9 to 21 points), the White-Latino gap doubled (from 7.3 to 13 points) and the White-Asian gap increased slightly (from 8.8 to 9.83 points).
Our results suggest that vocabulary knowledge differences at preschool are associated with a combination of language status and racial/ethnic background. To promote equitable learning opportunities for all children, preschool programs should build on and be responsive to students’ linguistic and cultural resources.
Mariam Dahbi, Harvard University
Gladys María Aguilar, Harvard University
JoAnn Hsueh, MDRC
Christina Weiland, University of Michigan
Catherine Snow, Harvard University
Jason Sachs, Boston Public Schools