Science & Tech

ESL children not at a reading disadvantage

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Researcher Nonie Lesaux finds ESL students can gain greater proficiency than native English speakers

Harvard researcher Nonie Lesaux’s study, published in the journal “Developmental Psychology” in November 2003, tracked 1,000 children speaking native English and English as a second language (ESL) in mainstream English classrooms from kindergarten through second grade. With participants from across an entire school district in North Vancouver, Canada, the research is the first-ever longitudinal study to look at a population-based sample that took in a citywide sweep of social classes, immigrant populations, and native languages – 33 of them. “The ESL group as a whole did better in grade two on a number of reading and language measures … than their native-speaking counterparts,” says Lesaux, adding that the achievement of the ESL students “stunned” some of her professional colleagues. The implications on the expectations of ESL students could be far-reaching, she says. Lesaux credits what she calls a metalinguistic awareness of the bilingual kids that exists precisely because they are learning English as a second language. “They’re much more tuned into language than the other kids,” she says. “In many ways, they were doing a lot more work around language than the monolinguals, for whom language is much more unconscious.”