Bilingualism and Academic Achievement for Kids- Closing the Gap


Home / Bilingualism and Academic Achievement for Kids- Closing the Gap

According to Professor Hoff, The effect on academic achievement can be separated into three types of findings:

Dr. Hoff. Image courtesy of E Hoff.

Dr. Hoff has conducted years of research in the area of language development and academic success. Image courtesy of E Hoff.

1. Language minority status is related to academic achievement.
Language minority status cannot be properly separated from SES in the United States, so it is difficult to isolate the effect of language minority status on academic achievement. Some evidence has suggested that the gaps are not solely because of the children’s bi-lingual environment and resulting language skills but the gaps could appear due to the lower social prestige of minority languages.

2. Oral language skills are related to academic achievement.
Data from monolingual children clearly show that low levels of English oral language skill are a handicap in school because oral skills have been shown to reflect overall language abilities. However, the relation between oral skills and academic success could be different for children who know two languages, and they may not be a satisfactory predictor for two reasons. Their English skills do not fully reflect the abilities they bring to the task of achieving in school or because their skills in another language transfer to English literacy tasks.

For monolingual children, English language skills are a reasonably good indicator of general ability. For bilingual children, they are not.

3. Language skills have a role in mediating the relation between language minority status and academic achievement.
The question is what explains the dismal statistics regarding academic achievement in children from language minority homes. My research says that part of the explanation is that the children have lower English language skills than monolingual children. Of course there are other reasons as well. One is SES, another is cultural mismatch between home and school, another is prejudice. The point my research makes is that learning two languages is more difficult and takes longer than learning one—even for children. We can’t expect a child who is doing more (i.e., learning two languages) to make progress at the same rate as a child who is doing less (i.e., learning only one language).

Decoded Science: So is proficiency in oral English related to academic success?

Professor Hoff: Although there is agreement that proficiency in oral English is necessary for academic success in the United States, some evidence has suggested that low oral language skills in the majority language do not carry the same negative implication for academic achievement in bilingual children as they do in monolingual children.

Decoded Science: Lower levels of proficiency in the majority language is not as disadvantageous for bilingual children?

Professor Hoff: For monolingual children, the size of their vocabulary is a measure of the richness of their experience. Bilingual children have experiences in another language that build their understandings of the world that are not always reflected in their English language vocabularies. At the moment, there is no data available that allows us to estimate the portion of the achievement gap between children from language minority and monolingual homes that is attributable solely to differences in English oral language skill at school entry.

Closing Language Gaps

Research shows that intervention helps to close language gaps. Sometimes, however, intervention programs may not be implemented because of the way these language deficiencies are interpreted. Decoded Science asked Professor Hoff what we can do to help these children close the gaps? She told us, “That all depends on how these differences are viewed. If they are viewed as deficits then intervention programs should be set up.

There is very exciting research on language in preschools that suggests preschool programs could be an excellent way to provide children from language minority homes with extra exposure to the majority language.”

Decoded Science: Could the results of the research be interpreted differently?

Professor Hoff: The alternative interpretation of the results could be that these language differences cannot be labelled as deficits and should be just accepted. If this view point is taken, intervention will not take place, the language gaps will not close and neither will the children’s lack of readiness for school and later academic achievements

Decoded Science: What are the possibilities that widespread intervention programs could be set up?

Professor Hoff: That depends more on politics than science. There is good scientific evidence that high quality preschool programs benefit children in many ways. There has to be the political will to provide them to the children who need them.

Benefits of Implementing Language Intervention Programs

The relation between verbal skills and academic success may be different for children who know two languages. However, despite their possible linguistic strengths, children from low socioeconomic status, language minority homes reach school age with lower levels of English language skills than do their middle-class, monolingual peers. If these children are assessed correctly as having language deficits due to their economic and bilingual status, we could implement intervention programs that would build on the advantages they are gaining through exposure to two languages – and at the same time, improve their skills in English.


Hoff, E. Interpreting the Early Language Trajectories of Children From Low-SES and Language Minority Homes: Implications for Closing Achievement Gaps. (2013) Developmental Psychology American Psychological Association, Vol. 49, No. 1, 4–14.

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