Skip to main content Accessibility help

Oral language skills of Spanish-speaking English language learners: The impact of high-quality native language exposure

  • PERLA B. GÁMEZ (a1) and SUSAN C. LEVINE (a2)


This study examined the relation between young English language learners’ (ELL) native oral language skills and their language input in transitional bilingual education kindergarten classrooms. Spanish-speaking ELLs’ (n = 101) Spanish expressive language skills were assessed using the memory for sentences and picture vocabulary subtests of the Woodcock Language Proficiency Battery—Revised. Samples of transitional bilingual education teachers’ (n = 21) speech were recorded and coded for syntactic complexity and vocabulary usage. Results revealed considerable variation in ELLs’ language scores, with overall performance below the normative sample. There was also wide variation in teachers’ speech across classrooms. Hierarchical linear modeling revealed that gains in ELLs’ expressive language skills were positively related to the diversity of teachers’ vocabulary and teachers’ syntactic complexity. These findings suggest that the quality of teachers’ language input, not just the quantity of their input, plays a significant role in the language learning trajectories of ELLs.


Corresponding author

ADDRESS FOR CORRESPONDENCE Perla B. Gámez, Harvard Graduate School of Education, Larsen 316, 14 Appian Way, Cambridge, MA 02138. E-mail:


Hide All
August, D., Snow, C., Carlo, M., Proctor, P., Rolla de San Francisco, A., Duursma, E., et al. (2006). Literacy development in elementary school second-language learners. Topics in Language Disorders, 26, 351364.
August, D., & Shanahan, T. (2006). Developing literacy in second-language learners: Report of the National Literacy Panel on language-minority children and youth. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Bornstein, M. H., Haynes, O. M., & Painter, K. M. (1998). Sources of child vocabulary competence: A multivariate model. Journal of Child Language, 25, 367394.
Bowers, E., & Vasilyeva, M. (2011). The relation between teacher input and lexical growth of preschoolers. Applied Psycholinguistics, 32, 221241.
Capps, R., Fix, M., Murray, J., Ost, J., Passel, J. S., & Herwantoro, S. (2005). The new demography of America's schools: Immigration and the No Child Left Behind Act (Research Report). Washington, DC: Urban Institute.
Cohen, J. (1988). Statistical power analysis for the behavioral sciences (2nd ed.). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Connor, C. M., Morrison, F. J., & Slominski, L. (2006). Preschool instruction and children's literacy skill growth. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98, 665689.
Connor, C. M., Morrison, F. J., & Underwood, P. (2007). A second chance in second grade? The independent and cumulative impact of first and second grade reading instruction and students’ letter-word reading skill growth. Scientific Studies of Reading, 11, 199233.
De Houwer, A. (2007). Parental language input patterns and children's bilingual use. Applied Psycholinguistics, 28, 411424.
Dickinson, D. K., & Porche, M. V. (2011). Relationship between language experiences in preschool classrooms and children's kindergarten and fourth grade language and reading abilities. Child Development, 82, 870886.
Dickinson, D. K., & Smith, M. W. (1991). Preschool talk: Patterns of teacher–child interaction in early childhood classrooms. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 6, 2029.
Dickinson, D., & Smith, M. W. (1994). Long-term effects of preschool teachers’ book readings on low-income children's vocabulary and story comprehension. Reading Research Quarterly, 29, 104122.
Duncan, S., & DeAvila, E. (2000). Prelanguage Assessment Scale. Monterey, CA: CTB/McGraw–Hill.
Duursma, E., Romero-Contreras, S., Szuber, A., Proctor, P., Snow, C., August, D., et al. (2007). The role of home literacy and language environment on bilinguals’ English and Spanish vocabulary development. Applied Psycholinguistics, 28, 171190.
Ellis, R. (2009). The study of second language acquisition (2nd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.
Field, A. (2005). Discovering statistics using SPSS. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Furrow, D., Nelson, K., & Benedict, H. (1979). Mothers’ speech to children and syntactic development: Some simple relationships. Journal of Child Language, 6, 423442.
Francis, D., Snow, C., August, D., Carlson, C., Miller, J., & Iglesias, A. (2006). Measures of reading comprehension: A latent variable analysis of the diagnostic assessment of reading comprehension. Scientific Studies of Reading, 10, 301322.
Fry, R., & Gonzales, F. (2008). One-in-five and growing fast: A profile of Hispanic public school students. Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center.
Genesee, F. (1999). Program alternatives for linguistically diverse students (Educational Practice Report No. 1). Washington, DC: Center for Research on Education, Diversity & Excellence.
Genesee, F., Lindholm-Leary, K., Saunders, W., & Christian, D. (2005). Educating English language learners: A synthesis of research evidence. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Gottardo, A., & Mueller, J. (2009). Are first and second language factors related in predicting L2 reading comprehension? A study of Spanish-speaking children acquiring English as a second language from first to second grade. Journal of Educational Psychology, 101, 330344.
Hakuta, K., Goto Butler, Y., & Witt, D. (2000). How long does it take English Learners to attain proficiency? Linguistic Minority Research Institute Policy Report 2000-1, University of California.
Hammer, C. S., Davison, M. D., Lawrence, F. R., & Miccio, A. W. (2009). The effect of home language on bilingual children's vocabulary and emergent literacy development during Head Start and kindergarten. Scientific Studies of Reading, 13, 99121.
Harkness, S. (1977). Aspects of the social environment and first language acquisition in rural Africa. In Snow, C. E. & Ferguson, C. A. (Eds.), Talking to children: Language input and acquisition (pp. 309318). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experiences of young American children. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.
Hernandez, D. J., Denton, N. A., & Macartney, S. E. (2008). Children in immigrant families: Looking into America's future. Social Policy Report, 22, 322.
Hoff, E. (2003). The specificity of environmental influence: Socioeconomic status affects early vocabulary development via maternal speech. Child Development, 74, 13681378.
Hoff, E. (2006). How social contexts support and shape language development. Developmental Review, 26, 5588.
Hoff-Ginsberg, E. (1998). The relation of birth order and socioeconomic status to children's language experience and language development. Applied Psycholinguistics, 19, 603629.
Hoff, E., & Naigles, L. (2002). How children use input to acquire a lexicon. Child Development, 73, 418433.
Huttenlocher, J., Haight, W., Bryk, A., Seltzer, M., & Lyons, T. (1991). Early vocabulary growth: Relation to language input and gender. Developmental Psychology, 27, 236248.
Huttenlocher, J., Vasilyeva, M., Cymerman, E., & Levine, S. (2002). Language input and child syntax. Cognitive Psychology, 45, 337374.
Huttenlocher, J., Vasilyeva, M., Waterfall, H., Vevea, J., & Hedges, L. (2007). The varieties of speech to young children. Developmental Psychology, 43, 10621083.
Jaffe, L. E. (2009). Development, interpretation, and application of the W score and the relative proficiency index (Woodcock–Johnson III Assessment Service Bulletin No. 11). Rolling Meadows, IL: Riverside.
Kindler, A. L. (2002). Survey of the states’ limited English proficient students and available educational programs and services: 2000–2001 summary report. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition.
Klibanoff, R., Levine, S. C., & Huttenlocher, J., Vasilyeva, M., & Hedges, L. (2006). Preschool children's mathematical knowledge: The effect of teacher “math talk.” Developmental Psychology, 42, 5969.
Kohnert, K. (2008). Second language acquisition: Success factors in sequential bilingualism. ASHA Leader, 13, 1013.
Kohnert, K., & Pham, G. (2010). The process of acquiring a first and second language. In Shatz, M. & Wilkinson, L. (Eds.), Preparing to educate English language learners. New York: Guilford Press.
Landau, B., & Gleitman, L. (1985). Language and experience. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Lawrence, J., & Snow, C. (2011). Oral discourse and reading. In Kamil, M., Pearson, P. D., Moje, E. B., & Afflerbach, P. (Eds.), Handbook of reading research (Vol. 4). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Lindholm-Leary, K., & Borsato, G. (2006). Academic achievement. In Genesee, F. (Ed.), Educating English language learners: A synthesis of research evidence. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Lindsey, K. A., Manis, F. R., & Bailey, C. E. (2003). Prediction of first-grade reading in Spanish-speaking English language learners. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95, 482494.
MacWhinney, B. (2007). The CHILDES Project: Tools for analyzing talk. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Mancilla-Martinez, J., & Lesaux, N. K. (2010). Predictors of reading comprehension for struggling readers: The case of Spanish-speaking language minority learners. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102, 701711.
Mancilla-Martinez, J., & Lesaux, N. K. (2011). The gap between Spanish-speakers’ word reading and word knowledge: A longitudinal study. Child Development, 82, 15441560.
Manis, F. R., Lindsey, K. A., & Bailey, C. E. (2004). Development of reading in grades K–2 in Spanish-speaking English-language learners. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 19, 214224.
Mashburn, A. J., Justice, L. M., Downer, J. T., & Pianta, R. C. (2009). Peer effects on children's language development during pre-kindergarten. Child Development, 80, 686702.
Medina, M. Jr., & Escamilla, K. (1992). English acquisition by fluent- and limited-Spanish-proficient Mexican Americans in a 3-year maintenance bilingual program. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 14, 252267.
Miccio, A. W., Patton, T. O., Páez, M. M., Hammer, C. S., & Wagstaff, D. A. (2005). Vocabulary development in Spanish-speaking Head Start children of Puerto Rican descent. ISB4: Proceedings of the 4th International Symposium on Bilingualism. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.
Moughamian, A. C., Rivera, M. O., & Francis, D. J. (2009). Instructional models and strategies for teaching English language learners. Portsmouth, NH: Center on Instruction.
Nakamoto, J., Lindsey, K. A., & Manis, F. R. (2008). A cross-linguistic investigation of English language learners’ reading comprehension in English and Spanish. Scientific Studies of Reading, 12, 351371.
National Early Literacy Panel. (2008). Developing early literacy: Report of the National Early Literacy Panel. Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy.
NCELA. US Department of Education. (2006). The growing numbers of limited English proficient students. Office of English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement and Academic Achievement for Limited English Proficient Students (OELA). Retrieved November 2006 from
Oller, D. K., & Eilers, R. E. (Eds.). (2002). Language and literacy in bilingual children. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Oller, D. K., & Pearson, B. Z. (2002). Assessing the effects of bilingualism: A background. In Oller, D. K. & Eilers, R. E. (Eds.), Language and literacy in bilingual children (pp. 321). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Páez, M. M., Tabors, P. O., & López, L. M. (2007). Dual language and literacy development of Spanish speaking preschool children. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 28, 85102.
Pan, B. A., Rowe, M. L., Singer, J. D., & Snow, C. E. (2005). Maternal correlates of growth in toddler vocabulary production in low-income families. Child Development, 76, 763782.
Pearson, B. Z., Fernandez, S., Lewedag, V., & Oller, D. K. (1997). Input factors in lexical learning of bilingual infants. Applied Psycholinguistics, 18, 4158.
Proctor, C. P., August, D., Carlo, M. S., & Snow, C. E. (2006). The intriguing role of Spanish vocabulary knowledge in predicting English reading comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98, 159169.
Proctor, C. P., August, D., Snow, C., & Barr, C. D. (2010). The interdependence continuum: A perspective on the nature of Spanish–English bilingual reading comprehension. Bilingual Research Journal, 33, 520.
Proctor, C. P., Carlo, M., August, D., & Snow, C. (2005). Native Spanish-speaking children reading in English: Toward a model of comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology, 97, 246256.
Ramirez, J. D., Pasta, D. J., Yuen, S., Billings, D. K., & Ramey, D. R. (1991). Final report: Longitudinal study of structural immersion strategy, early-exit, and late-exit transitional bilingual education programs for language minority children (Report to the US Department of Education). San Mateo, CA: Aguirre International.
Raudenbush, S. W., & Bryk, A. S. (2002). Hierarchical linear models: Applications and data analysis methods (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Rumbaut, R. G., Massey, D. S., & Bean, F. D. (2006). Linguistic life expectancies: Immigrant language retention in southern California. Population Development and Review, 32, 447460.
Saunders, W., Foorman, B., & Carlson, C. (2006). Is a separate block of time for oral English language development in programs for English learners needed? Elementary School Journal, 107, 181198.
Saunders, W., & O'Brien, G. (2006). Oral language. In Genesee, F. (Ed.), Educating English language learners: A synthesis of research evidence. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Smith, M., & Dickinson, D. (1994). Describing oral language opportunities and environments in Head Start and other preschool classrooms. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 9, 345366.
Snow, C., Burns, S., & Griffin, P. (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington, DC: Academy Press.
Vasilyeva, M., Waterfull, H., & Huttenlocher, J. (2008). Emergence of syntax: Commonalities and differences across children. Developmental Science, 11, 8497.
Veltman, C. (1983). Language shift in the United States. Amsterdam: Mouton.
Wasik, B., & Bond, M. A. (2001). Beyond the pages of a book: Interactive book reading and language development in preschool classrooms. Journal of Educational Psychology, 93, 243250.
Weizman, Z. O., & Snow, C. E. (2001). Lexical output as related to children's vocabulary acquisition: Effects of sophisticated exposure and support for meaning. Developmental Psychology, 37, 265279.
Winsler, A., Diaz, R. M., Espinosa, L., & Rodriguez, J. L. (1999). When learning a second language does not mean losing the first: Bilingual language development in low-income, Spanish-speaking children attending bilingual preschool. Child Development, 70, 349362.
Woodcock, R. W. (1991). Woodcock Language Proficiency Battery—Revised, English and Spanish forms: Examiner's manual. Itasca, IL: Riverside.
Woodcock, R. W., & Munoz-Sandoval, A. F. (1995). Woodcock Language Proficiency Battery—Revised, Spanish form: Supplemental manual. Itasca, IL: Riverside.
Zentella, A. C. (1997). Growing up bilingual: Puerto Rican children in New York. Oxford: Blackwell.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO

Oral language skills of Spanish-speaking English language learners: The impact of high-quality native language exposure

  • PERLA B. GÁMEZ (a1) and SUSAN C. LEVINE (a2)


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.