Publications & Resources

Language Background and Early Academic Achievement: Disentangling Language-Minority Status, Social Background, and Academic Engagement

May 2006

Marcel Paret

Due to the increasing influx of immigrants from Asia and Latin America since the passage of the 1965 Immigration Reform Act, the American population has been steadily shifting. An important element of this population shift is the use of language, as many immigrants arrive from countries where English is not the primary language. In 1990 a substantial portion (43%) of recent immigrants either spoke English “not well,” or “not at all” (Smith & Edmonston, 1997: Table 8.3). Further, even if immigrants enter the country with English language skills or acquire them after arrival, there is still the possibility that they will not use English when interacting with their children. This prevalence of non-English languages suggests that examining the educational experiences of language-minority students—those for whom English is not the first language—is extremely important to larger issues of educational and social stratification. Research shows that language-minority students both do poorly on standardized tests, and receive low academic ratings from their teachers (August & Hakuta, 1998). Explanations for the low performance, however, are limited. This is at least partially due to the fact that language-minority status is intimately entangled with issues related to race-ethnicity, socioeconomic status (SES), and immigrant status. In turn these complicating factors are associated with a variety of structural and cultural mechanisms that facilitate differences in academic achievement. This report aims to fill the gap in the literature by disentangling the relationships between language-minority status, race-ethnicity, SES, immigrant status, and academic achievement. In addition, it investigates the role of one specific mechanism that may be underlying differences in academic achievement: student academic engagement. Focusing on the early academic experiences of language-minority students, the report uses data based on a nationally representative sample of students who were enrolled in a public or private kindergarten program in the 1998-99 school year.

Paret, M. (2006). Language background and early academic achievement: Disentangling language-minority status, social background, and academic engagement (CSE Report 679). Los Angeles: University of California, Los Angeles, National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing (CRESST).