English learners who attended transitional kindergarten were better prepared in math, foundational reading skills and language skills when they entered kindergarten than English learners who did not, according to a new study.
English learners are defined as students who do not speak, read or write English and whose first language is not English. Statewide, English learners make up 33 percent of kindergarten students and 21 percent of total enrollment in California schools, according to the California Department of Education.
The multiyear study by The American Institutes for Research estimates the impact of transitional kindergarten on school readiness for more than 2,600 English learners across 20 districts. It also measures the English language development skills of nearly 55,000 English learners in California who took the California English Language Development Test, an English proficiency assessment given to K-12 students.
“The effects of transitional kindergarten on English learner students’ language, literacy and mathematics skills are quite significant as these young children prepare for success in kindergarten and elementary school,” said Karen Manship, director of the study. “The additional year of school appears to provide a distinct advantage for English learners over their peers who were not eligible for transitional kindergarten.”
California’s transitional kindergarten program has roots in a state law, the Kindergarten Readiness Act, which took effect in the fall of 2012. It required children to be 5 years old by Sept.1, rather than Dec. 2, to enroll in traditional kindergarten classes. To serve children who had previously been eligible for kindergarten – 4-year-olds who turn 5 from Sept. 2 to Dec. 2 – California added a new public school grade called transitional kindergarten. Those children are then expected to attend regular kindergarten the following year.
The study, titled “The Impact of Transitional Kindergarten on English Learner Students,” states that transitional kindergarten gives English learners an academic advantage in math over their peers who did not attend transitional kindergarten. The advantage appeared in areas like problem-solving skills, such as word problems that ask students the number of objects remaining if one or more is subtracted or added. Students also perform better in counting and identifying shapes and symbols such as the multiplication sign.
The study also found that transitional kindergarten improves the language and literacy skills of English learners. Literacy is connected to how well a student develops a foundation for reading though phonetic recognition and letter and word identification. Researchers said English learners who attended transitional kindergarten “perform significantly better” compared with students who did not attend transitional kindergarten on several areas of literacy, which includes speaking and listening skills and how well students identify and understand letter sounds and words.
Spanish is by far the most common language spoken among California’s approximately 1.3 million English learners in public schools. It is spoken by 83.1 percent of English learners, followed by 2.1 percent who speak Vietnamese and 1.6 percent who speak Mandarin. To examine the impact of transitional kindergarten on students who speak various Asian languages, researchers divided the languages by regions, such as Central, Southern or East Asia.
Notably, researchers found that transitional kindergarten had little impact on the native language of English learners who speak Spanish. That is, students did not speak any more or fewer words in their native language. “We did not find that TK improved Spanish vocabulary for English learner students who spoke Spanish at home,” the study states. “We also see no evidence that TK students lost Spanish vocabulary, relative to non-TK students.”
Among Spanish-speaking English learners, the study shows that those who attended transitional kindergarten earned better overall scores on the California English Language Development Test than students who did not. Transitional kindergarten also shows “a significant impact” on those test scores for students across all Asian languages spoken.
These students were one to two performance levels above their Asian language-speaking peers who did not attend transitional kindergarten, the study states. English learners who speak East Asian languages, including Chinese, Mandarin and Korean, tested at an overall “early advanced level” for those who attended transitional kindergarten. “These students are typically able to identify and summarize most concrete details and abstract concepts, and oral language is more elaborate,” the study states.
Funding for the study was provided by the Heising-Simons Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and First 5 California.
EdSource receives funding from several foundations, including the Heising-Simons Foundation. EdSource maintains sole editorial control over the content of its coverage.