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Florida Learning Disabilities Research Center


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Diversity in Language Minority Children

By: Mia Daucourt

Although English is the primary language of the United States, English-speakers from different regions, states, and even cities all speak English a little bit differently. For example, a New Yorker is going to pronounce the word “coffee” differently than a Floridian would, and even looking within New York, a Long Islander is going to have a distinctive dialect and accent that differentiates them from New Yorkers from other parts of the state. The same is true of Spanish speakers. Although all Spanish-speaking countries speak the same basic language, there are many dialectical differences and forms of pronunciation that make the kind of Spanish spoken within each Spanish-speaking country very different. For example, a person from Mexico calls a skirt a “falda” while an Argentine Spanish speaker would refer to a skirt as a “pollera.” They’re the same yet different. The same can be said of Spanish speakers living in the United States. Although they all speak Spanish, they are all very different from each other too.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 37.5 million people age 5 or older living in the U.S. speak Spanish or a Spanish creole at home. As a result, there are more and more language-minority children found within U.S. classrooms, who, despite having a common language, differ in their overall language skills and needs. Much like English-speaking children, language minority children come from a wide variety of home backgrounds, with differences in the language heard and spoken at home that influences their literacy skill development. It would be easy to group all language-minority Spanish-speakers together, assuming that speaking Spanish is their defining characteristic, but a recent study by Lonigan and colleagues (2018) found that language-minority children are actually quite a mixed group.

The researchers assessed early literacy skills in a group of 526 language-minority children in Los Angeles, California in order to find out just how pronounced the differences among them were. They found that the Spanish-speaking children were more similar to one another in their early literacy skills in Spanish than in English, but there was still a lot of variability between children in both languages. Specifically, the researchers assessed children’s print knowledge (knowledge of letter names, how letters and sounds match up, and basic print conventions, like knowing to read a book from front to back and left to right), phonological awareness (how well children could understand written letters and their corresponding oral sounds), and oral language skills (listening comprehension and expressive communication) in both English and Spanish. Overall, the researchers found that rather than one homogeneous group, language-minority children fell into one of three “super profiles”: English-language learners, who did better in Spanish than English, balanced bilinguals, who did equally well in Spanish and English, and Spanish-language learners, who did better in English than in Spanish. The researchers also tested to see if these differences were due to IQ or age differences but found that was not the case.

There were some interesting patterns found in terms of where children started off in their early literacy skills and how much they grew in those skills. Children who started off doing better in print knowledge or phonological awareness were the ones who grew faster in those skills. Basically, this meant that if children knew their letter names and about how written letters and letter combinations sounded, they were also going to improve in those skills more quickly than children who did not start off knowing those things. On the other hand, the better children started off in their oral language skills, like conversation and listening comprehension, the slower their improvement in their oral language skills was likely to be. This meant that children who were already performing well in conversation and listening were going to take longer to improve in those skills, whereas children who started off not doing as well in those skills were more likely to improve them quickly.

The researchers also found that a few things that would be expected to be true were not supported. For example, they found their results did not support the idea of “cross-language transfer”. This refers to the idea that a person who is really skilled in one language will have an easier time acquiring the same skills in a new language. However, the researchers found that language minority children’s skill level in Spanish early literacy skills did not help them build the same skills in English and vice versa. This means that the children would have to work directly on building the skills they needed in English and Spanish separately and equally. The researchers also found that, although Spanish may be their first language, the language minority children were not as skilled in Spanish as expected. In fact, although more than half of the sample fell into the super-profile of English-language learners, by doing better on Spanish early literacy assessments in comparison to English, when compared to national norms, 86% of the children were below average in Spanish. This means that language minority children still need plenty of support in their Spanish literacy skill acquisition and not just their English skills.

Lonigan and colleagues (2018) study brought to light the many differences present among language minority children, showing that Spanish-speaking children should not be lumped into the same group when evaluating their literacy needs. The results discussed here have vital implications for classroom teaching, literacy skill assessment, and targeted interventions and will help in giving children what they really need to succeed in school.

Lonigan, C. J., Goodrich, J. M., & Farver, J. M. (2018). Identifying differences in early literacy skills across subgroups of language-minority children: A latent profile analysis. Developmental Psychology, 54(4), 631-647.