Literacy Gap Between Latino and White Toddlers Starts Early, Study Shows

Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times, April 2, 2015

Latino toddlers whose language comprehension is roughly similar to white peers at 9 months old fall significantly behind by the time they are 2, according to a study released Thursday.

The UC Berkeley study found that four-fifths of the nation’s Mexican American toddlers lagged three to five months behind whites in preliteracy skills, oral language and familiarity with print materials.

Although earlier studies have shown that Latino children are raised with emotional warmth and develop social skills on par with others when they enter kindergarten, the new research found they are not receiving sufficient language and literacy skills at home, said Bruce Fuller, a UC Berkeley professor of education and public policy and co-author of the study.

“For many Latinos, the home is a nurturing and supportive environment, but it’s not necessarily infused with rich language and cognitive challenges,” Fuller said. “Being warm and fuzzy may lead to well-behaved youngsters but it doesn’t necessarily advance a young child’s cognitive agility.”

Mothers of toddlers who fell behind were more likely to be foreign-born, low-income and less educated. They were also less likely to read to their children daily or give them as much praise and encouragement as those whose children kept pace with white peers.

The study found, for instance, that only 18% of Mexican American mothers who spoke Spanish at home read to their children daily, compared with 59% of white mothers. Among Mexican American mothers who spoke English at home, 28% read daily.

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The findings underscore the need for widespread parent education and renewal of federal funding for such programs as home visits to train families on effective parenting practices, Fuller said. Most funding is focused on preschool but “we’ve got to start earlier because “the disparities open up far sooner,” he said.

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