Links between Language Processing Efficiency at 2-years and Later Academic Achievement in Spanish-speaking Emerging Bilinguals

Publication Date


Document Type



Child and Adolescent Development


Bilingual, Multilingual, and Multicultural Education | Child Psychology | Language and Literacy Education

Publication Title

Society for Research in Child Development 2019 Biennial Meeting

Conference Location

Baltimore, MD, United States


Being “ready for school” involves the ability to communicate effectively through language and to display appropriate executive functioning (EF) in the service of learning. School-entry language and EF have been linked to performance in reading and math (Duncan et al., 2007), and disparities in socioeconomic status (SES) have been associated with differences in language and EF (Hackman et al., 2015). Many Latino children in the US come from lower-SES backgrounds and lack critical school-readiness skills. Yet, little is known about the precursors of these skills in children from primarily Spanish-speaking homes, children who are also likely to enter school with weaker English language skills. In monolingual children, an early skill with cascading consequences for school-relevant outcomes is language processing speed, the efficiency with which young children find meaning as a sentence unfolds in time (Fernald et al., 2008). Using the “looking-while-listening” (LWL) task, individual differences in language processing speed have been linked to later language, but also to outcomes beyond language, such as working memory, problem solving, and reasoning. For emerging Spanish-English bilingual children, a question with critical policy implications is the extent to which early language processing efficiency in Spanish is associated with children’s later English learning or other academically-relevant skills (EF, pre-literacy, early math).
Here, we report findings from an ongoing longitudinal study of lower-SES, primarily Spanish-speaking children from 2 to 8 years. Ninety-two children completed testing at 2 and 4½ years; testing at 6½ years is ongoing (Table 1). At 2 years, Spanish-language processing speed was assessed in the LWL task, during which a pre-recorded voice directed the child’s attention to one of two familiar pictures (e.g., ¿Dónde está el perro?). Reaction Time (RT) reflects the speed with which children shifted from the unnamed to the named picture. At 4½ years, English language was assessed using the PLS-4 and PPVT-4; scores were averaged to derive a composite. EF was assessed with the EF Touch battery (Fitzpatrick et al., 2014); scores were z-scored and averaged. At 6½ years, reading and math were assessed using the Woodcock-Johnson-IV.
Results indicated that early Spanish-language processing significantly predicted a range of school readiness skills. At 4½, RT accounted for ~6% of variance in English language above exposure to English, SES, and age (R2=60.8%). Similarly, processing speed accounted for ~7% of variance in EF above SES and age (R2=11.8%). Preliminary analyses at 6½ years indicated that mean RT accounted for ~57% of variance in English reading (Figure 1) above exposure to English, SES, and age (R2=67.9%). Mean RT was not a significant predictor of children’s math.
In sum, strengthening children’s native language processing may bolster linguistic, conceptual, and information processing skills that benefit long-term learning. Our findings demonstrate that stronger Spanish-language processing are associated with English language and reading abilities at 4½ and 6½ years old, as well as domains beyond language, namely, children’s executive function. Thus, primarily Spanish-speaking caregivers should be encouraged to engage in activities that support their children’s Spanish language skills, which may have cascading consequences for their long-term learning.