Research shows transitional kindergarten benefit for English learners

07.02.2017 | EdSource | Deborah Kong

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To the mountain of research on one of the most effective interventions that prepares children to succeed in school, we can now add one more: new findings that transitional kindergarten gives English learners a substantial boost in the year before kindergarten.

True to its distinctive approach in many areas, California has a specific brand of pre-k called transitional kindergarten, or TK, a grade offered statewide to a quarter of 4 year olds. The Legislature established transitional kindergarten with the Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2010. Prior to that, 4 year olds attended kindergarten. Today, those 4 year olds with birthdays just below the age cutoff for kindergarten enrollment first attend transitional kindergarten and then kindergarten in the following year.

The new study is especially important because it shows impressive results for dual language learners (DLLs), who make up a third of kindergartners in California, and an even greater proportion of children birth to age 5. Dual language learners, both children who are learning two or more languages at the same time and those learning a second language while developing their home language, bring enormous assets to our schools, our communities, and our state. At the same time, they face an achievement gap compared to their English-only peers when they enter kindergarten.

The study, conducted by the American Institutes for Research (AIR), found clear advantages for English learners in transitional kindergarten over similar children who did not attend TK:

  • almost six months of learning in problem-solving skills that are an important part of mathematics;
  • more than seven months of learning on literacy skills; and
  • one full performance level, or 60 points, on the California English Language Development Test (CELDT), which measures English proficiency.

Spanish speaking students in transitional kindergarten also did not lose their Spanish vocabulary, researchers found. This is critical becauseresearch states that strong skills in both home language and English at kindergarten entry predict the best long-term outcomes for kids.

Spanish-speaking students make up the largest population of English learner students in California — nearly 84 percent. California also has a notable population of Asian-language speaking students, and researchers found they, too, benefited from transitional kindergarten. For most Asian-language groups, transitional kindergarten gave students a two-performance-level advantage on English proficiency test scores. Southeast Asian language speakers who attended transitional kindergarten outperformed their non-TK peers by one performance level.

These are impressive results for a grade that was fully implemented just two years ago. Transitional kindergarten is a particular type of pre-k experience characterized by several important features, AIR notes. For example, TK teachers are required to hold a bachelor’s degree and a multiple subject teaching credential. In contrast, just a quarter of early care and education teachers in California have a bachelor’s degree, according to research by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment. Teachers assigned to transitional kindergarten classrooms after July 15, 2015 must also have 24 college units in early childhood education, comparable work experience, or a child development permit.

Transitional kindergarten teachers are also required to use a curriculum to guide their instruction, which the researchers note is an important element of high-quality pre-k classrooms. In addition, the Legislature stated its intent that transitional kindergarten be aligned with California’s Preschool Learning Foundations – the state’s well–regarded standards – in the 2014-15 budget language.

Finally, transitional kindergarten is taught on elementary school campuses, often by former kindergarten teachers, creating an environment where transitions from TK to kindergarten to early elementary may be stronger and smoother.

It therefore comes as little surprise that transitional kindergarten is improving student achievement. The AIR findings reflect earlier studies showing that high-quality early learning programs help to reduce the achievement gap at kindergarten entry for DLLs, giving them a boost in literacy, math, social skills, and executive function.

Given its findings about transitional kindergarten’s positive impacts for dual language learners, AIR’s report concludes that “districts and the state should ensure that families of [English learner] students know about the advantages of TK and they have ready access to TK programs.”

California policymakers created a good program that research now demonstrates works for English learners, and all students. An earlier AIR study found that students who attended transitional kindergarten had more advanced literacy, mathematics, and executive function skills at kindergarten entry than their peers who did not. At kindergarten entry, the researchers tell us, transitional kindergarten students were up to half a school year ahead of their peers who did not attend TK, many of whom attended other early education programs.

As advocates, we remain committed to ensuring that we build upon this progress so that all California children have an opportunity to attend a high-quality early learning program. As we did in pushing for alignment with state preschool foundations and requiring ECE units for newly assigned teachers, we will continue to seek quality improvements that further advance TK’s potential to provide even greater benefits. Our young learners deserve nothing less.

Deborah Kong is Acting Executive Director of Early Edge California.