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2014, Volume 17, Special Issue: Early Childhood Policy

The Relationship between Early Childhood Education and Care and English Proficiency at School Entry for Bilingual Children in Australia

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Full Reference
O'Connor, M., O'Connor, E.J., Kvalsvig, A., & Goldfeld, S. (2014). The relationship between early childhood education and care and English proficiency at school entry for bilingual children in Australia. NZ Research in Early Childhood Education Journal. Special Issue: Early Childhood Policy, 17, 161-181.

 

Original Policy Paper

The Relationship between Early Childhood Education and Care and English Proficiency at School Entry for Bilingual Children in Australia

Meredith O’Connor1,2, Elodie J. O’Connor1, Amanda Kvalsvig1 and Sharon Goldfeld1,2
1. Royal Children’s Hospital, Victoria, Australia
2. University of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

 

Abstract

Children from diverse language backgrounds who enter school with limited proficiency in English may face additional challenges in negotiating this new context. Hence, it is important to consider what antecedent factors might promote English proficiency at school entry. Engagement with early childhood education and care (ECEC) programmes may be one such factor. Drawing on population-level data from the teacher-rated Australian Early Development Index (n=261,147), this study aims to explore the relationship between ECEC (including pre-school, day-care, and other informal non-parental care) and English proficiency at school entry for Australian children from bilingual backgrounds. The findings reveal that attendance at pre-school (OR=1.53, 95% CI=1.37-1.70) was associated with increased odds of being proficient in English at school entry for bilingual children, whereas attending day-care without a pre-school programme (OR=0.78, 95% CI=0.68-0.89), more informal non-parental care (OR=0.72, 95% CI=0.65-0.80), or parental care only (OR=0.59, 95% CI=0.52-0.67) was associated with decreased odds of proficiency in English at school entry. These findings suggest that engagement with pre-school programmes prior to school entry may well present a plausible and modifiable approach to improving English proficiency at school entry for bilingual children, with important implications for policy and programmes that aim to reduce inequality in skills at school entry.

Key words: Transition to school; bilingual; Australian Early Development Index (AEDI); school entry, ECE participation.

 

Introduction

Like many other western industrialised countries, Australia is a culturally and linguistically diverse society, where over 160 languages are spoken and around 15% of Australian children speak a language other than English at home (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1999, 2006a). Students in Australia with limited proficiency in the language of instruction at school (English) may face additional challenges in negotiating the school context, whereas bilingual children who enter school with well-developed English language skills may have a range of developmental advantages (Goldfeld, O'Connor, Mithen, Sayers, & Brinkman, 2013). Hence, it is critical to identify factors that provide opportunities for bilingual children to develop English language skills before they enter the school system. Attending early education and care settings such as pre-school may be one such feasible and modifiable intervention target that seems likely to promote English proficiency by providing increased exposure to the English language (Halle, Hair, Wandner, McNamara, & Chien, 2012). To date, however, there has been limited data available to explore this possible association in the Australian context.  In this paper we draw on population data to investigate the relationship between early childhood education and care experiences and English proficiency at school entry in order to inform policy and service development in this area.

As there is some definitional confusion in the literature, for this paper we use the term bilingual in the broad sense of the word to refer to all students who speak a language or languages other than English at home and are also operating within the predominantly English speaking school setting (Grosjean & Grosjean, 2010). We further differentiate between English proficient bilinguals and emerging bilinguals who are not yet proficient in the English language (García & Kleifgen, 2010). While proficiency in English is probably best conceptualised as a continuum, for ease of discussion we define children as proficient in English if they are able to meet the linguistic demands of and communicate effectively in an English-speaking school setting. These terms provide a strengths-based terminology by acknowledging home language ability rather than only describing difficulties with the English language. We refer to English proficiency throughout as this is the primary language of instruction in Australia.

Language background and proficiency in English at school entry

As emerging bilingual children enter school they face the challenge of trying to keep pace academically with their same-age peers whilst simultaneously learning the English language (MacSwan & Pray, 2005). The link between entering school with limited English proficiency and reduced early academic performance (in English) has been well documented (e.g., Brinkman, Sayers, Goldfeld, & Kline, 2009; Halle et al., 2012; Kieffer, 2008). Beyond these academic difficulties, recent research suggests that emerging bilinguals may also show poorer outcomes across broad health and psychosocial domains including physical health and wellbeing, social competence, emotional maturity, and language and cognitive development (e.g., Goldfeld et al., 2013).

In contrast, English proficient bilingual children may begin school with a range of developmental advantages, such as stronger early academic skills (Halle et al., 2012; Lesaux & Siegel, 2003), social and emotional development (Halle et al., 2012; Han, 2010; Oades-Sese, Esquivel, Kaliski, & Maniatis, 2011; Yow & Markman, 2011), language development (Brinkman et al., 2009), phonological awareness (Liow & Lau, 2006), and family relationships (Boutakidis, Chao, & Rodríguez, 2011). These factors are all likely to be assets in helping young children to meet the new demands placed on them as they begin school.

Early childhood education and care in Australia

In Australia, formal early childhood education and care (ECEC) in the year prior to school can include a stand-alone pre-school or kindergarten, or day-care (with or without a pre-school or kindergarten programme). Stand-alone pre-school or kindergarten programmes are usually attended on a sessional basis; alternately, day-care is attended for longer hours with programme activities spread throughout the day (Dowling & O'Malley, 2009). The majority of pre-schools are Government owned or not-for-profit, while day-care centres are primarily owned by private for-profit and not-for-profit providers. The Commonwealth Government provides family payments to assist with the cost of day-care, while assistance for pre-school programmes is the responsibility of State and Territory Governments, and so the cost to families and the type of service providers available varies accordingly (Early Childhood Australia, 2011).

Formal childcare services in Australia are required to meet regulatory standards (e.g. minimum standards for staff training, adult-to-child ratios, and developmentally appropriate curriculum), but these standards vary by service type (Harrison et al., 2009). Both stand-alone pre-schools and day-care with pre-school are thought to provide substantial benefits to children’s development (Sayers, Moore, Brinkman, & Goldfeld, 2012), whereas day-care without pre-school is generally considered to be of lower quality, and to provide fewer developmental benefits (e.g., as suggested by the findings of Sylva, Melhuish, Sammons, Siraj-Blatchford, & Taggart, 2004 in the UK context).

Early childhood education and care and English proficiency at school entry

Given the benefits of English proficiency at school entry, it is important to consider what antecedent factors might promote proficiency (Halle et al., 2012), particularly those factors that are potentially modifiable through improved service systems. Empirical findings generally provide evidence for the capacity of high quality early learning environments to promote the skills children need to successfully negotiate the school context (Sylva et al., 2004). For example, children who do not attend pre-school are significantly more likely to be developmentally vulnerable across one or more domains of the teacher-rated Australian Early Development Index (AEDI) than children who do attend pre-school (Sayers et al., 2012).

For children from bilingual backgrounds, ECEC programmes may be even more important because they can provide increased exposure to the English language and further opportunities to develop English language skills (Magnuson, Lahaie, & Waldfogel, 2006; Reese, Garnier, Gallimore, & Goldenberg, 2000). In a US sample, Halle et al. (2012) found that bilingual children who were in home-based care or parental care in the year before school entry were less likely to be proficient in English by their second year of schooling, compared to those bilingual students who attended formal ECEC. Despite the potential benefit of ECEC for bilingual children, a lower proportion of Australian children from non-English speaking backgrounds attend ECEC than children from English speaking backgrounds (Harrison et al., 2009), suggesting that equitable access is also an issue. 

It is very important to note that ECEC need not be an English-only setting to promote English proficiency. For example, in the US context, Burchinal, Field, López, Howes, and Pianta (2011) found that bilingual instruction in high quality early learning settings promoted better academic outcomes for emerging bilingual children.

Given the protective effects associated with bilingualism discussed previously, it is important that children do not gain English proficiency at the expense of their home language. Further, Pacini-Ketchabaw and Armstrong de Almelda (2006) highlight the importance of maintaining a child’s home language and encourage early childhood educators to support parents in their efforts to continue developing this language.

 

The current study

ECEC may present a feasible and modifiable avenue for increasing English proficiency at school entry for bilingual children in Australia; however, there has been limited Australian data to examine this question and provide guidance for policy development in this area. To address this gap in current knowledge, we draw on unique data from a population cohort representing over 97% of Australian children in their first year of formal schooling in 2009. We hypothesised that attending formal ECEC in the year before school would be related to stronger English proficiency at school entry for bilingual children, particularly for pre-school programmes. 

 

Method

Measures

Australian Early Development Index. Children’s health and development was measured using the AEDI, an Australian adaptation of the Canadian Early Development Instrument (EDI; Janus & Offord, 2007). The AEDI is a relative population measure of early childhood development in communities across Australia. In 2009, teachers completed the checklist for all children in their first year of full-time schooling (n=261,147), providing a census snapshot of the development of Australian children. The AEDI covers early developmental outcomes, demographic data, ECEC experiences, and language background.

Language status. Two AEDI items were used to examine children’s language background, including 1) “Does this child speak a language other than English at home?”, and 2) “Is the child considered ESL (English as a second language)?”, both rated as “yes” or “no”. Children were categorised as bilingual if their teacher answered “yes” to either question. English proficiency was assessed according to the item “How would you rate this child’s ability to use language effectively in English?” rated on a 3-point scale where 1=“poor/very poor”, 2=”average”, and 3=“good/very good”, or “don’t know”. Those children rated as “average” or above were categorised as English proficient bilinguals, and those rated as “poor/very poor” were categorised as emerging bilinguals. “Don’t know” responses were coded as missing data. 

ECEC attendance. Teachers were asked “In the year before entering school has this child been in non-parental care on a regular basis and/or attended any other educational programme?”, answered as “yes”, “no”, or “don’t know”. Children for whom teachers answered “no” were categorised as “parental care only”. “Don’t know” responses were coded as missing values for this and follow-on items. Teachers who indicated “yes” were further asked to select from a list of specific types of ECEC settings. Children were categorised as having attended pre-school if teachers responded “pre-school or kindergarten” or “day-care centre (with a pre-school or kindergarten programme)”. Children were categorised as attending day-care without pre-school if teachers responded yes to “day-care centre (without a pre-school or kindergarten programme)”, and day-care - unknown if teachers responded “day-care centre (unsure about a pre-school or kindergarten programme)”. Finally, children were categorised as informal non-parental care if teachers selected “family day-care”, “grandparent”, “other relative”, “nanny”, “other person”, “other”. Note that children could be categorised as attending multiple types of ECEC settings (i.e., these were not mutually exclusive).

Demographic characteristics. Teachers recorded the child’s gender as male or female. The State or Territory in which the child resided was also recorded, as was their country of birth, and main languages other than English spoken at home. The socioeconomic status of the community in which the child lived was attributed using the Australian Bureau of Statistics Index of relative Socio-Economic Disadvantage (SEIFA) score for the child’s home neighbourhood, which was then categorised into quintiles. This measure takes into account variables such as income, educational attainment, and unemployment (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2006b). SEIFA is an area based measure as the AEDI does not record any specific variables relating to socioeconomic status at the child or family level.

Participants

The AEDI was completed for 261,147 children in their first year of full-time schooling (97.5% of estimated 5 year old population; 51.3% male, 48.7% female) by 15,522 teachers from 7,422 Government, Independent, and Catholic schools (95.6% school participation) across all States and Territories in Australia in 2009 (Centre for Community Child Health & Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, 2009). On average, children were 5 years and 7 months of age. The majority of children were living in urban areas (64.7%), with a further 29.9% living in regional and 3.1% in remote areas. The relative socioeconomic standing of their communities was similar to that of 3 year olds in the 2006 Australian census (Centre for Community Child Health & Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, 2009). The proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children (ATSI; 4.8%) reflects standard population estimates (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2005). The number of ATSI bilingual children was relatively small (n=3,011 compared to n=43,956 non-ATSI bilingual children, as described in Centre for Community Child Health & Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, 2009), and so we have included ATSI children in the sample along with children from other cultural groups, rather than examining their outcomes separately. The proportion of children with special needs (n=11,484, 4.4%) was similar to other Australian estimates (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2006), and these children were excluded from the current sample given their significant and established developmental difficulties (Goldfeld, O'Connor, Sayers, Moore, & Oberklaid, 2012).

A total of 6.6% of children were born outside of Australia in 187 different countries (Centre for Community Child Health & Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, 2009). Bilingual children in this cohort spoke a wide range of languages at home, with the most common being Arabic (11.8%), Chinese languages (9.9%), Vietnamese (8.4%), Greek (4.3%), and Hindi (3.2%; Centre for Community Child Health & Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, 2009).

Procedure

During the three-month period commencing May 1 2009, school teachers across Australia completed the AEDI. Data were collected through a secure web-based data entry system. Schools were recruited by State-based Government officers and permission to approach schools was obtained from the relevant authorities for all school sectors (i.e., Government, Independent, and Catholic schools). Each school was provided with funding to enable participating teachers to undertake a training module as well as complete the checklists for all the children in their class. Data on participating children were collected following a parental passive consent process utilising a combination of parent information letters (translated into a number of languages) and school newsletters with both written and verbal opt out processes.

Data analysis

Stata V.12 (StataCorp, 2009) was used to conduct the analyses. The average rate of missing data across the variables was low (an average of 5.7%). The ECEC attendance variable had the highest rate of missing data (8.1% missing) mostly due to “don’t know” responses. We used complete case data in our analyses given the low proportion of missing values. A threshold of p<0.001 was used as a minimum for reporting statistical significance because of the large sample size.

The analyses are presented in three parts. First, we describe the sample characteristics of this cohort, including their language background and English proficiency. Next, we describe the pattern of ECEC attendance across the different demographic groups. Third, we examine the relationship between ECEC attendance and English proficiency for bilingual children and children from English speaking backgrounds, estimating both the unadjusted association and the association accounting for gender, socioeconomic status, and State or Territory.

In each of the logistic regression analyses, we accounted for the nested nature of the data using robust standard errors, clustering on teacher. This procedure produces unbiased standard errors that allow the assumption of the independence of observations to be relaxed (Williams, 2000), and produces similar results to more complex methods such as multilevel modelling (Arceneaux & Nickerson, 2009). Given the focus on individual-level effects and the extremely large sample size (Greenland, 2000), the choice between methods to account for clustered data is unlikely to have a significant impact on these results.

 

Results

Demographic characteristics

Around a fifth of children in this population cohort were bilingual (17.8%, n=44,018). Of these children, most were proficient in English when they entered school (85.6%, n=37,657), although a substantial minority were rated as not yet proficient in English (14.4%, n=6,361). For children from English speaking backgrounds (82.2%, n=203,479), the majority were proficient in English (96.8%, n=196,984) and only a small proportion were not yet proficient in their home language (3.2%, n=6,495).

Table 1 details further demographic characteristics of the bilingual children in this cohort. A higher proportion of boys were rated not yet proficient in English than girls, for both children from English speaking backgrounds (59.3%) and bilingual children (66.7%). Further, a higher proportion of bilingual children who were not yet proficient in English lived in the most disadvantaged areas of Australia (42.0%) compared to children from English speaking backgrounds who were English proficient (18.4%).

 

Table 1:  Demographic Characteristics and Proficiency in English at School Entry

Children from a language background

other than English

Children from an English

speaking background

Total

sample

n (%)

Not yet English

proficient

n (%)

English

Proficient

n (%)

Not yet English

proficient

n (%)

English

Proficient

n (%)

Gender
Boys 125,934 (50.44) 3,774
(59.33)
18,512 (49.16) 4,330 (66.67) 98,193 (49.85)
Girls 123,729 (49.56) 2,587
(40.67)
19,145 (50.84) 2,165 (33.33) 98,791 (50.15)
State or Territory
Australian Capital Territory 4,221 (1.69) 111
(1.75)
607
(1.61)
82
 (1.26)
3,391
(1.72)
New South Wales 83,381 (33.40) 2,491
(39.17)
17,400 (46.21) 1,923 (29.61) 61,128 (31.04)
Northern Territory 3,035 (1.22) 351
(5.52)
727
(1.93)
48
(0.74)
1,768
(0.90)
Queensland 53,367 (21.38) 955
 (15.02)
4,242 (11.27) 1,956 (30.12) 45,657 (23.18)
South Australia 15,211 (6.09) 221
(3.47)
1,731
(4.60)
340
 (5.23)
12,744 (6.47)
Tasmania 5,721 (2.29) 13
(0.20)
177
(0.47)
173
 (2.66)
5,338
 (2.71)
Victoria 58,020 (23.24) 1,614
(25.38)
9,517 (25.28) 1,181 (18.18) 45,296 (23.00)
Western Australia 26,661 (10.68) 604
 (9.50)
3,250
(8.63)
792
 (12.19)
21,631 (10.98)
Community socioeconomic status
Quintile 1 (most disadvantaged) 53,574 (21.46) 2,596
(42.01)
12,194 (32.74) 1,904 (29.46) 36,163 (18.45)
Quintile 2 45,471 (18.21) 1,023
(16.56)
6,335 (17.01) 1,492 (23.09) 36,222 (18.48)
Quintile 3 43,185 (17.30) 940
(15.21)
6,116 (16.42) 1,169 (18.09) 34,626 (17.67)
Quintile 4 44,441 (17.80) 771
 (12.48)
5,423 (14.56) 964
(14.92)
36,993 (18.87)
Quintile 5 (most advantaged) 61,310 (24.56) 849
 (13.74)
7,176 (19.27) 934
(14.45)
52,005 (26.53)

Note. Percentages reflect proportions according to column.

 

 

Early childhood education and care experiences

Pre-school was the most common form of ECEC that children attended in the year before school (80.6%; see Table 2). Fewer children attended day-care without pre-school (8.3%), day-care - unknown (14.6%), informal non-parental care (15.5%), or parental care only (7.3%). Note that these first three categories are not mutually exclusive (e.g. children could have attended pre-school as well as informal non-parental care).

Table 2 also details the rate of attendance for each of the ECEC categories by English proficiency and by SES. A lower proportion of children who were not yet proficient in English attended pre-school, across both bilingual children (60.7%) and children from English speaking backgrounds (69.9%), compared to children who were proficient in English (73.9% and 82.8%, respectively). In contrast, those who were not yet proficient tended to have higher rates of attendance at day-care without pre-school or informal non-parental care, or to be in parental care only in the year before school.

Looking at ECEC attendance by socioeconomic status, Table 2 also shows that a higher proportion of children from the most advantaged areas of Australia attended pre-school (85.8%) than children from the most disadvantaged areas of Australia (74.9%). Additionally, a higher proportion of children from the most disadvantaged areas of Australia attended all other types of care settings.

 

Table 2: Early Childhood Education and Care Experiences by English Proficiency at School Entry and Community Socioeconomic Status

Children from a non-English language background Children from an English speaking background Socioeconomic status

Total

sample

n (%)

Not yet English

Prof-icient
n (%)

English

Proficient

n (%)

Not yet English

proficient

n (%)

English

Proficient

n (%)

Most dis-advantaged SES (quintile 1)

n (%)

Most advantaged

SES (quintile 5)

n (%)

Pre-school
Attended 184,913 (80.62) 3,346 (60.65) 25,257 (73.91) 4,075 (69.93) 152,041 (82.80) 36,054 (74.86) 49,361 (85.78)
Did not attend 44,455 (19.38) 2,171 (39.35) 8,917 (26.09) 1,752 (30.07) 31,580 (17.20) 12,105 (25.14) 8,183 (14.22)
Day-care without pre-school
Attended 19,103 (8.33) 554 (10.04) 2,743 (8.03) 665 (11.41) 15,084 (8.21) 4,829 (10.03) 3,550
(6.17)
Did not attend 210,265 (91.67) 4,963 (89.96) 31,431 (91.97) 5,162 (88.59) 168,537 (91.79) 43,330 (89.97) 53,994 (93.83)
Day-care – unknown
Attended 33,556 (14.63) 897 (16.26) 5,626 (16.46) 985 (16.90) 25,977 (14.15) 7,787 (16.17) 7,092 (12.32)
Did not attend 195,812 (85.37) 4,620 (83.74) 28,548 (83.54) 4,842 (83.10) 157,644 (85.85) 40,372 (83.83) 50,452 (87.68)
Informal non-parental care
Attended 35,652 (15.54) 1,054 (19.10) 5,089 (14.89) 1,066 (18.29) 28,367 (15.45) 8,900 (18.48) 7,243 (12.59)
Did not attend 193,716 (84.46) 4,463 (80.90) 29,085 (85.11) 4,761 (81.71) 155,254 (84.55) 39,259 (81.52) 50,301 (87.41)
Parental care only
Attended 16,751 (7.30) 1,164 (21.10) 3,492 (10.22) 899 (15.43) 11,177 (6.09) 5,524 (11.47) 2,460
(4.27)
Did not attend 212,617 (92.70) 4,353 (78.90) 30,682 (89.78) 4,928 (84.57) 172,444 (93.91) 42,635 (88.53) 55,084 (95.73)

Note. Some children attended more than one form of Early Childhood Education and Care. Percentages reflect proportions according to column.

 

Table 3: Early Childhood Education and Care Experiences Prior to School Entry by State and Territory

ACT

n (%)

NSW

n (%)

NT

n (%)

QLD

n (%)

SA

n (%)

TAS

n (%)

VIC

n (%)

WA

n (%)

Pre-school
Attended 3,545 (91.82) 59,475 (76.31) 2,351 (86.09) 30,590 (66.69) 13,062 (92.54) 4,798 (92.39) 49,994 (90.85) 21,074 (85.65)
Did not attend 316 (8.18) 18,462 (23.69) 380 (13.91) 15,277 (33.31) 1,053 (7.46) 395 (7.61) 5,033 (9.15) 3,532 (14.35)
Day-care without pre-school
Attended 407 (10.54) 4,257 (5.46) 347 (12.71) 4049 (8.83) 2,198 (15.57) 969 (18.66) 4,490 (8.16) 2,384 (9.69)
Did not attend 3,454 (89.46) 73,680 (94.54) 2,384 (87.29) 41,818 (91.17) 11,917 (84.43) 4,224 (81.34) 50,537 (91.84) 22,222 (90.31)
Day-care - unknown
Attended 600 (15.54) 11,205 (14.38) 246 (9.01) 9,059 (19.75) 2,429 (17.21) 1,052 (20.26) 5,315 (9.66) 3,648 (14.83)
Did not attend 3,261 (84.46) 66,732 (85.62) 2,485 (90.99) 36,808 (80.25) 11,686 (82.79) 4,141 (79.74) 49,712 (90.34) 20,958 (85.17)
Informal non-parental care
Attended 640 (16.58) 11,429 (14.66) 423 (15.49) 6,940 (15.13) 3,113 (22.05) 1,293 (24.90) 7,574 (13.76) 4,236 (17.22)
Did not attend 3,221 (83.42) 66,508 (85.34) 2,308 (84.51) 38,927 (84.87) 11,002 (77.95) 3,900 (75.10) 47,453 (86.24) 20,370 (82.78)
Parental care only
Attended 144 (3.73) 5,289 (6.79) 218 (7.98) 5,687 (12.40) 576 (4.08) 228 (4.39) 2,215 (4.03) 2,388 (9.70)
Did not attend 3,717 (96.27) 72,648 (93.21) 2,513 (92.02) 40,180 (87.60) 13,539 (95.92) 4,965 (95.61) 52,812 (95.97) 22,218 (90.30)

Note. ACT=Australian Capital Territory; NSW=New South Wales; NT=Northern Territory; QLD=Queensland; SA=South Australia; TAS=Tasmania; VIC=Victoria; WA=Western Australia. Some children attended more than one form of Early Childhood Education and Care. Percentages reflect proportions according to column.

Rates of attendance at different types of ECEC also differed across States and Territories (see Table 3). Given this variation, State or Territory was included as a control variable in the following multivariate analysis.

 

Multivariate Analysis

The multivariate analysis examined whether different care experiences in the year before starting school were associated with the odds of entering school with proficient English language skills. Although our primary focus was on bilingual students, a model was also run for children from English speaking backgrounds as a point of comparison. Table 4 shows the relative odds of being English proficient at school entry for children who attended each type of care compared to those who did not attend that type of care. The unadjusted odds show the univariate association between the type of care and English proficiency, and the adjusted models show this relationship once attendance at other care types, gender, socioeconomic status, and State or Territory were accounted for.

Bilingual children who attended pre-school had significantly higher odds of being proficient in English at school entry than those who had not attended pre-school (OR=1.53, 95% CI=1.37-1.70). A similar effect was seen in children from English speaking backgrounds (OR=1.40, 95% CI=1.27-1.53). In contrast, bilingual children (OR=0.78, 95% CI=0.68-0.89) and children from English speaking backgrounds (OR=0.70, 95% CI=0.63-0.78) who attended day-care without pre-school had decreased odds of English proficiency at school entry. Bilingual children who attended informal non-parental care or received parental care only also had significantly lower odds of being proficient in English at school entry (OR=0.72, 95% CI=0.65-0.80, and OR=0.59, 95% CI=0.52-0.67, respectively). Children from English speaking backgrounds also had lower odds of English proficiency if they were in parental care only in the year before school (OR=0.53, 95% CI=0.47-0.59), but not if they were in informal non-parental care (OR=0.89, 95% CI=0.82-0.97). Where teachers were unsure as to whether day-care attendance included a pre-school programme, there was no significant association with English proficiency.

Table 4: Unadjusted and Adjusted Logistic Regression Models Predicting English Proficiency at School Entry

Children from a language background other than English

Children from an English

speaking background

Unadjusted association Adjusted model Unadjusted association Adjusted model
ECEC in the year before school 
Pre-school 1.84 (1.70-1.98)** 1.53 (1.37-1.70)** 2.07 (1.94-2.21)** 1.40 (1.27-1.53)**
Day-care without pre-school 0.78 (0.68-0.89)** 0.78 (0.68-0.89)** 0.69 (0.63-0.77)** 0.70 (0.63-0.78)**
Day-care - unknown 1.02 (0.92-1.12) 1.21 (1.09-1.36) 0.81 (0.75-0.88)** 1.03 (0.94-1.13)
Informal non-parental care 0.74 (0.67-0.82)** 0.72 (0.65-0.80)** 0.82 (0.76-0.88)** 0.89 (0.82-0.97)
Parental care only 0.43 (0.39-0.47)** 0.59 (0.52-0.67)** 0.36 (0.33-0.39)** 0.53 (0.47-0.59)**
Gender
Female 1.51 (1.42-1.61)** 2.07 (1.95-2.19)**
Community socioeconomic status
SES quintile 2 1.26 (1.13-1.41)** 1.23 (1.13-1.35)**
SES quintile 3 1.35 (1.19-1.52)** 1.54 (1.41-1.69)**
SES quintile 4 1.42 (1.25-1.62)** 1.94 (1.75-2.14)**
SES quintile 5 1.73 (1.53-1.96)** 2.75 (2.48-3.05)**
State or Territory
Australian Capital Territory 0.55 (0.37-0.81) 0.76 (0.56-1.02)
Northern Territory 0.26 (0.16-0.42)** 1.63 (1.03-2.59)
Queensland 0.67 (0.57-0.78)** 0.85 (0.77-0.93)**
South Australia 1.17 (0.96-1.44) 1.21 (1.04-1.40)
Tasmania 2.24 (1.08-4.64) 1.17 (0.95-1.43)
Victoria 0.74 (0.66-0.83)** 1.08 (0.97-1.19)
Western Australia 0.72 (0.62-0.84)** 0.80 (0.71-0.90)**
             

Note. The reference group for each ECEC category was all other ECEC categories. The reference group for gender was boys. The reference group for community socioeconomic status was SES quintile 1 most disadvantaged). The reference group for State or Territory was New South Wales.

**=p<.001.

Discussion

Bilingual children who enter school without proficient English language skills are at increased risk for poorer learning and psychosocial outcomes (Goldfeld et al., 2013). The AEDI data reveal that a sizeable number of bilingual children in Australia are not yet proficient in the language of instruction by the time they begin formal schooling. To promote optimal outcomes for bilingual children it is therefore an imperative that we identify modifiable factors that can provide increased opportunities for children to develop English language skills before they enter the school system. Attendance at formal ECEC settings seems a plausible candidate, but until now this possibility has lacked supporting data. In this study, data from a population census of children entering their first year of schooling in Australia revealed that taking part in a pre-school programme was indeed associated with greater odds of entering school with adequate English language skills for bilingual children. However, not all out of home care was associated with better outcomes: children who attended day-care without pre-school or informal care settings were less likely to be proficient in English at school entry. This highlights the importance of the educational purpose of ECEC settings when considering the impact of ECEC on language development.

Early childhood education and care and English proficiency at school entry

Our findings reveal that attendance at pre-school in the year prior to entering school was associated with higher levels of English proficiency at school entry. This is consistent with previous international research such as Halle et al.’s (2012) study that found attendance at formal ECEC settings in the year prior to school entry was associated with English proficiency at school entry among bilingual students in the US. It is interesting to note that this protective effect was evident in both this and Halle et al.’s (2012) study despite the very different policy and service context of ECEC in Australia and the US.

ECEC settings such as pre-school can provide cognitively stimulating and responsive learning opportunities which encourage the development of language and cognitive skills (Magnuson, Meyers, Ruhm, & Waldfogel, 2004), and this can have a significant and lasting impact on a child’s development (Tayler, 2012). For bilingual children, in addition to these general benefits, it is likely that pre-school attendance also provides increased exposure to the English language and further opportunities to develop English language skills (Magnuson et al., 2006; Reese et al., 2000), including intentional instruction in phonological and phonemic awareness, vocabulary, text comprehension, and oral language (Halle et al., 2012), as well as additional opportunities for social language interactions (Piker & Rex, 2008). Yet, despite these potential protective effects, similarly to Harrison et al. (2009), these findings reveal that in Australia a lower proportion of bilingual children attended pre-school than children from English speaking backgrounds.

In contrast, bilingual children who attended day-care without pre-school had lower odds of entering school with proficient English language skills (as did their peers from English speaking backgrounds). Although we did not measure the quality of the ECEC settings directly, this finding seems to generally fit with the observation in previous research that pre-school programmes are typically of a higher quality than general day-care (Sylva et al., 2004). Research based measures of quality include adult-to-child ratios, staff education, and the nature of activities and shared interactions (Sylva, 2010). A review investigating ECEC in Australia found that some research-based indicators of quality tend to differ across types of non-parental care, with pre-schools generally being ranked as higher quality settings (Harrison et al., 2009). Where teachers did not know if the day-care setting the child attended included a pre-school programme or not, there was no association with English proficiency, probably due to the mixed exposures to pre-school programmes of this group, with the positive effects of pre-school and negative effects of day-care only cancelling each other out.

Few past studies have explicitly estimated associations of English proficiency at school entry with informal non-parental care or parental care only, but doing so reveals further interesting findings in this study. Informal non-parental care was associated with relatively lower levels of English proficiency for bilingual children, but not for their peers from English speaking backgrounds. This is possibly due to care by relatives such as grandparents providing limited opportunities to learn English for the bilingual children. In addition, ECEC settings other than pre-school are relatively unregulated, and the quality of these settings may not be as high or consistent. Further, children from English speaking backgrounds and bilingual children who received parental care only had lower odds of English proficiency at school entry. It is interesting to note that parental care only was relatively uncommon for Australian children, and it is possible that more vulnerable families select this option due to lack of appropriate, affordable or engaging service provision.

Although they were not the focus of the current analysis, the results for children from English speaking backgrounds present an interesting point of comparison. Consistent with previous research (McLeod & Harrison, 2009), in this population cohort there were a significant number of children from English speaking backgrounds who were rated by their teachers as not yet proficient in English at school entry. The developmental origins of these difficulties are likely different from children who are not yet proficient in English due to lack of exposure and opportunity to learn the language (Kohnert, Windsor, & Ebert, 2009). Nevertheless, these findings suggest there is likely to be some overlap in the policy responses needed across the board, with the English language skills of all children appearing to benefit from pre-school attendance. Socioeconomic disadvantage may also be a factor impacting on language outcomes for both of these groups of children. 

Strengths and limitations 

The AEDI data represent a whole population of Australian children in their first year of schooling, and this breadth is a major strength of the study in that it avoids sampling bias, and provides a sufficient sample size for reporting on minority subpopulations such as bilingual students, which is particularly important given that the proportion of emerging bilinguals in this population was very small.

The teacher report methodology reflects both another major strength, but also a limitation of this data. On the one hand, it makes population-level coverage feasible and provides insight into English skills as they are manifested in the context of the classroom. Nevertheless, the use of a single informant is always a limitation, and means that we cannot rule out whether teachers’ ratings may be subtly influenced by factors such as ethnic stereotypes (Ruck & Tenenbuam, 2007).

The AEDI provides broad data from a population cohort, but the checklist is limited in length as any increase would reduce the feasibility of conducting the AEDI as a national census. In particular, the measure of English proficiency in this analysis was restricted to a single item. Similarly, home language use was measured by two items, which did not assess factors such as what language was dominant for the child or the language usage patterns between the child and their parents and siblings. It was also not possible to include an indicator of the quality of specific ECEC sites, given that it is unlikely that teachers would be able to provide such information. We have thus only been able to examine the impact of quality generally, based on previously identified levels of quality for different care types.

Finally, we acknowledge that these findings may not generalise beyond contexts in which English is the primary language of instruction, and care should also be taken when generalising the results to other countries with different ECEC policy and service contexts. In New Zealand, for example, there is a much greater emphasis on bilingualism and cultural diversity in ECEC policy (Ministry of Education, 1996) than in the Australian Early Years Learning Framework (Australian Government Department of Education Employment and Workplace, 2009). 

Implications and areas for future research

The association between pre-school attendance and English proficiency at school entry reinforces the potential protective effects of pre-school for children’s development. The lower proportion of bilingual students attending formal ECEC further suggests the need for local service providers to actively seek out and promote ECEC for children from bilingual families, including recent immigrant and refugee children, and ensure that staff and services are welcoming and culturally appropriate.

Given that bilingual children were overrepresented in the most disadvantaged areas, and that disadvantage poses a substantial independent risk for not being proficient in English at school entry, bilingualism and low socioeconomic status may present a cumulative risk for poorer outcomes at school entry. Further research is needed to fully understand the role of disadvantage in influencing outcomes for bilingual children in Australian communities.

Although it was not the focus of the current study, it is interesting to note that there were unique effects associated with State or Territory for bilingual children, including relatively lower odds of being proficient at school entry for bilingual children in the Northern Territory, Queensland, Victoria, and Western Australia, compared to children residing in New South Wales. This was not mirrored in the findings for children from English speaking backgrounds, where there was little independent effect of state. A single, national set of regulations and standards for ECEC has been implemented by the Australian Government in the time since data collection (Australian Government Department of Education Employment and Workplace, 2009), and so subsequent cycles of AEDI data collection will provide an opportunity to evaluate the effect of this substantial policy change, particularly for bilingual children. How these policy changes have impacted on the quality of ECEC settings, with subsequent impacts on language development, will also be important to explore.

As noted previously, it is critical that children do not gain English proficiency at the expense of their home language. Bilingual ECEC programmes have also been shown to promote better outcomes for bilingual children, though this research has predominantly been conducted in the US (e.g. Burchinal et al., 2011). Hence, bilingual pre-school settings could be explored further as a way of concurrently supporting both proficiency in English and proficiency in the child’s home language. It may also be important for ECEC educators to encourage parents to continue developing their child’s home language outside the ECEC setting (e.g. Pacini-Ketchabaw & Armstrong de Almeida, 2006).

 

Conclusion

A sizeable number of students entering Australian schools speak a language other than English at home. Those bilingual children who enter school equipped with English language skills are well placed to thrive in the school environment. Alternately, bilingual children who are not yet proficient in English at school entry are at increased risk for poorer outcomes. We have identified engagement with pre-school programmes prior to school entry as a potentially modifiable factor that may promote English language skills at school entry for bilingual children. As bilingual children are also less likely to attend pre-school than their peers from English speaking backgrounds, local service providers may need to more actively seek out and engage bilingual families.

 

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Acknowledgements

There are a number of key groups to be acknowledged for their support of the Australian Early Development Index (AEDI): including the Australian Government who funded the study; all schools, principals, and teachers across Australia that participated in the AEDI; and each of the State and Territory AEDI Coordinators and their Coordinating Committees who helped to facilitate the AEDI data collection in their respective jurisdictions. We appreciate their time and commitment. The authors would specifically like to acknowledge the generous support of Dr. Magdalena Janus and the Offord Centre for Child Studies at McMaster University, Canada. 

 

About the Authors

Dr Meredith O’Connor is an educational and developmental psychologist with a research focus on the intersection of healthy development and the educational system. Dr Elodie O’Connor is an early career researcher with a particular interest in early childhood education and care. Dr Amanda Kvalsvig has a background in epidemiology, paediatrics, and public health. Associate Professor Sharon Goldfeld is a developmental paediatrician and research director of the Australian Early Development Index (AEDI).

As members of the AEDI research team, the authors have a primary interest in providing a comprehensive mapping of early developmental outcomes across Australia with capacity to describe highly vulnerable but low prevalence or under reported subpopulations. Ongoing and future AEDI research will endeavour to investigate the impact of national ECEC policy reform in Australia on pre-school attendance rates and developmental outcomes for bilingual children, and long term outcomes for bilingual children using linked data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC).

 

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