Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

A recent study about the effects of peers on preschoolers’ language development finds that children with low language skills show the most improvement when they are placed in classrooms with children with more skills. What about the children with strong language skills? Their language development was not harmed by having classmates with lower skills.

The study, which was published in the journal Child Development raises questions about how early education is provided. Lead author Laura Justice, a professor in Ohio State University’s School of Teaching and Learning, notes that children from low-income families are often at risk of language delays and that children receiving federal or state subsidies tend to be concentrated in the same programs.

“The way preschool works in the United States, we tend to cluster kids who have relatively low language skills in the same classrooms, and that is not good for their language development,” Justice says in a news release. “We need to pay more attention to the composition of preschool classrooms.”

Researchers assessed the language skills of 338 children in 49 preschool classrooms in the fall and again in the spring. They measured children’s progress in grammar, vocabulary, and their ability to discuss what was happening in a picture book with no words. The study also controlled for teacher quality.

Results showed that “Children with low initial language skills who were placed in the lowest-ability classes tended to lose ground over the course of the academic year.  However, low-skilled students in average-ability classes improved their language skills between fall and spring,” the news release states. “High-ability students improved their scores whether they were in low-ability or average-ability classrooms.”

The results, Justice notes, argue for heterogeneous preschool classrooms.

“If we really want to help lift kids out of poverty, and use preschool as a way to make that happen, we need to reconsider how we provide that education,” Justice says in the news release. “Classrooms that blend students from different backgrounds are the best way to provide the boost that poor students need.”