Study Shows Widening Gap in Literacy Between White and Latino Children

Young girl and boy reading together

A recent UC Berkeley study found that Latino children are falling behind their white peers even earlier when it comes to literacy.
Image: Shutterstock

A recent study found that Latino toddlers and their white peers are generally at the same language comprehension level at 9 months, but the Latino children drop off rapidly by the time they’re two years old.

The UC Berkeley study, headed up by Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy, found that four-fifths of Mexican American toddlers in the United States fall three to five months behind white children in pre-literacy skills, oral language, and familiarity with print materials.

It’s not for lack of warmth and emotional support at home—Latino and white children experience equally emotionally supportive home environments. However, Latino children don’t seem to get the same level of language and cognitive challenges. They’re less likely to be read to on a daily basis or given as much praise and encouragement in pre-literacy skills. For example, the study found that 18% of Mexican American mothers who speak Spanish at home read to their children daily, while 59% of white mothers speaking English do. Interestingly, Mexican American mothers who speak English at home had a slightly higher rate of reading to their children—28%.

Other evidence of pre-literacy support, such as asking questions, limiting television, and allowing children to express their feelings and show off their skills, are more likely to occur in white homes as opposed to Latino homes.

Some of these results could be caused by cultural differences. Latino families generally believe that children should wait until kindergarten to be taught to read, when respected teachers can handle the task. In white families, parents are often teaching their children to read as early as two years old, according to a UCLA study. And far more white children (70%) attend preschool than Latino children (less than half).

The study tracked 4,550 children from birth to 30 months.

“The good news is that we know what works,” said Fuller. “The question is, how do we get Mom and Dad to understand the need to nurture stronger language skills by age 1 and 2 and that parents play a large role in that development?”

Fuller also suggests that more funding is needed for preschool, since “the disparities open up far sooner” than originally thought.




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