Houston—With an $ 11 million grant, the University of Houston will lead a program to develop research curriculum to help gauge the language and literacy development of Spanish-speaking school children.

The program, made possible through the grant by the National Institute of Child Health and Development, will allow academics and scientists to study the progression of verbal language and literacy-related proficiency for children kindergarten through third grade.

The program is expected to be carried out for five years by the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences. Organizers say they hope to also involve researchers from the College of Education.

Houston, Brownsville and Austin school districts and others in Southern California will provide data for the program.

David Francis, principal investigator of the overall grant and UH psychology professor, said understanding the factors that shape Spanish-speaking children’s development is the objective of the grant.

“Delineating the specific effects of these factors and how they modify the influence of one another requires systematic multidisciplinary research conducted in partnership with schools, families and communities,” Francis said.

He said he hopes the research will help frame questions regarding the role of language instruction and literacy development of Spanish-speaking children.

“Much of the public’s current focus on bilingual education oversimplifies the question of how children’s skills develop to one of simply asking, ‘Which approach to instruction works best?’ We think this focus is unduly shortsighted and not especially informative,” said Pam Frailey, specialist in English as a Second Language in Spring Branch Independent School District.

Frailey, who oversees the bilingual and ESL programs in Spring Banch, also said social language is developed before academic language.

“Early exposure to a language-rich environment, whether that be in Spanish or English, is the key,” she said. “Productive, fluent oral language, especially from birth, will help the child develop more proficient reading skill.”

Frailey, also the director of the Language Proficiency Assessment Committee, said if intervention starts in pre-kindergarten, academic language may not be in place until sixth or seventh grade.

“Children of semi-literate parents can eventually catch up with their English-speaking counterparts with language labs, tutors and parental involvement,” she said.

“We’re not taking away language,” Frailey said. “Rather, we’re maintaining Spanish by having bilingual programs while students acquire a second language.”

UT-Houston, UT-Austin, and California State University at Long Beach are also involved in the collaborative effort.

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