Although the research literature supports the notion of language growth trajectories, primarily in monolingual English children, the shape and direction of English-language learners’ (ELLs) language growth trajectories are largely unknown. The present study examined the shape of ELLs’ language growth trajectories by estimating the initial status and the growth rates of specific oral language skills (mean length of utterance in words (MLUw), number of different words (NDW), and words per minute (WPM)) in each language during the first 3 years of formal schooling. This study was framed from the perspective of language as a dynamic system, composed of linguistic subsystems that change over time.
This study utilized secondary data from a larger project, the Bilingual Language Literacy Project (BLLP), which collected narrative retell language samples produced in Spanish and English from ELL children. The final longitudinal dataset used in this study consisted of 12,248 oral narrative language samples (6,516 Spanish; 5,732 English) that were produced by 1,723 ELLs. This study examined the effect of three predictors on language growth: academic semester (metric of time), gender, and schooling. Growth curve model (GCM) testing was used to profile the longitudinal growth of the ELLs’ oral language skills in Spanish and English over time.
This study had a number of important findings regarding change over time, intra- and inter-individual variability, and the impact of initial status on growth. With regard to change over time: MLUw, NDW, and WPM demonstrated growth over time in Spanish and English; the shapes of Spanish (curvilinear, non-monotonic, and continuous) and English growth (linear, non-monotonic, and discontinuous) were similar within-language; language growth in Spanish was predicted by academic semester and gender; and language growth in English was predicted by academic semester, gender, and schooling.
With regard to intra- and inter-individual variability: significant intra-individual differences in the growth of all the oral language measures, across each wave of measurement, were found for both languages; significant intra-individual differences in the initial status of participants for all the oral language measures were found for both languages; significant inter-individual differences in the growth rates were found for WPM-Spanish; and significant inter-individual differences in the growth rates were found for all the oral language measures in English.
With regard to the impact of initial status on growth: the growth of MLUw- Spanish was systematically related to initial status (lower performers at initial status may not catch up to higher performers); the growth of NDW- and WPM-Spanish were unrelated to its initial status (lower performers at initial status may, or may not catch up to higher performers); and the growth of MLUw-, NDW-, and WPM-English was systematically related to initial status (lower performers at initial status may catch up to higher performers).
With regard to the co-development of interconnected subsystems, qualitative observations (non-empirically tested) based on visual inspection and GCM estimates provided initial insight into the possible co-development occurring within- and across-languages.
The present study broke new ground by specifying the shape of growth for MLUw, NDW, and WPM in the Spanish and English of ELLs during their first 3 years of formal schooling. The study had a number of methodological limitations that will guide and motivate future work on the language growth of ELLs.