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For English-Learners, Seeing Peers 'Struggle and Persist' Is Beneficial

How quickly English-language learners pick up the language may depend more on the climate in their classroom than on individual grit, new research finds.

The research, published in School Psychology Quarterly, questions the effects of grit, one's perseverance towards goals, among younger students, specifically first-and second-generation English-learners.

Led by Colleen O'Neal, an assistant professor in the University of Maryland's College of Education, the study found that the grit of a student's peers was twice as influential as individual grit in predicting literacy growth over a four-month period.

Student data was collected at three times over four months.

At the start of the study, students completed an eight-question survey to measure grit and reading performance tasks to gauge English proficiency. The students then repeated the process twice more to measure progress on literacy achievement. The research team calculated peer grit scores by using the average of the the class grit scores.

O'Neal says her work is the first to examine the relationship between grit and literacy achievement among non-white students—and the competing role of peer grit, in comparison to individual grit, in predicting achievement.

"It speaks to what can be done in the classroom around peer learning, just seeing your peers struggle and persist and do well," O'Neal said. "This study sheds light on the importance of the classroom social environment for a dual-language-learning student. That could be powerful."

Boosting literacy for English-learners is a growing concern in the nation's K-12 schools. The latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that reading proficiency for Latino, millions of whom are current or former English-learners, lags behind that of their white peers.

The study's 142 participants—mostly Spanish-speaking Latinos­—were 3rd-5th grade students from a Title I suburban elementary school, with 95 percent of students receiving free or reduced price meals.

Since almost all the participants had "strikingly low" literacy levels, O'Neal cautioned that the research did not take into account the wide variation of academic English skills among English-learners. O'Neal also suggests a larger sample would have allowed for a more complex model that includes control factors such as socioeconomic status and parent literacy levels.

Here's a link to the journal article and O'Neal's other recent work.

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