A $1.4 million U.S. Department of Education grant will support a University of Maryland-led study examining whether learning in two languages could have broad developmental and educational benefits.

The award from the Institute of Education Sciences, a research, evaluation and statistics agency of the department, will help College of Education researchers assess whether dual-language immersion (DLI) programs, which are skyrocketing in popularity, improve elementary students’ executive functioning and language skills, as well as reading comprehension.

Researchers will seek to determine the cognitive and language effects of developing bilingualism in immersion settings both for children who are English native speakers and children who speak another language at home, said Associate Professor Ana Taboada Barber of the Department of Counseling, Higher Education and Special Education, who is leading the study.

“Our focus is on those aspects of cognition that go beyond language and aren’t captured on standardized tests, particularly executive function skills, which govern things like the ability to control one’s attention or wait patiently,” she said.
 
Past research suggests bilingualism is particularly beneficial for children’s executive functioning, as learning a second language trains the brain to control attention and increases the ability to ignore irrelevant information, she said.

One goal of the current study, “Project CLIMB: Capturing Language Immersion Benefits,” is to home in on the extent of children’s bilingualism and how that affects their executive function and language skills.

The need for research on best practices for immersion programs and greater understanding of bilingualism stems from rising numbers of DLI programs and dual language learners. In public elementary schools in the District of Columbia, where CLIMB researchers will conduct studies at two schools, DLI programs have doubled in the past five years.

Students participating in the four-year study will carry out computerized tasks to assess their ability to control attention while ignoring a distracting stimuli—similar to what bilingual speakers do when processing in two languages. Researchers will examine the responses for differences between bilingual and monolingual children, as well as how the results change as students’ abilities become more balanced in both languages.
 
The research team, which also includes UMD Professor Gregory Hancock of the Department of Human Development and Quantitative Methodology and psychology Professor Kelly Cartwright of Christopher Newport University, will also examine the role of literacy instruction and how it shapes the degree of bilingualism and literacy over time.
 
“As part of this project, we want to develop a well-informed tool for guiding instructors and educators of teachers in dual-language immersion settings,” says Taboada Barber.