University of Calgary

Immigrant children

Nov. 20, 2008

Immigrant children lack important vocabulary

Hetty Roessingh and student.

Hetty Roessingh and student.

Immigrant children face significant but unrecognized challenges in their educational journey because they lack an extensive range of vocabulary—as compared to native English speaking children. Hetty Roessingh in the Faculty of Education received $50,000 in grants to continue her research in this area.


Unless they receive special support to build their vocabularies, young immigrant English language learners (ELLs) will forever “chase a moving target,” says one Faculty of Education expert.

That “moving target” is the ability to perform well at school and eventually excel at university, says Hetty Roessingh, who just got word she’s received over $50,000 in combined grants from TELUS and the Alberta Centre for Child, Family and Community Research (ACCFCR) to continue her research.

In her study of early language and literacy development among young immigrant children and the Canadian-born children of immigrants, she notes these children face significant but often unrecognized challenges as they begin their educational journey.

“In fact, Alberta Education indicates that younger arriving immigrant children perform less well academically than do older arriving immigrant children. Further, Canadian-born children of immigrants fare even worse in these tests, despite promising results in Grade 3 tests in literacy development.”

So what happens to these young learners? Roessingh’s research indicates that most lack the comparatively extensive range of vocabulary used by native English speaking children.

“The research shows that by age 5 or 6, most native English speaking children have a vocabulary of around 5,000 words. ELL children have significantly fewer English words.

“Over time, the vocabulary gap widens, reflecting as much as a two-year discrepancy by Grade 6. This has serious implications for reading comprehension.”

In 2008, Roessingh led a group of four education graduate students in her successful Family Treasures project (see http://www.members.shaw.ca/norgaards/ ), which asked the children to bring to the classroom treasured family and cultural artifacts. 

“Together, we created dual language books and a website based on these artifacts, and finally a book launch party when the children displayed their books to their parents on a SMART board.

“By devising a balanced approached to early literacy curriculum, educators can encourage these young students to acquire basic literacy concepts and develop their vocabulary at the same time.”

For more information about the Family Treasures project, contact Hetty Roessingh at hroessin@ucalgary.ca.