IMMIGRANT and refugee families improve their English language skills and maintain their first language when parents and kids learn together, according to University of British Columbia researchers.

The researchers studied outcomes of a bilingual family literacy program with 500 immigrant and refugee families of three to five-year-old preschool children in Metro Vancouver. The program, Parents as Literacy Supporters in Immigrant Communities (PALS), emphasized a learning-through-play philosophy, employed translators and cultural workers, and had parents participate alongside their children in the activities.

“Our findings lend support to intergenerational literacy learning,” said researcher Jim Anderson, a language and literacy education professor in UBC’s faculty of education. “The program’s bilingual materials helped the families alternate between their first language and English, especially when parents read to their children. Families indicated that this feature helped both parents and kids improve their English together.”

The participating families, most of whom were South Asian or Chinese, reported a greater understanding of language and literacy development in both language and of Western pedagogy. They also said the program helped confirm the value of maintaining their first language while simultaneously learning English.

“Research shows some immigrant and refugee families assume their first language will hinder their children’s ability to learn English,” said Anderson. “Our program helps dispel this myth.”

Anderson said bilingual language programs have only recently been a subject of scholarly inquiry. “Our multi-year, large scale study complements earlier work and enhances academic understanding of bilingual family literacy programs,” he said.

The research appears in “‘You Guys Should Offer the Program more Often!’: Some Perspectives from Working Alongside Immigrant and Refugee Families in a Bilingual Family Literacy Program” in the book Literacy in the Early Years: Reflections on International Research and Practice (2017).