The compensating effect of preschool attendance


From primary through secondary school, immigrant children obtain worse results in school than native children. Their lower performance may be due to the fact that they come from families with fewer financial and educational resources, and that they have less knowledge of the language of the receiving country and its education system. Attending preschool has been found to reduce performance differences in school between children from disadvantaged and advantaged families. This article looks at whether preschool participation has a positive effect on reading skills in primary and secondary school and whether it has helped to reduce the reading gap found among immigrant children in Spain, Norway and Sweden.

The findings indicate that both native and immigrant children benefit from preschool attendance in all three countries; the benefit to immigrants is however greater in Norway and Sweden than in Spain. Two conclusions can be drawn: First, given that a lower proportion of  children of immigrant background participate in preschool, states should encourage their attendance to reduce their reading disadvantages. Secondly, as immigrant children in particular seem to benefit from lower child-staff ratios and longer weekly preschool attendance, Spain might further reduce social inequalities by improving these aspects of preschool education.

1. Reading skills and preschool: a close relationship

In this article we examine the effect of attending preschool on children's reading skills in primary and secondary school and, specifically, on immigrant children (i.e. children with at least one parent born outside the country). In addition, in order to assess whether the beneficial effect of preschool attendance varies across different preschool systems, we compare Spain with two countries considered to have excellent preschool systems, namely Norway and Sweden.

The issue of the beneficial effect of preschool attendance on reading skills is of particular importance, as reading skills are a basic prerequisite for educational and labour market success. Increasing students' reading skills contributes both to individual and national well-being (Rindermann and Ceci 2009). Moreover, reducing differences in skills between native and immigrant children can help to reduce social inequalities within countries and facilitate immigrants’ integration in society (Magnuson et al., 2006).

Thus, if preschool attendance has beneficial effects on reading skills, particularly for immigrant children, expanding attendance can help in achieving those goals. In addition, if the benefits of preschool vary with different preschool systems, improving certain characteristics of a country's preschool system might further contribute to both the overall well-being of society and to that of its immigrant population.

Two international assessment tests of students' knowledge are used to examine these issues: the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Data from these tests provide comparative information about the reading skills of children in primary school at around age 10 (PIRLS) and in secondary school at around age 15 (PISA); moreover, they offer retrospective information on preschool attendance. 

2. The lower reading competency of immigrant children

Particularly since the first PISA evaluation in 2000, the question of why immigrant children have lower reading skills than native children has attracted a lot of interest among policy-makers and in research. Immigrant children already perform worse than native children in primary school, and these disadvantages grow during secondary school. However, while this is true for the overall immigrant population, there are differences by country of origin.

Graph 1 shows the reading skills of students of immigrant and native origin in primary and secondary school in Spain, Sweden and Norway. In primary school (left panel), immigrant children in Spain score 13 test points lower than native students, which is equivalent to approximately 4 months of schooling (the progress made in one school year amounts to approximately 40 test score points; see Strietholt, Rosen and Bos, 2012; OECD 2014). In Sweden and Norway, differences in reading skills between native and immigrant pupils are even higher, with immigrant children lagging around 5 months behind.

This disadvantage increases in secondary school (right panel), where reading skills of immigrant children are about 8 months of schooling behind in Spain and 9 in Sweden. Immigrants in Norway face the lowest disadvantage, which however still amounts to 21 test points or approximately 6 months of schooling.

Immigrant students' disadvantages are often considered to be the result of coming from families with fewer financial and educational resources. Parents in such families tend to have less knowledge about the education system and may not speak the language of the receiving country well. Also related is the fact that immigrant children often speak the language of their origin at home; this affects their acquisition of the language of their new country of residence (Magnuson et al., 2006).

Children who attend preschool achieve higher reading test scores in primary and secondary school

In preschool, immigrant children enter into contact with native children and children from different socioeconomic backgrounds as well as teaching professionals.  In general investments in children’s development – such as preschool attendance – have the potential to increase their cognitive skills over the length of their lives (Heckman 2006) and could compensate for or at least partially reduce an initial worse starting position.

However, despite the positive impact of preschool attendance on immigrant children's reading skills, they have, until now, been less likely to attend preschool than native children (Vesely and Ginsberg, 2011).

In addition, not all preschool education is of the same quality: the benefit for children from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds is higher in countries with high quality preschools (Esping-Andersen et al., 2012) and longer preschool days (Zvoch, Reynolds and Parker, 2008). 

3. Preschool education in Spain, Norway and Sweden

Preschool systems can be divided into two stages:  the first for children aged 0 to 3 years of age and the second for children from 3 to 6 years of age. Their characteristics vary according to factors such as the number of children per classroom, teachers' qualifications and the weekly hours of attendance.

A lower proportion of children attend preschool in the first cycle (from 0 to 3 years of age) in Spain and Norway than in Sweden: 52% in Sweden in comparison  to 39%  in Spain and 34% in Norway (table 1).  In addition, the weekly hours of attendance are shorter in Spain, with only 36% of children in the first cycle attending preschool for 30 or more weekly hours, compared to 67% in Norway and 58% in Sweden. Regarding student-teacher ratio, Spain (with 16 children per teacher) lags far behind Norway (8 children) and Sweden (5-6 children). In Sweden, teachers with tertiary education (a university degree) predominate; in Spain and Norway, the educational qualifications of the teaching staff vary more, with teachers holding both university and non-university qualifications.

In the second cycle of preschool education for children aged 3 to compulsory school age, all three countries have high attendance, approximately 90% in Spain and Sweden and 80% in Norway. The percentage of preschool children in this age group attending preschool 30 or more hours per week is again lower in Spain, 43% in comparison with the two Nordic countries, both with more than 60%. Similar to the first cycle of preschool education, Spain has a much higher child-teacher ratio (above 20 children per teacher) than Norway and Sweden.

Although native children score higher on reading tests than immigrant children, the benefits of preschool are greater for immigrant children

Finally, it should be noted that special language programmes for children who do not speak the native language at home exist in all three countries in both cycles of preschool when there are a notably high number of children of immigrant origin in the classroom. Furthermore, in Norway and Sweden, the option of employing support teachers also exists.

Altogether, Spain’s preschool system lags behind those of Norway and Sweden because of shorter weekly hours of attendance and a higher child-teacher ratio. 

4. Reading comprehension in primary and secondary school

Do the gains from preschool attendance vary among the three countries, given the differences in their preschool systems? An answer to this question is provided by examining the reading test scores of primary and secondary school children by preschool experience.

Immigrant children in all three countries are less likely to participate in early preschool: in Spain 63% of native children but only 53% of immigrant children attend the first cycle of preschool, while in Norway and Sweden 65% of native children do so and 58% of immigrant children in Norway and 54% in Sweden. Regarding preschool attendance during the second cycle (for children aged 3 to compulsory school age), Spain reveals the most pronounced differences among native and immigrant children (89% of natives and only 74% of immigrants have attended preschool). In Norway and Sweden attendance rates for native children are 89% and 75%, respectively, while they are 79% and 65% for immigrant children.

Apart from preschool attendance and being of native or immigrant origin, another important factor in explaining reading skills in primary and secondary school is family socioeconomic background. However, this factor is also related to preschool attendance: Children from more advantaged socioeconomic backgrounds are more likely to attend preschool than children from disadvantaged ones. For example, in Spain 73% of children with parents with high levels of education attend preschool for three years or longer, while only 48% of children with parents with low levels of education do so. In Norway and Sweden these same proportions are, respectively, 75% and 72% for children with parents with high levels of education, and only 33% and 38% for children with parents with low levels of education.


Higher quality preschool education, such as provided in Norway and Sweden, is more beneficial for immigrant children, above all in secondary school

As a consequence, the results obtained must be qualified, taking into account the socioeconomic background of families, otherwise our results regarding the relationship between preschool attendance and reading skills would also partly reflect the influence of socioeconomic background on children's capacities.

Thus, the analysis considers the weight of other factors that are likely to shape reading skills, such as students’ age, gender, their grade in school,  characteristics related to their parents’ employment and pedagogical involvement, and whether they live with both parents. With multivariate analyses we can remove the influence of socioeconomic background and these other factors to see the ‘pure’ or net effect of preschool experience.

The left panel of graph 2 shows that children in Spain that attended preschool for three years or more scored 19 points higher on test scores in primary school than children without that experience, while  in Sweden and Norway their test scores were 18 points higher (corresponding to approximately 6 and 5 months in school). Hence, reading gains in primary school from attending preschool are quite similar in all three countries.

The right panel in the graph indicates that the difference in reading skills in secondary school between children who attended preschool for more than one year and those who did not is highest in Spain. There, the competence gain for one year or more of preschool attendance amounts to 36 points, which corresponds to the progress made in approximately 11 months of schooling. In Norway and Sweden, preschool participation raises test scores by 30 and 34 points, respectively.

In short, the results show that children in Spain also benefit from preschool attendance, although the preschool systems in Norway and Sweden have lower child-staff ratios and longer weekly hours of participation.

5. Reduction in reading disadvantages among immigrant children

Are the benefits of preschool education (as measured in improved reading comprehension) the same for all students, or are there differences between native and immigrant children? To answer this question, we look at the results of our analysis of reading skills of native and immigrant children in primary and secondary school for the three countries studied (graphs 3 and 4). The results, again, show the net effect after adjusting for the possible influence of other important  factors already mentioned related to the family sphere.

Graph 3 presents the average reading skills in primary school for native children and immigrant children, depending on whether they attended preschool for less or more than three years.  In all three countries, native children obtain better scores than immigrant children, regardless of the length of time spent in preschool. Attending preschool for three or more years visibly improves scores for both groups of children. However, we see that immigrant children benefit more from attending preschool than native children: In Spain, for example, the gain from preschool participation amounts to 26 test points for immigrant children, while it is 17 points for native children. Thus, preschool in Spain reduces the separation between the two groups from 19 points to only 9 points (approximately 3 months of schooling). In Norway and Sweden, attending preschool is even more beneficial for immigrant children, reducing the differences in test scores between native and immigrant children even more than in Spain.

The results for reading test score gains in secondary school (graph 4) for Spain are somewhat different: the benefit from having participated in preschool one year or longer is only slightly higher for immigrants than for native students; the difference of 4 test points corresponds to a  gain of only approximately 1 month of schooling. Although the average scores obtained by native students continue to be higher than those of immigrant students, among both those who attended preschool and those who did not, the gains obtained by immigrant students from attending preschool are greater than those obtained by native students.                                          

In turn, in both Norway and Sweden the gain from having participated in preschool for one year or more is notably greater for immigrant children  than native children: in Norway, the difference in the gain between native children and immigrant children is 29 test points (approximately 9 months of schooling), while in Sweden it is 18 points (approximately 5 months).

In short, in all three countries, longer preschool attendance reduces the disadvantages of immigrant children compared to native children. However, this pattern is more pronounced in the Nordic countries than in Spain, and this is true regarding reading skills in both primary and secondary school. Although the causes may be complex, the greater benefit obtained from preschool attendance among immigrant children in Norway and Sweden might be due to the lower child-teacher ratio, and the existence of complementary programmes specifically designed for immigrant children and which allow teachers to dedicate more time to each child and plan activities adequate to a student body with diverse characteristics.

Regarding the language deficits of children of immigrant background in particular, this greater dedication of time might influence reading performance in primary and secondary school. Longer weekly hours of preschool attendance may also have a similar impact, increasing the time immigrant children are exposed to a learning environment that offers them greater stimuli than they may receive at home.

6. Conclusions

Two main conclusions can be drawn from this article. First, the findings show that children who attend preschool achieve higher reading test scores in primary and secondary school than their peers who do not, and that, although native children score higher than immigrant children, the benefits of preschool are greater for immigrant children than for native children in all three countries examined.

As a lower proportion of immigrant children attend preschool than native children, expanding the preschool attendance of immigrant children might help to decrease the gap in reading skills between native and immigrant children found in primary and secondary school. Preschool attendance might therefore help immigrant children  improve their school performance and their language skills and, consequently, also improve their later integration into the labour market.

Secondly, immigrant children (compared to natives) seem to benefit more from preschool attendance in Norway and Sweden than in Spain. One possible reason for the lower gains of immigrant children compared to native children in Spain might be the shorter weekly hours of preschool attendance and the higher child-staff ratio. For children aged 3 to compulsory school age, one teacher cares for more than 20 children in Spain. Immigrant children may have a higher need for individual attention from the teacher or more time in a homogeneous and language-stimulating environment to compensate for disadvantages related to language acquisition and socioeconomic background. 


Johanna Dämmrich

European University Institute

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