Children of immigrants make more progress in Australia and Canada than in the UK or the US

Young children whose families immigrate to Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States are as prepared and capable of starting school as their native-born counterparts, with one exception: vocabulary and language development.

But the resulting disadvantages in reading skills are overcome to a much greater degree as they progress through school in Australia and Canada than they are in the United Kingdom and the United States.

This is the major message of a study I wrote with my colleagues Elizabeth Washbrook of the University of Bristol, Jane Waldfogel of Columbia University, and the London School of Economics and Political Science, Bruce Bradbury of the University of New South Wales, and a former student at the University of Ottawa, Ali Ghanghro.

In the press release accompanying the publication Professor Washbrook was quoted as saying:

The differences between immigrant families according to their home language are more striking than the differences across the four countries, with children of immigrants doing worse than their counterparts with native-born parents on vocabulary tests, particularly if a language other than the official language is spoken at home. But these second-generation immigrants are not generally disadvantaged in nonverbal cognitive domains, nor are there notable behavioural differences, which suggests that the cross-country differences in cognitive outcomes during the teen years documented in the existing literature are much less evident during the early years.

Specifically, the children studied did as well in the areas of hyperactive and antisocial behaviours, aggressive behaviour and nonverbal skills as their counterparts who had native-born parents. This suggests that, with the exception of language, children from immigrant families receive, on average, a start in life that is similar to that of other children.

This finding contrasts with research on older second-generation immigrants, which has shown, for example, that second-generation teens in Canada and Australia perform as well as or even better than teens of native-born parents in reading, math and science tests, while second-generation teens in the United Kingdom and the United States tend to perform worse in these areas than their peers who have native-born parents.

The schooling system does not serve these children as well in the UK and the US as it does in Australia and Canada.

The research paper is called: “The development of young children of immigrants in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States.” It was published in the September/October 2012 issue of the scientific journal Child Development, in a special section on the children of immigrants.


9 thoughts on “Children of immigrants make more progress in Australia and Canada than in the UK or the US

  1. I guess I could read the paper (and I will), but my immediate question is whether you controlled for level of parent’s education when comparing countries? In other words, does a different socio-economic composition of immigrant cohorts for each country perhaps explain some of the differences in progress?

  2. Good read, Prof Corak. This is closely linked with my MRP topic! I was wondering, however, if you have made comparisons not only between children of native-born and immigrant parents, but also between children of different generations from those same parents. For example, have you compared success rates for children born in Canada (2nd gen), who immigrated to Canada at a very young age (gen 1.5), and who immigrated at a later age (1st gen), so as to see whether there are discrepancies in those cases as well.


    1. Thank you for your kind words Hana.

      If you are interested in more research on immigration, and particularly 2nd generation Canadians, go to the “My research” tab on the right hand panel of the blog and click on “Immigration in the long run”. This offers an accessible summary of some work my co-authors and I have done on the adult attainments of Canadians whose parents were not born in the country. It was published by the Institute for Research on Public Policy, and has references to more detailed studies we also published.

      I am afraid that we do not address the groups you are interested in. One source to check on this topic might be Monica Boyd of the University of Toronto. I seem to remember that she did some work on other groups, but I don’t recall the details. I have also done work on child migrants, that is also listed in the My research tab — but this is for the United States.

      I hope this helps, best Miles.

  3. Hi Miles,
    What are the differences among the education systems of the four countries that lead/contribute to the different outcomes?

    Are there any government policies or spending levels on education that differ across these nations?



    1. Budi … I think this is exactly the right question to be asking. I don’t know the details well enough to give an informed answer. Perhaps other readers can offer their insights. But I am involved in a research project that will try to document how child outcomes vary as they progress through school in these countries, and this is going to require our research group to become much more familiar with the nature of the educations systems. best, Miles

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