FRIDAY, Oct. 28 (HealthDay News) -- Preschool students with poor language skills show much greater improvement if they're placed in a classroom with higher-achieving children, compared to being in a class with other low-achievers, researchers say.

The findings are important because many preschool programs in the United States are targeted to poor children, whose development of language skills may be lagging, according to lead author Laura Justice, a professor at Ohio State University's School of Teaching and Learning.

"The way preschool works in the United States, we tend to cluster kids who have relatively low language skills in the same classrooms, and that is not good for their language development," she said in a university news release. "We need to pay more attention to the composition of preschool classrooms."

She and her colleagues looked at 338 children in 49 preschool classrooms and found that, among children with low initial language skills, those who were placed in the lowest-ability classes tended to lose ground during the school year, while those placed in average-ability classes tended to improve their language skills.

The researchers also found that high-ability students improved their language scores when placed in either low- or average-ability classes.

"Children with high language abilities don't seem to be affected by the other kids in their class," Justice said.

The findings, published in the Oct. 25 online edition of the journal Child Development, don't explain how preschoolers' language skills are affected by peers. Either direct interactions between children or teacher expectations for their students may play a role, the authors suggested.

But Justice said one thing is certain from this study -- dividing preschoolers into low- and high-achievement classrooms may be shortchanging those who most need help.

"If we really want to help lift kids out of poverty, and use preschool as a way to make that happen, we need to reconsider how we provide that education," Justice said. "Classrooms that blend students from different backgrounds are the best way to provide the boost that poor students need."

More information

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association outlines typical speech and language development in children.