While all preschoolers could be considered language learners because of their developing oral language and vocabulary skills, young children who speak a language other than English at home and who are not fully fluent in English are considered dual language learners or DLLs. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that by the 2030s, children whose home language is other than English will increase from approximately 22% to 40% of the school-age population, with the numbers growing even more rapidly for the preschool years due to increasing immigration and birth rates.
Helping Dual Language Learners in Early Childhood
Educating young DLLs means thoughtfully considering the connections between language, culture, and learning in the preschool classroom. Recent studies suggest that supporting the home language during the preschool years facilitates long term attainment of English. In addition, research reveals that the academic advantage goes to children who have age-appropriate proficiency in both their native language and English, or balanced bilingualism. This level of bilingual proficiency is positively correlated with strong literacy skills, as well as the ability to reason and learn new concepts. Recent research also shows that DLLs consistently outperform monolingual children on tasks that require focused attention, behavior control, planning, and working memory skills.
The preschool years are a critical time for developing the sounds, structure, and functions of language, and therefore an ideal time to expose children to the benefits of two languages. Below are four best practices for educators who want to respect the strengths and support the needs of young DLLs.
Practice 1: Create a language rich environment
A language rich learning environment is rich in all types of language – spoken, heard, read, and written.
- Emphasize oral language development with multiple methods: parallel talk, self-talk, repetition, and peer and teacher modeling.
- Keep directions and other language short and simple.
- Use classroom labels in multiple languages to encourage familiarity with print in the classroom.
- Encourage children to transfer their new English language skills back into their home environment.
Practice 2: Facilitate active participation
Dual language learners may require extra support, modifications, and encouragement to participate fully in the early childhood classroom. It’s also important to remember that they will acquire English at varying rates.
- Allow nonverbal responses and thumbs up/thumbs down or yes/no routines so that children can communicate their understanding without having to speak.
- Have fun with hand puppets and interactive games to illustrate concepts and actions. Try bilingual felt sets with classic nursery rhymes!
- Play music or tell stories with repetitive and predictable language.
- Incorporate visual aids, hand gestures, and sentence starters into instruction to help children participate and respond.
Practice 3: Expand vocabulary
Helping DLLs improve and expand their English vocabulary is an important objective necessary to narrow the achievement gap as children progress through school.
- Teach vocabulary by defining, gesturing, using synonyms, and pointing to illustrations.
- Take every opportunity to teach new words, practice new words, and regularly review new words.
- Explain vocabulary in context, such as during story reading or small-group math lessons.
- Read high-quality bilingual books to engage both DLLs and native speakers.
Practice 4: Implement predictable routines
Classroom routines help young learners understand how to respond and behave appropriately in various classroom situations, whether lining up to go outside or cleaning up after free play. Routines are particularly valuable for preschool DLLS who are new to both school and the English language.
- Implement routines known to benefit DLLs, such as daily schedule, morning message, question of the day, and going home routines.
- Arrange the classroom furniture and materials to support each type of instructional activity.
- Keep changes in the physical environment to a minimum to help children learn what happens where and when in the classroom (e.g. circle time and learning centers.)
- Support social-emotional skills with bilingual posters and resources.
Do you have DLLs in your early childhood classroom? We’d love to hear your creative ideas for communicating, teaching, and helping these children reach their fullest potential. Share with us in the Comments section below or on the Really Good Teachers Forums!