Supporting dual language learning in early education

Supporting dual language learning in early education
By Sandra Espinel and Stephanie Simmons
Nov 21, 2019
As an Early Care and Education workforce, Head Start staff should use effective teaching practices that encourage development, learning, and achievement of dual language learners.

The Head Start program ensures young children and their families receive top-quality services—no matter where they live or what language they speak at home. As an Early Care and Education workforce, how do you provide services to culturally diverse populations that will enhance school readiness for dual language learners?

While most Head Start dual language learners speak Spanish at home, more than 140 languages were spoken by Head Start children and their families from 2016-2017. Many Head Start staff and teachers will work with dual language learners during their careers. The question of how Head Start can best serve children who speak languages other than English is one that practitioners need to address clearly and discuss openly.

Teachers face several challenges in assisting young children in developing English language proficiency, while also preserving and maintaining their use of their home language. All staff and teachers should be encouraged to use effective teaching practices that promote development, learning, and achievement of dual language learners. Here are some tools and techniques that can help you achieve this goal:

Seek opportunities for supportive family engagement during the program year

Teachers should utilize older students, parents, and volunteers to assist in supportive opportunities in the classroom. Creating classroom environments that represent the child’s language and culture is helpful in learning about the child and their familial experiences. Head Start administrators should encourage community support and the recruitment of family members to volunteer in the classroom.

Providing supportive cultural and language services for dual language learners will allow teachers more time to learn and engage with individuals and small group early learning language experiences. It can also assist programs by introducing culturally appropriate learning materials that offer authentic and respectful representation of other cultures.

Utilize supportive strategies to assist in the continued maintenance of all languages

Most teachers cannot teach in all languages, but it’s important for some Early Care and Education staff to be proficient in the languages of the children they serve. However, this should not come at the expense preserving the child’s home language and culture. Although, some dual language learner families would prefer an English-only approach to education, research has shown that the loss of proficiency in a child’s home language correlates to the loss of connection with family values and cultural norms.

There are supportive strategies that teachers who only speak one language can employ to assist dual language learners. Head Start’s Planned Language Approach (PLA): Big 5 for ALL provides comprehensive, strategic, and research-based methods to systematically implement high-quality language and literacy practices for all children—those who are dual language learners and those who are English-only. 

Measure the full and effective participation of dual language learners and their families

Early Care and Education professionals should regularly assess their consistency in providing systematic support to dual language learners. Head Start program and delivery systems should provide a positive, sustainable, culturally and linguistically responsive early education environment for all children and their families.

The Dual Language Learners Program Assessment (DLLPA) is a tool designed to help strengthen and improve efforts to promote family engagement and school readiness for children who are dual language learners. The DLLPA provides data and information through assessment of program and delivery system practices. This tool benefits programs in identifying areas of need for all dual language learners. 

Ensure the respect for all children and families throughout Head Start programming

Head Start programs are most effective when their systems and services support the cultural diversity of enrolled families. Individual staff members must be able to demonstrate their respect for and response to the different cultures in their community and among their students. Recognizing that dual language learners need additional instructional enhancements, best practices for dual language learners remain similar to best practices for native English-speakers—because high quality instruction is important for all children. By paying increased attention to dual language learners’ familial and cultural backgrounds, educators can help them develop proficiency in both English and their home language.

Go to ICF
Meet the authors
  1. Sandra Espinel, Grantee Specialist, Early Education
  2. Stephanie Simmons, Specialist, Early Childhood

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