“Rules for Teaching English/Dual Language Learners in Preschool?? A Conversation Starter

“Rules” for Teaching English/Dual Language Learners in Preschool?? A Conversation Starter

by Karen Nemeth

People are often asking me to just tell them the “rules” for teaching dual language learners in preschool.  They seem disappointed when I answer, “It depends!”.   Whether you say English language learners (ELLs) or dual language learners (DLLs), they are all children who come from families that speak languages other than English.  There’s no one recipe for success – it depends on the mix of children you have, the skills of your staff, the format of your curriculum, and the resources available to you.  But, there are some principles that can function as rules – so I am sharing my views here.  This is not meant to be a definitive guide – it is meant to be a starting point to get people talking.  Please share your thoughts and suggestions via comments to the blog or email to me at info@languagecastle.net.  Let’s get this conversation started!

#1 First, and above all, preschool needs to be high quality.  This includes small class sizes, well-prepared teacher, comprehensive curriculum that is developmentally appropriate, and well-stocked classroom.  A low quality program that happens to have a bilingual teacher is still a low quality program.

#2  Well prepared teachers make a difference in child outcomes.  DLLs- and all children –  need teachers who provide rich, engaging, stimulating, individualized and challenging language experiences, and who understand the value of  connected, nurturing teacher-child interactions. If given the choice between a really great teacher that does not speak my child’s language or a teacher who is not well prepared or not motivated to connect with young children but does speak our language, I’d choose the former.  The great teacher can learn my child’s language and help parents extend learning at home.

#3  Every child must be read to at least once a day in English and at least once a day in their home language.  Somehow.  I think this is more important than two-step table sanitization or learning how to stand in line.

#4  If  you have bilingual staff, they should provide a flexible balance of home language and English every day, depending on the set-up of the program and the needs of the children.  I believe any range of 90% home language/ 10% English to a 50/50 split would be best.  Less than 50% home language is not ideal, but some is better than none.  There is no research evidence that more time spent on English in preschool will result in better academic outcomes.

#5  Children in dual language programs should not go an entire day without having a chance to practice and chat in their home language.  There is no research basis for prohibiting young children from using their home language on any given day.  Preschool is not just a language factory – it should be a wonderful, supportive, responsive, nurturing place that happens to support language and literacy development.

#6  All the languages of the classroom must have equal status.  There should be no first class and second class when it comes to languages.  If the teacher speaks one language and the assistant speaks another, they should both use their languages for fun, for learning, and for practical needs equally.  We don’t want to see one language used as the teaching language and the other as the ‘behavior management’ or ‘toileting’ language!

#7 Volunteers that speak the languages in your classrooms can be a big help – but it is important to provide them with training so they can be effective language models and conversationalists with young children.

#8  If a teacher encounters a child that speaks a language he or she does not, the teacher must learn at least a few words in that language, provide plenty of books and supplies that match the languages and cultures of the children, and he or she must develop their skills for nonverbal communications to augment their oral language interactions with the child.

#9  Address all language policy and planning based on the understanding that children need more than four years to become fully, academically fluent in their second language.  This means they need to continue learning their home language and learning in their home language in order to build on prior learning and concept development throughout the preschool years.

#10  When parents resist home language instruction, help them understand that you share their desire to prepare their child for success in English – and the best way to make that happen is to support the home language in the early years.  Not only is this key to later school success, but is also critical to strengthening that all-important family bond.

#11  All preschool teachers need to understand how language develops. With a better understanding of how the brain processes language, teachers will not make the mistake of trying to give language lessons to preschool children.  For children under the age of six, teachers should not be teaching language – they should be teaching children.  Especially in the early years, language and vocabulary must not, and can not, be separated from meaning, function and concept learning.

#12  There’s a good reason why experts advise using as many real, authentic, recognizable items as possible when teaching young DLLs.  You can teach sorting with socks just as well as you can with plastic shapes, but the socks build on prior knowledge, evoke conversation, build real functional vocabulary, stimulate learning that is generalizable, and provide experiences the child can duplicate at home.  That’s a lot to gain from socks! Added bonus – when you use materials in school that parents have at home, more likely they will feel more in touch with what their child is learning at school and can do it at home too.

#13  Now, more than ever, teachers need to plan for extended projects or true themes that extend over several or many days.  Choppy, piecemeal programs are not best for any child, and even worse for dual language learners.  For children who are trying to make sense out of a new language while continuing to learn in their home language, this becomes a crucial issue. Children need time, repetition, and practice in a variety of contexts to fine-tune their concept and vocabulary learning.

Rule #14  Go back and read rules 1 – 13.  If you find anything in any one of those rules that is not good for children in a monolingual program, I welcome you to bring it to my attention.  For me, rule #14 is the conclusion:  any strategy that works well for young children who are dual language learners is also a strategy that will support the very best in preschool teaching practices, anywhere, with any language.


  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by judie Haynes and karen nemeth, karen nemeth. karen nemeth said: My new blog: Rules for Teaching #ELLs or #DLLs in #Preschool. Do you agree? http://bit.ly/90sZpt #ece #naeycINST #bilingual #esl […]

  • Cassy says:

    This is an excellent guide! I will forward it to my PreK and K colleagues who are making an honest effort at providing a quality DL program, despite administrative “interference”. The quality of our programs are often hindered by administrative directives. Perhaps a point to add to a guide such as this would be to help educate administrators and other school staff as to the goals and strategies of Dual Language programs.

  • GREAT LIST!!!! I will be sure to post on my FACEBOOK Learning and Laughter and Signing Families fan pages…..

    Love your info- always!

  • Thank you for writing this document. We need to have this discussion today in education. Ever since I met you at NJTESOL this year, “developmentally appropriate” has become my mantra. At this time, I am not working with the Pre-K, population, but I experience inappropriate administrative directives on all elementary grade levels, ELL and non- ELL. Many days, I come home baffled over the contrived nature of lessons. I particually like Rule #12, real, authentic lesson planning. I am not convinced placing a sticky note in a book with a question is an authentic learning experience, for any child, or for anyone. Thanks again for your insight.

  • Amy Ahola says:


    I think this is an excellent list, and so much of what you have to say is true not only of dual language learners, but of all children. The region in which I live does not have a lot of diverse families, and encountering dual language learners is quite uncommon. (Although, our home is a bilingual home.) I love the emphasis on teaching children not language, and could not agree more with the need for time to explore and repeat activity. Some of our themes run for as long as a month at at time, as the children need the opportunity to not only become engaged but to help drive and expand upon the concepts, revist ideas, and apply them to a variety of different contexts. Thanks for sharing!

  • Linda Hahner says:


    This is a very well-thought-out and well-reasoned list. I will share it with teachers and parents on our Facebook page.

    Thank you for all you do to help small children learn in more than one language!

    Best wishes,

    Linda Hahner

  • BJ Franks says:

    These guidelines are great and should be mandatory :). I totally agree with Cassy about informing administrators. If they are not on board, it is often difficult to effect change. I also totally agree with #10. Involving and educating parents at this stage is crucial. Parents also need to understand how language is developed and how important it is for them to continue to develop the first language. I am hearing more and more about students who enter preK at age 3 and are encouraged to “learn English”; they test out of ESL/bilingual classes in kindergarten and then struggle in literacy in first and second grades. Administrators need to monitor this “pattern” and make necessary adjustments. I truly believe students in PreK programs may generally be dismissed too soon from language support programs.

  • Leslie Santa says:

    I am proud to say that our program follows these rules and we are exceptional! Our early childhood center has a large amount of Spanish speaking children. We have skilled, motivated, and creative teachers/paraprofessionals in every class that speak English and Spanish. The children are exposed to both languages as they work through their daily schedules. Our public school has 27 classrooms of 3’s, 4’s, multi-aged, and dual language, all of which implement ELL strategies on a daily basis. Our preschool friendly environment, classroom materials and teaching resources, developmentally appropriate activities, and our professionally trained staff make our preschool program a high quality program. Thank you for this information and I will be sure to pass it along to our teachers/paraprofessionals.

  • Miriam Lopez says:

    You are right on target again, in my opinion. Thank you for being such an avid spokesperson for our children! The only things I would add are that I feel it would be helpful that each language, for the most part, be represented by a consistant model. And, instead of back and forth translation, chunks of time for each language may work better. Further, as for environmental print in the classroom, each language should be consistantly represented in a particular color and simple font.

  • This is very well thought out, and I would say that much of this can also be applied to additional grades other than kindergarten. Thank you!!

  • Thanks for this post. At first some people may cringe at the word “rule”, worrying that it could be too constraining. But years of research have found and established successful methods for second (or third of fourth) language acquisition so there is no reason not to formalize them.

    We have to use that information and the data from our own programs to the best of our abilities and create dependable proven systems. Sometimes I forget that other teachers and administrators don’t have the same knowledge base as bilingual/ELL teachers.

    A friend in Florida is now completing his second class concerning ELLs in education and he teaches elementary art. Perhaps we will see this in NJ in the future.

    *Side note* Considering all of this I must say that it is quite disappointing that there are not more formal dual-language programs within public schools in NJ. For a state with such linguistic diversity, it seems the programs are very rare.

  • anna says:

    Nice list! I will use refer to it from time to time!

  • Delia T says:

    Your list is so useful for all of us in the education arena, it must be shared with everyone to improve the already existing DL preschool programs and to create new ones. Thanks for putting all the important points in one list.

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