“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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.