Advocacy for Preschool DLLs? Are you Serious??

by Karen Nemeth

No, really.  I’m asking you if you are serious about being an advocate for preschool DLLs.  Because getting serious means we have to go beyond occasional events and start weaving awareness of DLLs into everyday actions.  There’s a lot of  talk about preschool initiatives right now so what we do and say about young children who are growing up with multiple languages is critical right now! Here are some of the strategies I use.   Please feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments!

DLLs Advocacy

Karen Nemeth and Monica Schnee getting serious about advocacy at NJTESOL/NJBE conference

  1. Talk the data and quote the expert estimates that about 25% of preschool-aged children in the US come from homes where a language other than English is spoken (more than 30% of those enrolled in Head Starts).  In general, the percentage of young children who are DLLs is greater than the percentage of children that have special needs – so we should be paying at least as much funding and attention to ensuring success for DLLs, don’t you think?
  2. Know the languages in your area. It matters. Not all DLLs are alike.  Not all Hispanic families are alike. Not all Spanish is the same.  People from India don’t all speak “Indian”. It’s got to be about real, individual people and getting to know them and being able to tell their real, human stories.
  3. Use the definition of “DLL”.  Here’s what the Office of Head Start says.  Basically, when you are talking about children under the age of 5 years, they are considered DLLs whenever they are learning in more than one language, no matter how proficient they are in any of their languages. So, just because some children who speak another language at home appear to be able to communicate well in English, that’s no reason to ignore, slack off, or disrespect the valuable home language assets.
  4. Don’t just read blogs and articles online – comment on them.
    1. When this report on the big study by David Dickinson and Michelle Porshe appeared  it made a big statement about the importance of teacher-child conversations for long term literacy development.  But they said nothing about what teachers should do about this when ¼ of the kids in their class don’t speak the same language!  (I really don’t see how anyone can write with that level of obliviousness anymore – but that’s another bullet point.)  Solution?  Comment.  Don’t complain to your friends. Complain for all the world to see.
  5. Write.  Write DLLs into everything you write about young children.  Everything. This is important, because if a quarter of our children are DLLs, that means most preschool teachers, family child care providers, and home visitors in the United States are going to have to work with DLLs.  So any time you write strategies, best practices, guidance, tips, whatever….remember your readers are going to wonder how in the world they can use your advice with children who speak a different language. Shouldn’t you be thinking about that too?  Take a look at the tips I write to help readers adapt the strategies they read in Teaching Young Children magazine from NAEYC .
  6. Present.  When you are preparing your presentation, course or training, what are you going to say about DLLs?  If we really are talking about young DLLs as the fastest growing segment of our population that will appear in the classrooms of most preschool teachers, do we REALLY think we can get teachers ready by offering one workshop per conference, or setting up a special course? I mean REALLY?? If I were the boss of everything (which I am sometimes in my dreams) I would say that, instead of special workshops or courses about diversity, EVERY course, presentation, or training should include information about how to work effectively with children who speak different languages.  Who wants to help me get this message through to early childhood college professors everywhere?
  7. Tweet, Pin, Link, Whatever!  Just do social media with purpose.  Don’t just post links all over the place. That really changes nothing. To move change you’ve got to nudge, question, and make people think.  When you share a link to a report, include a question or comment like: ‘here’s a new report from the DOE – why no mention of different languages??’
  8. Recognize – I try to make sure that I thank any authors or presenters that DO mention DLLs.  I know it’s not always easy.
  9. Don’t accept the old –‘young children are such sponges, I’m sure they’ll be fine.’  The CECER-DLL report   made it clear we can no longer accept that approach.  Our new team slogan must be “High quality preschool is necessary BUT NOT SUFFICIENT for DLLs.” Seriously.

10. Target administrators. Seriously.  You can train teachers till the cows come home, but if their bosses don’t attend, don’t read, don’t agree… all that training is lost.

11. Coaches and mentors = MUST learn more about best practices for teaching DLLs. No more saying ‘that’s not my specialty’.  If you work in a program where almost every classroom has at least one child who is a DLL – it is your job to know. We’re counting on you!

12. Walk the walk.  Do a little bit to learn a new language every day. Listen to songs, play games with the children, listen to CDs in the car… whatever you can.

13. Consider your assessments – don’t just accept them.  No. we really really really do not have to do things because ‘that’s the way we always did that.”

14. Think about state and local partnerships.  WHY doesn’t your college’s ESL department ever speak to the Early Childhood Education department??? Who is on your state’s early childhood collaborative? Play nicely together!

How about this for an advocacy question:  Young DLLs are 25% of our population of preschool-aged children, so, if your program only meets the needs of the other 75%  of the children, then even the best program will never score better than 75%.  Is it really your goal as a teacher, a director, a professor, or a policymaker to aim for nothing more than a “C” average for our educational system?? Of course not.  If we want all of our children to be ready to succeed in Kindergarten – then we have to work harder to meet the needs of ALL of the children – not just the easy ones.  Seriously.


  • Susan Snyder says:

    Our Total Learning program for birth – nine year olds has been shown to be particularly effective for ELLs – not surprising since it is arts-based, hands-on, and targets oral language and vocabulary building. However, until I read this article, I wouldn’t have included a separate area addressing DLLs as we develop our on-line, blended professional development. Thank you for reminding me that I need to seriously include our expertise with DLLs throughout our site!

  • Bernadette Davidson says:

    At Boston’s Chinatown Neighborhood Center we are struggling with how to accurately measure dual language development. In my travels I found Cambridge is using the BELA assessment tool and has translated it into several languages and we are going to use this tool. The measures in Teaching Strategies Gold are not adequate. I am concerned that as we move towards having to report child outcomes the tools that are being accepted really do not gauge dual language learning. The other tool I have seen is WIDA but it starts at kindergarten age. Have you a suggestion for something else we should look at before we make the leap towards Bela? We are a dual Chinese ( Mandarin/Cantonese and English early childhood program). The model has a Chinese speaker and English speaker sharing a classroom and developing a theme based, developmentally appropriate curriculum with materials and activities to match the theme in each area of the classroom. This enhances the richness of exposure to language. We want a tool that can accurately measure in both languages. So far BELA is what I can find.

    • admin says:

      Bernadette – you are asking such an important question… but there is no easy answer yet. I agree that we are seeing more talk about assessment and accountability, but the research and development of multilingual assessment tools have not kept up with the needs of the field. Currently, best advice is to train teachers to be excellent observers and rely heavily on portfolio collections, teacher observations, and consultation with families.

  • What qualification should a preschool teachers have? Also tell me the qualities.

  • Gloria Rojas says:

    As a bilingual speech language pathologist I complete formal standardized assessments with bilingual students. I used to create informal referenced-based measures for teachers to use as a screening tool. With DLL’s I like teachers to consider the Communication domain. Yes, pre-academic skills are important but I want to know if they have the language skills necessary to support the academics. You need to look at L1, L2, receptive/expressive in the 4 systems of language (articulation/phonology, semantics, grammar/syntax, pragmatics). I look at narrative samples, language samples, dynamic assessments, etc.

  • Karen Nemeth says:

    Diane Staehr-Fenner wrote this blog post for about how educators can use the “elevator pitch” to advocate for ELLs. They let me participate by creating my own video clip. See if this is something you would like to try –

  • Joy Pénard says:

    I am a speech therapist (speech-language pathologist). I would like to see expertise in language acquisition of DLLs, or bilingual/multilingual children become a given for our profession, and to be able to have appropriate assessments and procedures for these issues. Thank you for inspiring me to do my part.

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