Fast 5 Gamechangers that Build Language Quality for DLLs!

by Karen Nemeth

Have you seen the articles focusing on language quality this week? In the New York Times on October 16, 2014 we read about Kathy Hirsh-Pasek’s research in Quality of Words, Not Quantity, Is Crucial to Language Skills, Study Says. Researchers are making a powerful case that, for children under the age of 6, vocabulary has to be learned in the context of communication. So… how can you use these new findings with children who speak different languages?


1. Stop teaching isolated words and skills! Research shows that young children learn language best when it is used in context, in conversations, and with social interactions. This is especially important for DLLs.

2.  Be quiet! To really learn new words, children have to have a chance to SAY them! Step back and make your time with young DLLs more give and take.

3.  Use lots of words, but in predictable formulas! Sentences that have the same basic structure make it easier for the brain to identify and understand new words, especially in a new language. Don’t say: “Here’s a dog. This is a cat. How about this mouse? That cow is here, too.” Start by saying “This is a dog. This is a cat. This is a mouse. This is a cow.” until you see they are really catching on.

4.  Learn some of those formula sentences in the languages of the children! With a few simple structures, you can help DLLs connect familiar words in their home language with similar words in their new language. You don’t need a whole course to learn to say “This is a…” or “What are you making?” in several languages.

5.  Build predictable schedules and rituals into the day! Rituals form patterns of interaction that are stable and predictable for young DLLs to remember some words and learn new ones without being overwhelmed.

Remember, a DLL (dual language learner) is any child under the age of 6 who comes from a home where a language other than English is spoken or who is growing up with two or more languages. It doesn’t matter how well they do in English or what type of program they’re in.  DLLs are children whose brains know things in two or more languages. These gamechanging strategies will build the quality of language learned by young DLLs!


  • Darlene Kurtz says:

    I REALLY appreciate the strategies you share in the “Fast 5 Gamechangers for DLLs.” There is one suggestion of yours that is found in most if not all of the 5 categories, namely learning to say key words or phrases in the home language of the DLL child. Well, two things come to mind. First, I have heard some very mis-pronounced words in Spanish that leave a child confused. The DLL child doesn’t recognize the word/s because it doesn’t sound like anything s/he will have heard at home. Compared to other languages spoken in this state (Arkansas), Spanish is relatively ‘user-friendly.’ Not true of Marshallese, Vietnamese, Hmong, or other languages spoken within our borders. I can only imagine the mis-pronunciation in these lesser known languages, and the time needed to learn two or more languages. Secondly, preschools in areas of this state will have two or more ‘other’ languages spoken in the same classroom of preschoolers. What strategy should a teacher and parapro adopt?

    • Karen Nemeth says:

      Hi, Darlene
      I know it seems so easy to say ‘learn a few words in the child’s home language’ when it really is not so simple. But, the research seems to highlight the value of trying to do this for each and every child. It turns out that pronouncing new words inaccurately is not as bad as people think. Consider that, even in English, you would have trouble understanding how I say things with my New Jersey accent – but we don’t stop talking to each other because of it. What seems to be important is the relationship that is built when teachers TRY to learn each child’s home language and help the child see that their language is honored and valued. Also – with each step a teacher takes to say just one or two words in the child’s home language, the next words she learns gets easier and easier. I work with so many teachers that have three, four or more languages in a classroom – and some are harder to learn that others as you said. Still, if the teacher could just try hello, thank you, drink, help, “your mom will be here soon” or “tell me more”…. even if it starts with just one or two words … we really think that could make a difference in the beginning school experience of each child. I think maybe I should write an article just on this topic to give more consideration to the issues you raise here. You can be sure a lot of our readers are thinking the same thing!

  • These strategies are helpful for older children as well. I’ve employed several of these with high school students as their brains are working in the same way described here. This is a great resource that I plan to share with content teachers on my campus.

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