The “Magic 8” Preschool Practices Adapted for DLLs

By Karen Nemeth  

Have you read about the “Magic 8”? These are the eight practices that are most likely to build preschool student success, according to research by Dr. Dale Farran and her co-authors1,2,5.. They could provide great advantages for young children who are dual language learners, but how can they be applied in classrooms where the teacher and child don’t speak the same language? Here are the Magic 8 as listed in The Hechinger Report2 with my DLL adaptations added.

    1. Reduce time spent in transition.Time moving from one activity to another is time when children aren’t learning or engaged, which also increases the likelihood of negative behaviors.  DLLs need plenty of time to work with materials and information as they try to sort out the new content and the new language. By reducing transitions, you can use more time to focus more on supporting the learning and explorations of individual children in any language.


    1. Improve level of instruction.Asking children open-ended, inferential questions and asking them to reflect on what they’ve learned or make predictions based on what they know improves student retention of new material and better prepares them for kindergarten. DLLs need and deserve high quality instruction that they can understand. Teachers can start by learning a few general-use questions such as “What are you making?” or “What will happen next?” in each child’s home language. Even if you don’t understand their responses, you are giving DLLs the chance to practice these important thinking skills. Record their responses and ask for help to translate later. If you invite bilingual volunteers to your classroom, give them training on how to use these types of questions to elevate level of instruction for all children.


    1. Create a positive climate.Using positive language to reinforce desired behavior rather than disapproving of specific student actions has a positive effect on children’s ability to self-regulate. Positive climate depends on positive language, and that can leave DLLs feeling left out.  Put yourself in the position of a child who doesn’t understand what teachers or peers are saying every day. Making them feel welcome, safe and strong requires more than smiles. Try using photo-communication tools to communicate and reinforce desired behavior choices. Practice specific gestures and a few home-language terms to build understanding. This will help DLLs connect to the positive climate of the classroom and will help them learn behaviors that will get positive responses from their diverse peers as well.


    1. Increase time teachers listen to children. Children whose teachers spent significant time listening to them showed a stronger grasp of math concepts, letters and sight words. Children who spoke more frequently also had stronger self-regulation and vocabulary skills. How can you “listen” to children when you don’t speak their language? It really is crucial that teachers give young children more opportunities to learn and express their learning through conversations, so invite well-prepared bilingual volunteers and staff to listen to children as they interact in whatever language they need to use. Even when children begin to learn English, they will still know some topics better in their home language. Teachers don’t have to be in control of every word. If a child tells you a wonderful story in a language you don’t understand, try to record it and ask families or other staff to translate. Knowing what each child expresses will help you see what they know and want to learn next.


    1. Plan sequential activities.When children participated in activities that followed a logical order, like completing a puzzle or writing a message, they engaged in higher level thinking, which improved their problem-solving skills. Sequential activities can be especially powerful for DLLs because the logic of the steps in a sequence provide important cues to content as well as connections between what they know in their home language and what they are learning in English. When teachers speak the same language as the child, they often explain what is happening in a sequential activity. For DLLs you can use visual supports to make the steps of a sequence clear.


    1. Promote cooperative interactions between children.Children who worked often with peers were more involved in classroom activities, had better language skills, and were better at self-regulation. Children who speak different languages have a hard time working on cooperative interactions, but specific supports can help. Teach all of the children HOW to work together with peers who have different languages and abilities. Encourage them to be patient, to repeat, to show their friends as well as telling them what they are working on. High quality peer interactions among children who speak different languages can be extremely valuable learning experiences for DLLs.


    1. Foster high levels of child involvement.Children are better at reading comprehension, vocabulary and math when they are actively involved in an activity, like when a teacher asks them to answer questions or make predictions about the book she’s reading. Active involvement and sophisticated thinking can certainly be valuable for young DLLs, but they may not understand your questions or be able to communicate their answers. It is very important to make more time for individual and small group interactions so you can engage each child using a combination of home language and nonverbal supports and so you can observe what they are showing about their own learning.


    1. Provide math opportunities.Children who take part in multi-part math problems and discuss math concepts are better prepared for kindergarten and early math success, which is a strong predictor of late elementary school achievement. Math learning can be supported with activities that are highly effective for DLLs, including authentic, hands-on explorations, use of materials that support content learning, and opportunities for connecting with other domains like language and literacy. Use real items that DLLs can recognize and relate to so they can build math learning on existing funds of knowledge. (for more on this, see my article in Oct. ‘17 Teaching Young Children3).


    So many of the thinking skills described in the Magic 8 can be strengthened with home language supports. Consider how much young DLLs are missing in classrooms where they are struggling to understand English so they don’t get many of the valuable experiences outlined here. Early childhood educators and researchers must keep in mind that English words can be attached to strong early learning skills and content learned in another language, but it is hard to replace lost opportunities for foundational content and skill learning.


    New data reported by the Migration Policy Institute4 affirms that close to one third of all preschool children in the U.S. are dual language learners. One third. That means that MOST early childhood teachers need strategies that work for one or more children who speak languages other than English. Every recommendation for early education practice should address language diversity.



    1. Farran, D.C., Meador, D., Christopher, C., Nesbitt, K.T., Bilbrey, L.E. (2017), Data-Driven Improvement in Prekindergarten Classrooms: Report From a Partnership in an Urban District, Child Development, 88(5) 1466-1479.
    2. Mongeau, L. (2017), New Research Finds “Magic 8” Preschool Classroom Practices, The Hechinger Report, October 2017.
    3. Nemeth, K. (2017) Making Math Meaningful for Diverse Learners, Teaching Young Children 11(1), 4-6.
    4. Park, M., O’Toole, A., & Katsiaficas, C. (2017) Dual Language Learners: A National Demographic and Policy Profile, Migration Policy Institute.
    5. Hinton, M. (2017) Vanderbilt Researchers Develop ‘Magic 8’ Practices to Create an Effective Preschool, Early Years Blog on Education Week, October 2017.


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