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Growing Research Consensus on Effective Strategies for Dual Language Instruction in Early Childhood

While there is little doubt that excellent early education sets students up for long-term academic success, the definition of “excellent” varies along with communities’ diverse needs. This is nowhere truer than with dual language learners.

Great early education for these students requires reorienting educational and developmental perspectives away from unduly “monolingual perspectives” in favor of research-based metrics that take this core difference into account. While English proficiency is enormously important for students’ academic careers, social mobility, and economic opportunities along the course of their lives, it is a grievous mistake to stress it at the cost of other critical developmental goals. Research shows that dual-language learners benefit from instruction in both English and their first language. This approach allows them to continue adding complexity to their linguistic capacities in their primary language while simultaneously building English skills.

These are the core ideas that came out of a Center for Early Care and Education Research-Dual Language Learners (CECER-DLL) panel in Washington, D.C., last week. The panel explored research on ways that the early childhood needs of DLLs differ from their monolingual peers. Authors Dina E. Castro and Eugene E. García were joined by Co-Principal Investigator Linda Espinosa to explain recent research on DLLs, while Obama Administration Special Assistant for Education Policy Roberto Rodríguez, the Migration Policy Institute’s Michael Fix, and The National Council of La Raza’s Delia Pompa offered thoughts on its implications for public policy. The conversation was prompted by a paper released by the center this week: “Dual Language Learners: Research Informing Policy.”

American educators have ample reason to take notice. One in seven children entering kindergarten in the United States today speaks a primary language other than English, and their total number “has grown by 40 percent over the last decade.” More striking still, nearly one-third of Head Start and Early Head Start students speak a non-English language at home.

How are we doing at meeting the needs of this growing segment of the American student body? Not too well. The achievement gap between young dual-language learners and their peers who speak English at home remains stubbornly large. In addition, Castro noted, “DLLs lag behind their peers in school readiness” when they begin kindergarten.

These deficits are in part due to opportunity gaps and low-quality instruction. Indeed, Espinosa noted, “there are few studies on how to best teach young DLL students, and research is just coming to discover [effective] language supports and structural adaptations.” Worse still, DLLs often lack access to publicly-funded early education of any kind—let alone high-qualityinstruction in engaging and linguistically-rich classrooms.

Predictably, early education access and quality problems lead to serious long-term problems for DLL students. Espinosa noted that English language proficiency is linked to a host of social and educational outcomes across a student’s academic career. Early childhood intervention can prepare these students for success, if it begins early (before the age of 5) and is designed with their unique needs in mind.

What’s more, while it’s true that children who do not speak English at home often face additional “risk factors” associated with low-income households, some of their social and cultural resources are frequently overlooked. This focus on deficiencies rests in part upon inadequate attention to the fundamentally different developmental and educational paths that the children travel. To that end, the paper offers what Castro called “a new conceptual framework for thinking about DLLs.”

Here’s the heart of their findings: “the development of two language systems does not hinder DLL development, but rather...a learner’s language and literacy in their first language can strengthen their language development in a second language.” This additive approach helps children develop English proficiency without threatening other critical developmental stages. In fact, “exposure to and use of two languages in the early years” has been linked to a host of other developmental advantages. Effective early education models make English a priority, but they recognize that proficiency can’t—and shouldn’t—be rushed. The researchers suggest that English proficiency for dual-language learners be measured within the PreK-3rd grade time horizon, with 3rd-grade English proficiency as an appropriate goal.

These findings echo Maggie Severns’ April 2012 New America analysis. In “Starting Early with English Language Learners,” she summarized research showing that DLL “proficiency in a child’s native language helps the child develop proficiency in a second language.” When DLLs develop pre-literacy skills in their native language—text directionality, familiarity with the components of a book, etc—it actually speeds their English development.

But compelling research is one thing—and winning politics quite another. While Rodríguez and García mentioned President Obama’s $75 billion “Preschool for All” proposal as an encouraging opportunity for progress, they were still guarded. Despite the long-term returns on investing in early childhood, short-term deficits continue to dominate discussion. As García put it, “The sequester didn’t help open any additional Head Start slots.”

In addition, several panelists offered the always-pending reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act as a possible chance for advocacy on DLL issues. More hopefully, Fix noted that current immigration reform attempts could bring DLLs from undocumented immigrant families out of the shadows and into the classroom. Families living in fear of deportation are far less likely to go through the process of enrolling their children in early education programs than families with stable legal status.

What, exactly, would the CECER-DLL researchers have policymakers do? Above all, they are pushing for four things:

1) Early and accurate DLL assessment. While many current tests are not designed for DLLs, these would give instructors useful information about their students’ developmental and educational needs.

2) A systematic approach to training and attracting human capital to teach DLLs.

3) Coherent, comprehensive aligned, and research-based DLL education. This includes many variables, but the authors emphasized clear standards, literacy-rich curricula, and high-quality instruction.

4) Community outreach that increases DLL access to high-quality PreK-3rd instruction and uses the unique advantages of DLL families to inform better early childhood instruction. Outreach should also incorporate “intergenerational policies” that dovetail student instruction with training in at-home DLL strategies for parents.

To use Pompa’s evocative phrase, until political winds or public pressures “bring the high chair to the table,” however, most of these good ideas seem destined to wait in the wings.