Last year, an innovative partnership between the Helios Education Foundation and two inner city K–8 school districts in Arizona led to the establishment of the state’s first public two-way language immersion (TWI) pre-K. The newly established pre-K programs arose from collaboration between Helios, Creighton and Osborn Elementary School Districts, Childsplay Theatre Company, and Arizona State University.
With the two districts just over a mile apart, they naturally share similar demographics. Both are minority-majority school districts (90 percent) with between 13 and 25 percent of students classified as dual language learners (DLLs) and over 90 percent receiving free and reduced lunch. On average, the student populations are made up of a majority Hispanic/Latino (76 percent) population, followed by African Americans (8 percent), Caucasians (8 percent), Native Americans (6 percent), and Asians (1 percent).
The ideal design of TWI is to enroll roughly equal numbers of native Spanish- and English-speaking students so that the students can engage in learning language both from the teacher and from each other. As such, both districts attempt to enroll an equal number of Spanish and English speaking students. In total, the two school districts’ pre-K programs serve approximately 243 students across 12 classrooms and five schools in the central Phoenix area.
The project partners aimed to explore the opportunities dual immersion education provides, especially when it comes to improving early language development and pre-literacy skills. The new initiative enabled participating schools to provide young preschoolers with a new pathway to the cognitive and social advantages of becoming bilingual andbiliterate. Over the long term, the project seeks to improve opportunities for the children to become proficient readers by the end of the third grade. The recently released policy brief, Using Dual Language Strategies in the Early Grades, An Early Examination of Helios Education Foundation’s Initiative to Increase Literacy, outlines the program model, participants, and early lessons learned by the participating districts.
In Creighton, the TWI pre-K is the first of its kind. Osborn, on the other hand, has a nearly twenty-year history of hosting K–6 dual immersion programs. As a result, the pre-K classrooms now serve as a feeder program for those well-established programs. Although initially started as two-way models, Osborn’s elementary school programs are currently restricted by Arizona’s “English-only” policy for DLLs. Therefore, they currently operate as one-way dual immersion programs in which only former DLL students now classified as fluent English proficient are permitted to enroll (for a more detailed description and analysis of this controversial curricular model see here, here, here, and here).
Because early childhood programs are not subject to this law, the TWI pre-K programs are breaking new ground in providing equitable access to dual immersion education for Arizona DLLs. In Osborn, this is one pathway to improve emergent literacy skills to the point that by kindergarten their DLL students will be more likely to have access to their dual immersion program.
According to the Helios Foundation’s Dr. Karen Ortiz, two goals of the dual immersion project are “to improve the way early childhood educators teach language and literacy in DLL classrooms and to establish a continuum of pedagogy in pre-K to promote kindergarten readiness in all students.” Dr. Ortiz added that one reason for putting out an RFP for early childhood dual immersion programs was “to address the challenges in developing emergent literacy skills” amidst Arizona’s linguistically diverse child population.
Rooted in research on the benefits of dual immersion education and the literature on DLL best practices, the two districts set out to meet the goal of implementing a TWI program to improve “language acquisition and literacy for both native and non-native English speakers” in their schools.
The implementation process includes two other local partners: Arizona State University (ASU) and Childsplay Theatre Company. The ASU team is providing ongoing evaluative research on the early implementation phases and achievement of the children enrolled in the pre-K programs. Childsplay, on the other hand, is providing a well-established Early Years Educators at Play (EYEPlay) professional development program to guide the early childhood educators in integrating drama based early language and literacy learning strategies into their TWI classrooms.
According to Dr. Sultan Kilinc, a member of the ASU research team who specializes in early childhood pedagogy, the Childsplay model focuses on the “multisensory connection between vocabulary, stories, and experiences in the child’s world” by combining drama-based teaching practices such as pantomiming and group story building with “specific language and curricular objectives” (i.e. receptive language, expressive language, and problem solving). When combined with the TWI model, it emphasizes key vocabulary in both languages through scaffolded activities that encourage high levels of child creativity and participation.
Research on Childsplay’s EYEPlay program has found that this model bolsters early language and pre-literacy teaching practices and builds more inclusive learning environments that support all students including DLLs and students with disabilities. Its success in early childhood classrooms lies in the participatory nature of the drama-based curriculum, which allows students to demonstrate their knowledge both verbally and kinesthetically in their first or second language. This environment provides students with more opportunities to engage in learning activities, while at the same time positioning the young learners’ home languages and cultures as assets to be shared not only through teacher directed learning, but also as the children play and learn from one another each day.
In their first implementation year, the TWI pre-K programs learned valuable lessons from each school and classroom. Specifically, the ASU research team’s initial inquiries have found that the participating pre-K programs reported greater student engagement and improved reading comprehension. At the same time, the participating schools struggled with finding qualified bilingual/biliterate educators, establishing new teaching dynamics between the often monolingual teacher leads and their bilingual teaching assistants, and in securing a solid level of understanding about the purpose of the dual immersion project at all levels — administrative, lead teachers, and paraprofessionals.
However, it is evident the opportunities this unique partnership is creating for Arizona’s youngest learners far outweigh the challenges. In a state with an unfortunate history of restrictive language polices, these trailblazing districts are exemplifying a different path for improving access to early childhood literacy and dual language learning for both DLLs and non-DLLs alike.