DLLs and Head Start: Framing Bilingualism as an Asset

Blog Post
Feb. 19, 2019

This week is Head Start’s Dual Language Learner Celebration Week. We’re marking the occasion by launching a new blog series highlighting the various ways Head Start is working to serve Dual Language Learners across the country.

It’s no secret that the United States is undergoing a demographic shift. Students of color are now a majority of kindergarten students and are projected by the Census Bureau to be a majority of all children by 2020. The Census Bureau also estimates that no one racial group will be a majority of the country by 2044.

These demographic shifts are evident in Head Start, the federal program that promotes school readiness of children from low-income families from birth to age five. In 2017, Hispanic/Latino children represented 37 percent of total Head Start enrollment, up from 19 percent in 1980. The program has also seen an increase in the number of children who are classified as dual language learners (DLLs), meaning they have a primary home language other than English. The percentage of DLLs entering Head Start has increased from 17 percent in 2000 to 24 percent in 2014. These students speak a combined total of over 140 languages and are enrolled in 87 percent of all Head Start programs. Almost all (96 percent) of these students were born in the United States, but over three-quarters are in families in which both parents were born in another country.

While high-quality early education, such as what is offered by Head Start, matters for all children, studies suggest that DLLs may benefit even more than their peers by participating in these programs. Studies have also found that early education programs that use dual immersion models of teaching, as opposed to English-only models, produce favorable cognitive, achievement, and social outcomes for DLLs and their English-speaking peers.

As the share of DLLs enrolled in Head Start continues to increase, programs must work proactively to ensure they’re meeting the needs of these children and families. The 2007 reauthorization of Head Start tasked the Department of Health and Human Services with updating the Head Start Performance Standards that all programs must follow. The updated Performance Standards, which went into effect in November 2016, are the first complete reorganization of the standards since they were originally published in 1975 and represent a major step forward in better serving DLL children and their families.

Some of the specific provisions in the standards related to DLLs are unchanged. For example, the standards continue to mandate that at least one class staff member must be fluent in a non-English language if a majority of the children in a class speak that language. In other words, if 12 out of 20 Head Start children in a classroom speak Spanish, programs are required to find an adult to serve in that classroom who also speaks Spanish.

But what’s most exciting about the updated standards is that for the first time, the standards mandate that programs “must recognize bilingualism and biliteracy as strengths and implement research-based teaching practices that support their development.” These practices include implementing teaching practices that focus on the development of the home language for infant and toddler DLLs and using teaching practices that focus on both English language acquisition and the continued development of the home language. For the first time, programs are required to assess DLLs in the language(s) that best capture their skill level and must assess language skills in both English and their home language. The standards also mandate that programs develop a comprehensive approach to ensure the full and effective participation of DLL children and their families.

The common thread in the updated standards is the recognition that a child’s home language is an asset that should be cultivated, rather than a hindrance to be overcome in the quest to learn English. In an interview with New America, Dr. Marlene Zepeda, a DLL early education expert, praised the fact that strategies for better serving DLLs are incorporated throughout the new standards while moving from a deficit perspective to “a more strength-based approach in a very explicit way.”

The new emphasis on home language development is supported by a vast amount of research about how to best support the language development of DLLs. For example, studies suggest that strong home language skills help build skills in English. DLLs who are exposed to rich language experiences in their home language and build strong skills in that language are more likely to develop strong second language competencies. For more information about the importance of home language development, check out this joint policy statement from the Departments of Health and Human Services and Education.

While the updated standards set out a lot of requirements for programs serving DLLs, the good news is that Head Start offers several resources to help programs. The Office of Head Start maintains 12 regional offices around the country tasked with providing assistance to local programs. Head Start has also published a DLL toolkit that includes a variety of useful resources, such as research on DLLs and DLL-specific topics for professional development. Additionally, the Office of Head Start has a website full of information about the importance of supporting home language development. Finally, Head Start recently launched the Dual Language Learners Program Assessment (DLLPA). The DLLPA is meant to help programs identify strengths and areas of improvement for effectively serving dual language learners and their families.

Over the next several months, we’ll continue to write about Dual Language Learners and Head Start. Future blog posts will cover a range of topics, including the DLLPA, the Head Start workforce, and emerging research about the impacts of Head Start on DLLs.