DLLs and Head Start: New Tool Helps Programs Better Serve DLLs

Blog Post
March 31, 2019

Head Start has seen a steady increase in the number of children who are classified as dual language learners (DLLs), meaning they have a primary home language other than English. As I mentioned in my first post, 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. With the number of DLLs in Head Start only expected to increase in the future, it’s imperative that programs ensure they are meeting the Performance Standards that call for each program to “design and implement program-wide coordinated approaches that ensure...the full and effective participation of children who are dual language learners and their families.”

But it can be difficult for programs to take steps to ensure the full participation of DLLs without an understanding of their current strengths and weaknesses when it comes to serving DLLs. The good news is that the Office of Head Start recently launched the Dual Language Learners Program Assessment (DLLPA) to assist programs in doing just that. The DLLPA, which replaces the older Program Performance Checklist, is a self-assessment intended to help Head Start programs ensure the full and effective participation of DLLs by assessing the current state of the systems and services they have in place for DLLs and their families. It is also intended to help ensure that programs have integrated culturally and linguistically responsive practices for all children they serve.

The self-assessment is filled out by program staff, but is not reported to anyone outside of the individual program. In other words, the DLLPA is a tool to assist programs in identifying their own strengths and weaknesses in serving DLLs. It is also designed to assist programs in tracking their progress over time in serving DLLs. In a webinar introducing the tool, it was recommended that programs use the DLLPA as part of a continuous improvement cycle, by taking the self-assessment at both the beginning and end of the year to see exactly what progress has been made and what work remains to be done.

The self-assessment consists of questions in each of the following 10 sections: Communication, Human Resources, Training and PD, Program Planning & Service System Design, Teaching & Learning Environment, Curricula, Child Screenings and Assessments, Health Program Services, Family & Community Engagement Program Services, and Transition Services. Within each of the 10 sections there are a number of questions for programs to answer using a rating scale of 1-5, lowest to highest.

Questions from the Curricula section include, “Do our curricula include scientifically valid research and have standardized training procedures and curriculum materials appropriate to our DLL population?” and, “Do our curricula have an organized developmental scope and sequence of learning experiences based on how children who are DLLs acquire first and second languages, concepts, and skills?” The Teaching & Learning Environment section includes questions such as, “Do our teaching practices include reading to our children in English daily and in their home languages, when possible?” and “Do our teaching practices ensure learning experiences, such as music, math, and science, reflect the cultures and languages of our children?”

The self-assessment is anchored in the Performance Standards and each section includes a link to the relevant part(s) of the Performance Standards. Each section also includes links to various resources designed to assist programs in improving their practice. For example, the Training and Professional Development section includes resources about using classroom language models to promote early language development and the best ways to build academic skills in two languages. Once programs have completed all 10 sections of the self-assessment, they are encouraged to print it out and share it with their team so they can begin planning action steps to address any shortcomings in serving DLLs and their families.

The DLLPA is a welcome addition to the resources available for assisting programs in supporting DLLs and their families. While decades of research have shown that high-quality early education can improve school readiness for all children, some studies show that DLLs benefit more from programs such as Head Start than their peers, likely due to their increased exposure to English. But a high-quality early education does not necessarily look exactly the same for DLLs when compared to their monolingual peers. In a 2017 consensus study report, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine made the important point that “basic high-quality ECE instruction must be enhanced to meet the unique linguistic and developmental needs of DLLs.”

Specific instructional practices, such as explicit vocabulary instruction and interactive storybook reading in both English and the students’ home language, are essential for helping DLLs learn English while simultaneously continuing to develop their home language. Without specific attention paid to the unique needs of DLLs starting in the early years, it’s more likely that these students will struggle as they progress along their academic career.

While the DLLPA was designed for use by Head Start programs, it can also be used by child care and home visiting programs. It’s hard to improve the way your program serves DLLs without first carefully reflecting on your current strengths and weaknesses and the new DLLPA offers programs the opportunity to do just that. You can take the DLLPA for your own program by clicking the “Take the DLL Program Assessment” button found near the bottom of the page here.

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