Jan. 31, 2019
Dual language learners (DLLs)—children who are learning English while still in the process of developing proficiency in their home language—make up a growing share of the birth to eight child population. A 2017 Migration Policy Institute report estimates that DLLs make up close to one-third of the early childhood population. There is growing agreement that using DLLs’ home language in the ECE classroom is critical for helping DLLs realize the full cognitive, linguistic, and social benefits of ECE participation. Indeed, Head Start Performance Standards now require all programs to “recognize bilingualism and biliteracy as strengths and implement research-based teaching practices that support their development.”
But many questions remain for early educators aiming to support DLLs’ home languages and foster their development of English. For instance: To what extent should students’ first language (L1) be used in the classroom? Does using students’ L1 more extensively support their home language competencies? And, importantly: Does using students’ L1 in the classroom help or hurt students’ acquisition of English, their second language (L2)?
A recent study published in Early Childhood Research Quarterly delves into these questions with a focus on Spanish-English DLLs. Drawing from existing data of high-quality Educare programs (a research-based full day, year-round early education program that serves low-income children ages birth to five), the researchers explore how teachers’ use of Spanish in the classroom is related to students’ growth in English and Spanish. Specifically, the researchers analyze ECE settings where little to no Spanish is spoken (0 percent to 10 percent Spanish), English and some Spanish is spoken (11 percent to 25 percent Spanish), and a high level of Spanish is spoken (26 percent to 96 percent Spanish). In these classrooms, Spanish was used in instruction, social interactions, and classroom management.
They found that in classrooms where more Spanish is spoken, DLLs made greater strides in their L1 development when compared to their peers in classrooms where the home language was less utilized. Specifically, students’ Spanish auditory comprehension—that is, their ability to understand the meaning of the words they hear—showed greater growth than their peers. Surprisingly, however, students from classrooms with more extensive Spanish use did not outperform their peers in Spanish expressive communication—or, their ability to put thoughts into words and sentences. When it comes to Spanish expressive communication, the researchers found that students from all classroom types made expected growth.
Why didn’t students in Spanish-heavy classrooms surpass their peers in expressive communication? According to researchers, this finding could be explained by the fact that teachers likely did not encourage students to communicate in their home language, perhaps because they didn’t engage in sufficient one-on-one communication with students. It is also possible that even in intensive English-Spanish classrooms the quality of language input was not sufficient to support students’ expressive communication. In other words, it's possible that the teachers were not utilizing complex language that would help enhance DLLs’ Spanish-speaking skills.
In either case, this finding points to the need for more teacher training in working with DLLs. The authors suggest what's needed is “to increase techniques and teacher training for Spanish use in classrooms, with a particular focus on encouraging children to express themselves in their home language.” Educator training, the researchers argue, should explicitly help teachers “move past the tendency...for limited classroom conversations in L1.”
And of course, there’s the perennial question of how teachers’ use of the home language is related to students’ acquisition of English. This study provides additional evidence to the growing research base that using the home language does not compromise DLLs’ English development. Students from all classroom groups made greater than expected progress in English development when compared to national norms, with no one group standing out above the rest. There is, however, plenty of existing evidence that strong literacy and vocabulary in their home language can facilitate the development of those skills in English.
Further, the study illustrates the value of providing high-quality ECE experiences regardless of the language used in the classroom. “Spanish-speaking children seem to learn English in good quality classrooms irrespective of classroom type,” the researchers say. The bottom line is that DLLs need access not just to any ECE experiences, but high-quality services. Yet states have a long way to go in defining and measuring “quality” of ECE programs, especially in ways that take DLLs into account.
Clearly, investments that explicitly support the inclusion of the home language in ECE classrooms are critical. This includes recruiting and preparing more bilingual ECE staff, increasing the availability of assessment tools and curricula in students’ home language, and offering ongoing professional learning opportunities to help ECE teachers maximize their use of the home language in the classroom. A few newly elected state leaders have promised investments in ECE, such as additional funds for in pre-service and in-service professional learning opportunities. Ensuring that DLLs have equitable access to these investments should be a goal shared by all stakeholders.