Supporting Our Youngest Dual Language Learners

Takeaways from California's DLL Pilot Study on culturally and linguistically effective teaching strategies, family engagement strategies, and professional development opportunities.
Blog Post
Sept. 1, 2022

California is home to more dual language learners (DLLs) than any other state, both in size and share. DLLs, or children learning English in addition to another language, represent over 50 percent of the state’s population between the ages of zero to five years old and are one of the fastest-growing groups in California.

From 1998 to 2016, California public school instruction was required to be conducted in English only. This policy also influenced early learning settings, resulting in a workforce underprepared to serve the growing population of DLLs and their families. The passage of Proposition 58 in 2016 repealed bilingual education restrictions, reflecting a shift towards valuing bilingualism as an asset and honoring the critical connection of home language maintenance to one’s cultural identity.

In support of this shift, First 5 California launched the Dual Language Learner Pilot Study in 2017 to better understand how educators and systems can support DLLs and their families in early learning settings. Led by the American Institutes for Research (AIR), the DLL Pilot Study conducted 1) a statewide background study to understand the landscape of supports available for DLLs ages 0-5, 2) an in-depth study across 174 early learning programs in 16 participating counties to examine the relationship between current teaching practices and child and family outcomes, and 3) an expansion study of how participating counties used funds to scale strategies to support DLLs. This study sample included home- and center-based care settings, infant, toddler and preschool-aged DLLs, and four language groups (Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Vietnamese). AIR released the final summary in June 2022, including policy recommendations based on their research findings in the areas of teaching strategies, family engagement strategies, and professional development.

Part of the study focused on understanding attitudes and beliefs around bilingualism and dual language learning. Eighty-eight percent of parents reported wanting their child to become bilingual. This sentiment was particularly prevalent among families with incomes over $100,000. Program directors in both home- and center-based settings shared similar beliefs—more than 80 percent of them recognized the importance of children developing their home language. However, only 18 percent of centers and 15 percent of family child care homes reported having specific DLL-focused policies and strategic plans. About a third of programs provided lending libraries or activities to support children’s at-home learning.

One explanation for these low levels of DLL-focused policies and plans may be because the state lacks a strong framework for identifying and assessing DLLs, especially assessments that can be used across multiple languages. Although California’s education code has a definition for DLLs, the term is used in a variety of ways, and what counts as a bilingual program varies. This means that understanding and supporting DLLs becomes dependent on the provider’s personal knowledge and experience or the caregiver’s willingness and comfort to share information about the child’s language background with the provider. The 2021 signing of Assembly Bill (AB) 1363 aims to systematize the identification of and the collection of information about DLLs in the California State Preschool Program so programs can better support their learning and development. However, even if providers hold this knowledge, they might not be prepared to adequately support DLLs because it is not a required component of teacher training and competencies.

The in-depth study analyzed current teaching strategies used across the 16 sampled counties and their relationship to child outcomes. More home language use in early learning settings was associated with positive outcomes in both English and the home language for preschool-aged DLLs. As the authors state, the higher the frequency of Spanish spoken in the classroom, “the better children from Spanish-language backgrounds performed on Spanish vocabulary and oral comprehension, basic mathematics, bilingualism, literacy skills, executive functioning, social emotional well-being, and English oral comprehension.” More exposure to Spanish did not have any negative effects on English skills. This pattern held somewhat for Cantonese and Mandarin-language DLLs, where home language exposure was associated with improved bilingualism and vocabulary skills. For infant and toddler DLLs, more language input was only associated with more advanced linguistic knowledge and skills in that same language.

The higher the frequency of Spanish spoken in the classroom, “the better children from Spanish-language backgrounds performed on Spanish vocabulary and oral comprehension, basic mathematics, bilingualism, literacy skills, executive functioning, social emotional well-being, and English oral comprehension.” More exposure to Spanish did not have any negative effects on English skills.

Classroom practices—such as books, songs, and basic phrases—that do not require teacher proficiency in the DLLs’ home language were also positively related to outcomes for Cantonese- and Mandarin-language DLLs, such as oral comprehension, English vocabulary and bilingualism. These outcomes were not observed for Vietnamese-language DLLs, which the authors note may be due to the small number of classrooms with students who speak Vietnamese.

In addition, the study explored the connection between family engagement strategies and families’ attitudes and beliefs about bilingualism as well as families’ support for learning at home. Families receiving positive messages about dual language learning and cultural diversity were more likely to value home language skills as an aspect of school readiness. More frequent communication between programs and families was associated with more participation in classroom events and more engagement in at-home learning. Providing at-home learning activities in both the home language and English was associated with greater engagement in activities like reading and counting. Families enrolled in home-based care were less likely to receive these materials, but when they did, the materials were more likely to be in the families’ home language. Family outcomes were stronger when communication and materials were shared in the home language, but for educators who are not proficient in that language, any culturally and linguistically responsive two-way communication with families of DLLs is valuable. A more in-depth summary of family engagement findings can be found here.

Both teaching and family engagement strategies can be bolstered through professional development opportunities. Currently, only 25 percent of educators across early learning settings are required to receive DLL-focused professional development, while 92 percent of teachers indicate a need for more DLL-focused training. Center-based educators were more likely than home-based educators to receive pay and have access to substitutes to participate in professional development (69 percent to 29 percent, respectively). Teachers who received DLL-focused professional development viewed bilingualism as an asset and were more confident in their ability to support DLLs. They were more likely to use evidence-based teaching strategies for DLLs and engage with families in a linguistically and culturally responsive way, both of which are associated with positive outcomes for DLLs.

These findings emphasize the importance of supporting DLLs’ home languages in the classroom, culturally and linguistically responsive family engagement practices, and having an early learning workforce that is adequately prepared to work with DLLs. The study reinforces the direction of current policies and programs in California. In addition to AB 1363 mentioned above, California’s Master Plan for Early Learning and Care emphasizes the need to support DLLs to advance equity in early learning. The Language Justice Initiative, which offers training and resources to the early education field to create more equitable learning opportunities for DLLs, recently launched a Multilingual Learner Teaching Certificate to develop teacher competencies to deliver a high-quality education for multilingual learners and families. California’s asset-based approach to supporting DLLs can be a model for other states. As the DLL population continues to grow, affirming and building on the assets they bring will be the only way forward.

Enjoy what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter to receive updates on what’s new in Education Policy!

Related Topics
Dual Language Learners Birth Through Third Grade Learning