Why Teachers Are A Key Factor in the Success of Dual Language Learners

Blog Post
April 30, 2015
Much to my amazement -- and envy -- my three-year-old brother is growing up trilingual, thanks to his Chilean father and Vietnamese mother. But my dad can’t take all the credit for my brother’s Spanish development — most of his Spanish has been learned at daycare. I like to think of his daycare as an informal Spanish immersion program.

My little brother rarely speaks in Spanish at home, but it’s almost all he speaks at daycare. My dad once heard him yell in the middle of a fight with another child over a toy, “¡Yo tenía primero!” [I had it first] he insisted. This struck my father as funny because it indicated that my brother’s Spanish language skills are stronger than his English language skills. But it also showed that at the young age of three, my brother has already developed a sense of when and where to use the different languages in his arsenal. That’s the nature of learning languages simultaneously.

It’s also why it’s critically important to measure dual language learners’ (DLLs) proficiency in both of their languages to get a comprehensive picture of their development and knowledge from the moment they begin their education. That’s according to a new report, Helping America’s Dual Language Learners Succeed: A Research-based Agenda for Action, released with the support of the McKnight and Heising-Simons Foundations. ((Disclosure: the McKnight and Heising-Simons Foundations are co-funders of New America's DLL National Work Group)) The report is a summary of DLL research, policies and practices presented at the National Research Summit on the Early Care and Education of Dual Language Learners held last October. That meeting focused on five big topics related to DLLs’ PreK-3rd grade success: instructional strategies, assessment, teacher preparation, role of school leadership in dual language programs, and policies related to DLLs early education.

Above all, the report makes clear that knowledgeable, well-trained, and qualified teachers are central to fostering the success of dual language learners.

To start, consider the instructional strategies recommended to support the development and learning of dual language learners. First, teachers should monitor DLLs’ development via ongoing and frequent assessment in their first and second languages. Second, teachers should provide explicit vocabulary instruction with multiple and repeated opportunities to use new words across different settings.

This second point is important. Vocabulary is situational — for example, even though I am well versed in conversational Spanish, my academic Spanish is abysmal — if I haven’t had to use a technical term in Spanish before, or at least been exposed to it, then I don’t know it. My case is the reverse of most DLLs in the US who are learning English.  For DLLs, the gap between conversational and academic English vocabulary can be a serious challenge.  As the report puts it, “Lack of proficiency in academic English can interfere with learning other academic content.”

This may seem elementary but making these strategies real for DLLs requires intentional planning and lots of time. Research by Temple University’s Carol Hammer indicates that “young DLLs rarely get the targeted oral language instruction that they need to help develop proficiency in both languages.” Moreover, the assessment of these students is challenging. There are a limited number of accurate and reliable tools that can  assess DLLs’ knowledge and skills in both languages. So teachers must follow multiple steps and utilize a variety of assessment tools to get a clear picture of students’ development and knowledge. Here’s a useful diagram from the report that illustrates this process:

[caption id="attachment_7262" align="aligncenter" width="566"]Assessing DLLs Source: Helping America's Dual Language Learners Succeed: A Research Based Agenda for Action (p. 14)[/caption]


A further challenge: observations of students are integral to building teachers’ understanding of what DLL students know and can do, but they sometimes require fluency in the child’s home language. For example, California’s child development programs use the Desired Results Developmental Profile (DRDP) to gauge children’s progress towards meeting learning expectations. The DRDP guidance explicitly states that teachers completing assessments of DLLs should speak the child’s home language or receive assistance from another adult who does. This is crucial, according to the bigger report, “Without an assessor who is fluent in the child’s home language and properly trained to conduct the assessment, it is not possible to obtain accurate results.”

Beyond fluency in the child’s home language, teachers must also be:

  • knowledgeable about the stages of English-language acquisition,
  • knowledgeable about the role of the home language in supporting the development of English,
  • skilled at administering observational assessments, and
  • capable of using strong professional judgment when interpreting and applying results.
The majority of these skills require training and continual professional development and coaching.

So where can teachers develop these myriad competencies? Obviously teacher preparation programs have an integral role to play in ensuring that teacher candidates are equipped with cultural competencies and the knowledge necessary to support the learning of their dual language learner students. But this is not a role that many institutions of higher education have actively embraced or the capacity to take on. As the report notes, most teacher preparation programs “deliver little content or practical experiences to prospective teachers” in regard to meeting the needs to language learners and minority students. And there is evidence to back up this assertion, “The recent decision by the Illinois State Board of Education to delay the requirement for preschool teachers of DLLs to hold a bilingual or ESL endorsement was based on school district reports that they could not find teachers that met the requirement.” (For New America’s coverage of Illinois’ bilingual pre-K rules, click here. For IL’s rules change, see page 19,776 here.)

The report offers up a few policy recommendations to help bolster the quality of DLLs’ early education including the development of standards for best practice for young dual language learners. But the dissemination and implementation of best practices will be impossible without first building up a teacher workforce with the capacity and knowledge to support these students. And doing that will require states and the federal government to get creative around teacher recruitment and training.

Note: This post is part of New America’s Dual Language Learners National Work Group. Click here for more information on this team’s work."