Dual language learners—children between the ages of 0-8 who are in the process of learning English while still learning their home language—represent a large and growing share of the early childhood population in the United States. Nearly thirty percent of children enrolled in Head Start are DLLs, as are an estimated 23 percent of three- and four-year-olds in the United States. Research suggests that high-quality early childhood education is particularly beneficial for DLLs’ early literacy, numeracy skills, and English language development. Early childhood education provides young dual language learners with early exposure to the English language, access to a rich literacy environment, and opportunities to develop their language skills through conversation and play with peers and teachers.
Research from the Care Index has demonstrated relationships and trade-offs between the cost, quality, and availability of care, and that no state is providing all three.
Research from the Care Index has demonstrated relationships and trade-offs between the cost, quality, and availability of care, and that no state is providing all three. Further, the importance of early care and learning for DLLs was highlighted in New America’s analysis and in-depth report on those trade-offs in four states. Researchers in Georgia, which has funded a universal pre-K program for nearly 25 years, have found that while children from all backgrounds benefit from the program, those who don’t speak English at home begin the year with lower skills than their English-speaking peers, but learn at a faster rate and make large gains throughout the year. And those gains tend to continue beyond the pre-K program. Yet the challenges families face accessing care are compounded by cultural and linguistic barriers, especially as dual language learners become an increasing portion of the population.
Moving forward, parents, educators, and policymakers need to consider the unique needs of these children and families, and how to incorporate them into the early learning environment. The following factors should be considered in the construction of a robust care infrastructure for DLL children:
Screen and identify DLLs in the early years to ensure that they receive targeted instruction that supports their language development in English and in their home language.
Increase access to high-quality public pre-K and Head Start programs to help DLLs gain necessary school readiness and language skills. While Head Start does track DLL enrollment, only 22 state pre-K programs track these data, which makes it challenging to determine access and participation in these programs nationwide.
Improve teacher preparation to work with DLLs across all early care settings. Early care providers and teachers should receive professional development and training geared to supporting language learners, including how to support native language development and promote family engagement in their classrooms.
Support bilingual early care providers’ career pathways to develop a robust bilingual teacher workforce. The push towards promoting bilingualism and supporting the home language in early care programs means that there will be a growing need for multilingual providers and educators. Multilingual teacher assistants and family-care providers often require additional supports to overcome the structural and linguistic barriers that can prevent them from obtaining lead teacher positions.