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Policy Recommendations: Dual Language Learners

Photo: Long Story Short Media
Policy Recommendations: Dual Language Learners

An Overview

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.

Nora
Nora Nevarez cares for a number of children in her in-home care center in New Mexico. (Long Story Short Media)

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

Policy Recommendations: Dual Language Learners

Access and Enrollment Challenges

Many DLL children participate in formal child care and high-quality early education programs at lower rates than their non-DLL peers. One 2014 study found that Hispanic children, DLLs and children with an immigrant background each had lower rates of participation in either center-based or Head Start pre-K programs than their White and Asian peers. About 50 percent of each of these subgroups of children were not enrolled in pre-K—compared with about 30 percent of White and Asian children. Additionally, research shows that the preschool enrollment of Latino children also lags behind that of African-American children. The educational opportunities and outcomes for DLLs in immigrant households—a group that researchers Michael Gottfried and Hui Yon Kim define as “first generation children born outside of the U.S. or second-generation children of foreign-born parents”—are often shaped by “risk factors,” including lower socioeconomic status, levels of parental education, and English proficiency. Similarly, Lynn Karoly and Gabriella Gonzalez suggest in a 2011 article that immigrant families face multiple barriers accessing high-quality early care including affordability, language, and informational gaps that make it difficult for immigrant families to know about all available options.

Albuquerque skyline
New America's researchers interviewed parents and caregivers in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where a high proportion of children speak a foreign language at home. (Long Story Short Media)

Educators, administrators, and policymakers can work with families to lower these barriers and build bridges to increase access to early care. This includes creating bilingual early education programs that support families’ native languages and acquisition of English. Several studies document the preference of some immigrant families’ to enroll their children in bilingual early care settings where providers speak the child’s first language to help maintain cultural connections and facilitate easier communication between providers and families.

Educators, administrators, and policymakers can work with families to lower these barriers and build bridges to increase access to early care. This includes creating bilingual early education programs that support families’ native languages and acquisition of English.
Programs can address informational gaps by partnering with community-based organizations that work closely with immigrant families. In New York’s Onondaga County, the local office of Head Start partnered with refugee resettlement agencies to help increase  access and (by extension) enrollment for refugee families. Specifically, Head Start coordinated cross-agency trainings, held intake and enrollment sessions at resettlement agencies, and created an online case management database to share with those agencies. Localities can also create designated offices for enrolling in programs and dedicated staff to work with immigrant families. In Harrisonburg, Virginia, the local school district has a Welcome Center where all language minority families receive assistance enrolling their child in pre-K programs from multilingual staff. The district also employs multilingual home-school liaisons who help DLLs and their families navigate the school system and provide necessary interpretation and translation support.
Policy Recommendations: Dual Language Learners

Instructional Considerations for DLLs

However, simply increasing DLLs’ access to these programs is not enough. Dual language learners have unique linguistic and academic needs that must be considered in the design and provision of early care and education so that they reap the maximum benefits from these experiences. Consensus is building among researchers and practitioners regarding the essential elements of DLL instruction in the early years. These include:

  • Instructional models that support home language development

  • Instructional practices that provide additional supports and are focused on DLLs’ linguistic development

  • Appropriate assessments (in children’s native languages to the extent possible)

  • Targeted, culturally responsive family engagement

The newly adopted Head Start Performance Standards include many of these elements. These quality guidelines could provide a national model for other early childhood programs. When implemented, the new standards will mean programs will need to recognize bilingualism as an asset, implement “research-based” instruction that encourages its development, and assess DLLs’ language development in their native languages and English. The standards suggest that infant and toddler programs focus heavily on development of the home language. Research shows that infants are able to learn two languages simultaneously and that “their language growth is directly related to the quality and quantity of speech they hear in each language.” That means that hearing lots of English only predicts growth in their English language development and not in their second language. Bilingual infants’ vocabulary size and language development is best facilitated through “frequent, high-quality, social interactions with native speakers.” And importantly, continued use of the home language does not interfere with a DLL child’s acquisition of English.

States should also include components of home language development as a normative part of the early education experience for young children who are DLLs.

Additionally, the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services and Education’s recent policy statement on DLLs recommends that states revisit their Early Learning Guidelines to check their appropriateness for DLLs: “States should consider ELGs that include specific guidelines for language development in both English and children’s home language. States should also include components of home language development as a normative part of the early education experience for young children who are DLLs.”

Policy Recommendations: Dual Language Learners

Implications for the Early Childhood Workforce

These changes and recommendations could have significant implications for the preparation and professional development of the early childhood education and care (ECEC) workforce. One clear implication is the need for increased professional development opportunities for teachers and providers. Fresno, California, where 34 percent of kindergartners are DLLs, provides a strong example of how community collaboration can be leveraged to increase teachers’ professional growth. With the support of the Early Learning Lab and Packard Foundation, early care educators and providers from the local school district, Head Start, Early Head Start, and family-care are brought together for monthly collaborative professional development geared towards sharing best practices for DLLs. This training includes many of the instructional approaches emphasized by researchers in the field including support of the home language, strategies for family engagement and enhancing language development.

Another pressing implication is the need for more bilingual teachers and staff to work with DLLs and their families. A 2015 report by the Migration Policy Institute indicates that “less than one-quarter of the ECEC workforce speaks a language other than English” and that a large share of these multilingual workers are immigrants. Additionally, multilingual immigrant ECEC workers have lower levels of education and primarily work in home-based, family-based, or center-based settings due to a lack of credentials to work in other settings. As the report’s authors point out “these and new workers will likely need assistance in gaining advanced training and credentials in order of the field to retain and build its linguistic and cultural competency skills.”