Dual Language Learning and Early Education Settings

In our ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse society, there is a pressing need for early childhood settings that support dual language learners—young children who speak a language other than English in the home and are not fully fluent in English. Here in New Haven, a promising pilot project is infusing a local Head Start program with resources and coaching to provide a dual language learning environment for children. Projects like these suggest an exciting path forward for early childhood educators, including the linguistically diverse family child care providers All Our Kin serves.

DSC_0078 (2)Why focus on dual language learning in early childhood settings? First, because dual language learners make up a large—and growing—proportion of students in our country. In 1979, just 8.5 percent of children ages 5-17 spoke a language other than English at home. That population grew to 16.7 percent of all school-age children by 1999 and roughly 22 percent by 2011. In 2010-2011, dual language learners made up 12.8 percent of enrollment in the New Haven school district and 13 percent of enrollment in the Bridgeport school district.

Second, because the numbers suggest that many of these children are not receiving the language preparation they need. In 2011, 14 percent of school-age Hispanic and 16 percent of school-age Asian children nationwide spoke a language other than English at home and had difficulty speaking English. As the number of dual language learners grows, it becomes all the more essential that we prepare these children to maintain and develop their home language as well as master English.

And finally, because research increasingly demonstrates that children are capable of learning two languages at once and that quality early instruction can foster language acquisition of both children’s home language and of English. This research counteracts the long-held myth that dual-language instruction in the early years would confuse children and delay their acquisition of English.  On the contrary, as noted by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), “Young children can gain knowledge more easily when they obtain quality instruction through their first language…Full proficiency in the first language, including complex uses of the language, contributes to the development of the second language.”

Copy of EE 086Growing awareness about the importance of supporting home languages has prompted movement on the part of government agencies and policymakers. In a recent preschool policy brief on preparing Hispanic dual language learners for success, NIEER recommended increasing preschool availability, “in particular high-quality dual language preschool models or programs that provide at least some support for instruction in their home language as well as English.” The new Connecticut Early Learning and Development Standards “promot[e] continuing support for children’s language development in their first language.” The national Office of Head Start even released an e-book entitled “The Importance of Home Language.”

We’re excited that a new project here in New Haven, the Dual Language & Literacy Project (DULLP), is expanding opportunities for our community’s children to gain exposure to English and Spanish in preschool. DULLP is a two-part, intensive dual language preschool project that combines weekly family literacy workshops with classroom coaching and literacy work. It is the result of a partnership between the New Haven Early Childhood Council, LULAC Head Start, and the Connecticut Children’s Museum and is funded through the State Department of Education and the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund. This project provides early childhood educators and parents with strategies for fostering language development, including using picture books and storytelling, talking with children, singing, modeling language, and finding teachable moments.

The issue of early language learning is very important to us at All Our Kin. The family child care providers we work with are a linguistically diverse group—half of All Our Kin’s providers identify Spanish as their primary language.  Parents often choose family child care settings because they are interested in preserving their child’s ability to speak their home language or in helping them learn a new language. As a result, the caregivers we serve regularly support young dual language learners.

We work with providers like María Edith, who asks children to select bilingual poems from a beautiful metal container during each circle time and says that children in her program switch fluidly between English and Spanish. Another provider, Melissa, reads the children bilingual books and sings them folk songs in Spanish.  Yanerys, a bilingual All Our Kin provider who grew up in the Dominican Republic, says that “repetition is the key” as she helps children in her program learn English, Spanish, and sign language. As All Our Kin’s family child care providers are demonstrating, high-quality early language experiences can take place in any setting—a  family’s home, a child care center, or a family child care program.

Given the importance of adequately preparing dual language learners, we are encouraged by the multitude of efforts to enhance literacy and language environments in early care and education settings.  We are working to ensure that this momentum carries through to family child care, where many of our youngest dual language learners have an opportunity to gain the foundation for successful language acquisition.

To read this post in Spanish, click here.

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