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Dual Language Learners: What Early Educators Need to Know

Published:  February 26, 2010
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Over the next several weeks, Early Ed Watch will zoom in on dual language learning in early childhood. We will be looking at how different strategies are employed by different organizations that serve young children and we'll scan the landscape for information about how policymakers and educators can improve dual language education. Today's post is the first in a four-part series.

Dramatic change may be on its way in America’s education system with new federally funded grants and an emphasis on common standards likely to affect how and what the next generation of Americans learn. These shifts garner a lot of media attention. But another trend, no less significant, is also emerging:

Every year, more and more kids are entering our public schools speaking a language other than English. 
The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that by 2030 Latino children will constitute 25 percent of the total student population. As of 2007-2008, approximately 26 percent* of children enrolled in Head Start Pre-K programs speak Spanish and are classified as dual language learners. And, beyond the booming Latino population in the United States, other immigrant populations are growing too, posing a challenge to teachers in the early grades who provide these students with their first exposure to school and, sometimes, their first exposure to the English language as well.
As Early Ed Watch has reported, the conversation on how to best educate young these students is arguably populated with more preguntas than respuestas. Researchers have asked: Are immigrant parents as likely to seek out preschool for their children as native-born parents? Are these youngsters best educated in classrooms where English is the only language spoken, or are they better off in bilingual classrooms? If bilingual education is the best approach, what methods work best? And how do states and districts begin to train and recruit educators who can handle classrooms in which, say, five students speak English, five speak Spanish, five speak Farsi and five speak Mandarin Chinese?
Rife with our own questions about how to serve dual-language learners, Early Ed Watch will take a closer look at the many complex issues surrounding dual language learners, or DLLs for short. In the coming week, we will bring you four posts that explore how these demographic changes effect the primary grades (including pre-K), and how schools and providers can bridge the language gap.
Here are three questions that propelled this series:
- What do we call students who arrive speaking another language than English?
Early Ed Watch is hardly alone in asking this question. The terms for students who are being taught in a different language than their primary language are numerous, and debates continue on which terminology is best. Three labels often heard today are English as a Second Language (ESL), English Language Learner (ELL), and Dual Language Learner (DLL). For this series at Early Ed Watch we will refer to these students as Dual Language Learners -- students who are still learning and developing strong language skills in their native language in addition to learning how to speak, read and write in English. (It also happens to be the term that Head Start uses.)
- Are DLLs really at risk of not performing well in school?
In a word? Yes. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a long-term federally administered test also known as “The Nation’s Report Card,” fourth graders who speak a language other than English at home scored 36 points below their peers in reading, and 25 points below their peers in math. (Students who take the NAEP earn a score on a 0 to 500 scale. Nationally, the average fourth-grade score is 218 in mathematics and 188 in reading.)
These gaps between native English speakers and non-native speakers are larger than the respective gaps between white and non-white students, as well as the gaps between students who are and are not eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.
- How does research say we should teach dual language learners?
Research on how to teach dual language learners is often the subject of controversy. There is a lot of conflicting research—not to mention a lot of advocacy messages—on how to best instruct dual language learners, making it hard to come to conclusions about which approaches to dual language instruction work best.
“Currently, people are scrambling to figure out what is appropriate” when it comes to best practices in teaching dual language learners, said Michael Lopez, executive director and co-founder of the National Center for Latino Child & Family Research. Sharon Yandian, the Language Specialist at the Office of Head Start, made a similar comment to me over the phone: “This is an area in serious need of research,” she said.
First, consider the general spectrum of approaches to dual language instruction. On one end of the spectrum is English-only instruction, whereby DLLs are immersed in a classroom where the teacher only speaks English and the curricula is taught in English. On the other end are fully bilingual approaches where lessons are taught in English and another language at the same time, so the outcomes of a given lesson (i.e. vocabulary words) are taught in both languages by the time the lesson is over.
Then, there is everything in-between: Teaching DLLs only in English but providing small group time with instructors to help support their reading and vocabulary is one example. Another is teaching lessons in one language in the morning and another in the afternoon, so that students eventually learn a curriculum in both languages, but not by simultaneously translating between one language and another.
Two studies, both published in 2006, have tried to synthesize what is known so far about different approaches. One is by the National Literacy Panel (NLP) and the other by the Center for Research on Education, Diversity, and Excellence (CREDE). For the NLP, 18 researchers reviewed over 3,000 studies, of which around 300 focused on children ages 3 to 18. The CREDE report was produced by four researchers who examined approximately 200 articles and reports. The findings and recommendations of each study were extensive, but both concluded that English language learners benefit from instruction that emphasizes the key components of reading (such as phonics), and that students benefit from having literacy and oral proficiency in their home languages.
In a summer 2008 article published in American Educator, a Stanford University education professor named Claude Goldenberg looked closely at the NLP and CREDE reviews. He draws some interesting classroom recommendations from the research. He found that
  • Teaching children in their primary language helps promote their skills in English reading. This may seem counterintuitive—wouldn’t immersing children in as many hours of English instruction every day lead to the most success?—but the likely explanation is that students benefit from having solid knowledge of both languages so they can properly sort which vowels, cognates, or other parts of language can be transferred from their home language to English and (just as importantly) which ones can’t.
  • DLL students need a lot of oral English language development to get their English up to speed. Additionally, teachers should also not hesitate to help them transfer that English knowledge back into their home language. Students who realize that there are links between their two languages (such as cognates or spelling skills) will learn English better, but teachers need to be willing to help facilitate this process.
  • Teaching in students’ first and second languages can be approached similarly, though those learning in a second language will need modifications (often for several years) to help them familiarize themselves with academic English.
In the report, Goldenberg concludes that policies that restrict the use of a child’s home language in the classroom “are simply not based on the best scientific evidence available. Moreover, these policies make educators’ jobs more difficult.”
In posts over the next several weeks, this blog will examine teaching strategies at different organizations, ending with some information on how policymakers and educators can improve dual language education. Up next: A post on what Head Start has been doing to educate the more than 300,000 dual language learners who participate in its programs.

* UPDATE as of 3/2: This data comes from Head Start's 2008 Program Information Report, which is available on the Center for Law and Social Policy's DataFinder.

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