This is the second in a four-part series zooming in on dual language learning in early childhood. Our first post provided a summary of the research on effective approaches to teaching young language learners and the many questions left to answer. Today we are examining Head Start’s strategy, particularly its emphasis on supporting home languages. In the coming weeks, we will report on the efforts of a bilingual school in Washington, D.C. and provide resources and recommendations for educators and policymakers.
Head Start, the nation’s largest federally funded program for preschool children, is at the epicenter of the challenges that come with preparing dual language learners for kindergarten: In the 2007-2008 year, 26 percent of Head Start participants came from families who spoke a language other than English at home.
Though the predominant languages spoken by Head Start participants are English and Spanish, different Head Start programs face a myriad of other language challenges. Programs in Arizona, for example, are trying to preserve Navajo. And in many programs, teachers hear three, four, even five different languages—all in a single classroom.
Both the Head Start Acts of 1998 and 2007 and the Head Start Performance Standards
require programs to try to support the “cultural backgrounds” of Head Start children. Though the Office of Head Start does not mandate how a program teaches its dual language learners, the Performance Standards require
programs to screen a child’s linguistic background within 45 days of enrolling in a program, and that “teachers must demonstrate an understanding of the child’s family culture and, whenever possible, speak the child’s language.” Further, Head Start providers must communicate with parents in their “primary or preferred language,” when that is feasible.
The Office has also disseminated a “Program Preparedness Checklist”, available to anyone who registers to watch Head Start’s webinar series on dual language learners,
to help Head Start providers track the demographics and language profile of their community and to meet its needs.
One person who has thought long and hard about how to address the challenge of dual-language education is Sharon Yandian, the Early Language Specialist at the Office of Head Start in the Department of Health and Human Services: she has been with Head Start off and on since the early 1990’s, when she worked for five years as a program specialist with Head Start providers with a high percentage of migrant participants. Since then has provided technical assistance to Head Start providers, and was the Center Director for the Center for Early Care and Education at the Academy of Educational Development.
Yandian puts a heavy emphasis on supporting children’s home language to ensure that children are learning new concepts and developing thinking skills instead of being fixated on what language they are learning in. Much like Claude Goldenberg’s conclusions
that I discussed in last week’s post, she believes that children with a solid knowledge of their home language will have less trouble learning English.
For example, think of a classroom where children are learning to make patterns by alternating different colored blocks. A child may be learning to line up, say, one red block then one blue block, and gaining understanding of what constitutes an “A-B-A-B” pattern. That understanding is the same in English and Mandarin. As Yandian explained to me, “Do we care that they are patterning at the moment in another language, or that they understand how to pattern?” The answer, she said, is the latter.
The Office of Head Start, Yandian said, is trying to foster better dual language education among its providers by providing resources and hosting “Language Institutes” for participating programs, as well as more communication between Head Start programs about what practices are proving successful in the classroom. “We really couldn’t wait for the research field,” Yandian explained, “so we’re trying to profile different programs.”
In order to gain more knowledge on what techniques are most fruitful, the department has been funding research and pilot programs. It recently awarded a three-year, $4.5 million grant to the University of North Carolina to open a center that will conduct research on dual language learners. The center will focus on assessment, child care, and education for dual language learners from birth through five years of age.
One major challenge that faces Head Start is recruiting and retaining a workforce of teachers who speak children’s home languages and creating strategies for teachers who don’t. “It’s definitely a challenge,” Yandian said. Some programs, she said, are dealing with this problem by paying higher wages to teachers and staff who speak more than one language.
At Head Start programs in Fairfax County, Va., parents and community members run Saturday schools, where kids can learn about their home language and culture. “There may be resources out there that aren’t such a financial strain,” Yandian said, referring to the Saturday schools.
Head Start Parents in Community Action
(PICA) schools in Minneapolis have devised another strategy—they publish a five to 10 page document in each of the five home languages their programs serve. The document is aimed at classroom teachers and provides them with simple phrases in each language. This way a teacher can say, “Hello” and, “There is the bathroom” in a child’s home language to foster a more positive experience for children who are walking into a classroom for the first time.
What happens outside the classroom is yet another area of concern. Though Head Start centers rely on parent volunteers (and parental involvement is required by law), some parents fear their children will not develop strong English-language skills if they are taught bilingually, or with too much support for the child’s home language.
“We have parents who try to speak to their child in English, even if it’s not their first language,” Yandian said, “but when we do that we lose a lot of depth and bonding that is essential.”
Curious about how other organizations are teaching dual language learners? Our next post will take a close look at CentroNia, a fully bilingual preschool and charter elementary school here in Washington, DC.