This is the final post in our four-part series on dual language learners. Today we focus on how DLL education could be improved in practice and through changes to policy. We conclude by offering several resources for deeper work on the issue.
We started this series with two compelling facts about America’s schools: By 2030, a predicted 25 percent of the student-age population will be Latino, and researchers know shockingly little about how to educate students—youngsters in particular—who grow up not speaking English at home.
Given this discrepancy, the task of educating young dual language learners seems daunting. This is a growing segment of the population that does not currently do well in school, and no one is sure how to bridge the achievement gap between dual language learners and their peers.
Today, Early Ed Watch will offer some simple ideas for starting to address this issue -- three for policymakers and three for schools and educators.
I can’t conclude, however, without adding one personal note: I am a former DLL teacher who believes that dual language education is not a problem to be fixed, but an opportunity to be seized. Not only is linguistic and cultural knowledge a rich gift for a child (and a useful employment skill for an adult) but, in my experience, a child in the process of mastering a second language feels confident and engaged in school. These kids will likely not fade away or drop out -- not when they are gaining such crucial knowledge of how their home cultures and identities reconcile with their American ones. I’d like to offer some ideas on how to make this happen—as well as some resources for educators and parents— below.
Thoughts on improving DLL policy:
- ¡Andale, lawmakers! It’s time for policies — at the district, state and federal levels -- to reflect the needs of dual language learners of all ages. Currently, California and Arizona are the only two states that have passed laws related to dual language instruction—and these laws both require English-only instruction for students. In New Mexico, where about 54 percent of all K-12 students are Hispanic, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, there are signs of change: Two weeks ago, Governor Bill Richardson signed the state's Hispanic Education Act, which established a liaison within the state’s department of education to focus on the needs of Hispanic students. This is not to say that other states and districts ignore dual language learners entirely—but statewide systems for better educating dual language learners will need to be built if states want to help these growing populations to succeed academically in English while also encouraging bilingualism.
- More research is needed on dual language learners. Better research on best practices in dual language instruction is desperately needed. Despite huge gains in cognitive science over the past few decades, some aspects of language development in young children remain a mystery, not the least of which is their ability to absorb and learn multiple languages at once. We need to understand how children, and dual language learners in particular, are learning if we want to close the achievement gap between them and their peers. We need more studies that compare different approaches to teaching these students, including research on how various immersion methods affect students’ academic achievement and social growth not just one year later, but throughout their school years and beyond.
- Studies, evaluations and data collection must include dual language learners. Currently, the checklists that independent observers use to evaluate the quality of instruction or the classroom environment in pre-K and elementary schools, such as the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, don’t include criteria on the quality of dual language instruction. As the number of classrooms with students speaking multiple languages increases, so will the need to assess the quality of dual language instruction in a classroom. Further, as the Obama administration pushes for state-wide longitudinal data systems that track student progress, there will be a chance to track and learn more about how dual language learners progress through school. States should recognize this valuable opportunity and design their data systems accordingly.
Thoughts on improving classrooms:
- High-quality for all. We need to be aware of the potential for big disparities in access to high-quality teaching within bilingual or immersion classrooms. A classroom may be equipped with the finest teacher and curriculum, but the experience of a dual language learner could be completely different from the experience of his or her peers. How? Imagine, for example, a classroom with a highly qualified teacher who speaks English and a teacher’s aide who speaks the same language as the children who do not hear English at home. The aide is a critical conduit to helping these children learn. But if this teacher’s aide is poorly trained and doesn’t do a good job translating for and assisting the DLL students, then those students may miss out on the benefits of having a high-quality teacher. The result is that the learning experience for native English speakers could be very different than what is available to the dual language learners.
- Don’t fear “mis-coding.” In popular discourse, there is a fear that teaching children two languages at once will cause confusion and ultimately lead kids to not learn any language correctly. Though studies on different methods of DLL education do not always show conclusive advantages of English-added or bilingual education over English-only, there has yet to be a major, conclusive study that shows better outcomes from an English-only curriculum than from a curriculum that also supports a second language. To put it simply, teaching that involves a child’s home language doesn’t seem to hurt, and the fear that a child won’t be able to separate one language from another as he or she progresses through school is unfounded in major research.
- Look to parents. Involving bi- or multi-lingual parents in classrooms where multiple languages are spoken is crucial for many reasons. For programs such as Head Start that reach out to low-income communities, parents can bridge language barriers and provide word-of-mouth information to their communities about available early learning programs and resources – not to mention health and community services. For teachers and administrators, parents can provide valuable background information to teachers who aren’t familiar with the home languages and cultures of their students. Efforts to engage parents and sustain their involvement in schools and classrooms should be a fundamental part of strong early education programs for dual language learners.
Looking for ways to improve dual language education in a classroom? Tune in to the Office of Head Start’s ongoing free webcast series on dual language learners. Head Start’s Program Preparedness Checklist-- a self assessment for programs with dual language learners-- is available when you register to watch the webcast. The agency is also preparing to publish a handbook on DLL approaches .
Also worth checking out is Colorín Colorado, an initiative from Washington, D.C. public television station WETA, which provides web-based information, activities, and advice for families and educators. The site focuses on the K-12 years but is expanding its pre-K resources.
Those interested in digging into the research might want to take a look at:
- “Educating Language-Minority Children,” a report edited by Diane August, research scientist at the Center for Applied Linguistics, and Stanford Professor Kenji Hakut. It was published by the National Research Council
- Head Start’s most recent report on dual language learners – “Dual Language Learning:What Does it Take?” -- which can be accessed here.
- Relevant policy briefs from the Society for Research in Child Development, including a 2009 report on boosting learning opportunities for young Hispanic children and a 2008 report on children in immigrant families.
- A recent issue of the journal for Zero to Three dedicated to “The Lives of America’s Youngest Children in Immigrant Families.”
- “Teaching English Language Learners,” a 2008 article in American Educator by Stanford professor Claude Goldenberg.