Using the Kentucky Early Childhood Standards with Dual Language Learners
Kentucky’s Early Childhood Standards describe expectations for all children’s learning and development, including children whose primary home language is not English. These children are referred to as “Dual Language Learners”. This Appendix provides information to support educators in how to use the Early Childhood Standards with Dual Language Learners. The goal is to provide an overview or a starting point, not a comprehensive guide for working with Dual Language Learners. Additional resources that provide more in-depth information to support educators are provided at the end.
Success Starts with You!
One of the most important keys to success in working with Dual Language Learners is the educator’s attitude. Educators who start with the understanding that dual language learning is an asset for children often find that the strengths Dual Language Learners bring to the classroom far outweigh the challenges they might experience in communication. In fact, research indicates that learning more than one language has a lot of benefits for children. For instance, dual language learning is associated with more advanced brain development. Dual Language Learners’ brains often are more active and flexible, meaning that they have greater ability to think logically, solve problems and remember what they have learned. In the social-emotional domain, Dual Language Learners tend to form and maintain strong relationships with family and friends and often demonstrate more self-control than children who are only learning one language. So, educators who approach their work with Dual Language Learners believing that the children are bright, and that the process of learning a second (and third, and fourth) language is beneficial, are better able to build relationships and teach the children more effectively (National Center on Cultural and Linguistic Responsiveness, n.d.).
This is not to say that working with Dual Language Learners, just like working with any children, doesn’t bring some challenges. Certainly, educators who only speak English will need to develop strategies to communicate, to observe the children carefully, and to teach concepts in different ways. However, it’s important to make sure that the focus is on the children’s strengths and to check for any sources of bias that might color interactions with and judgements about Dual Language Learners. For instance, educators must constantly assess their assumptions that might be impacting how they view Dual Language Learners. An educator might mistakenly think that a child who cannot communicate in English is less intelligent or not as capable of learning. This would be an incorrect assumption that biases how the educator interacts with the child (Gonzales 2016). It is our responsibility as educators to reflect on and take action to work against assumptions and biases such as this that can get in the way of working effectively with Dual Language Learners. In fact, we have the responsibility to promote equity for Dual Language Learners, which means that Dual Language Learners have more, not fewer, opportunities to learn what their English-speaking peers are learning.
In summary, it’s critically important to remember that the attitude the educator brings to teaching Dual Language Learners is the starting point for effective teaching. Educators who see the benefits of dual language learning, who approach teaching with curiosity about how best to work with each individual child, and who are willing to try different teaching strategies can build stronger relationships with Dual Language Learners and best support their learning.
Dual Language Learning—Some Basic Concepts
Perhaps the first concept to understand about dual language learning is the ways in which it enhances children’s learning. As mentioned above, the process of learning more than one language is beneficial for children in many ways. In areas related to school readiness, research indicates that bilingual children develop more flexible approaches to thinking through problems. They also demonstrate more abstract thought and are better at ignoring irrelevant information. They tend to understand and use logic needed to solve mathematics problems and learn additional languages more easily than children who only learn one language.
Common Terminology. In addition to understanding the benefits of dual language learning, there are a number of terms and concepts related to dual language learning that educators may come across. The table below includes definitions for some commonly used terms related to dual language learning.
Terminology Related to Dual Language Learning
- Identifying with the cultures of two different ethnic, national, or language groups.
- Bicultural Education
- An educational program in which two languages are used to provide content matter instruction.
- A child who uses two languages.
- Dual Language Learner
- A child learning a second language, while continuing to learn their home language.
- English as a Second Language
- A curriculum designed to teach English to English Language Learners.
- English Language Learner
- A child whose home language is not English and is learning English as an additional language.
- Limited English Proficient
- A term used by government agencies to identify students who are not yet proficient enough in English to succeed in English-only classrooms.
- Multilingual Learner
- A child learning two or more languages, either at the same time or with a primary home language and additional language(s).
- Primary Language
- The language in which bilingual/multilingual speakers are most fluent and prefer to use.
Stages of Dual Language Learning. One key to helping children reap the benefits of learning a second language is to encourage and support their learning in their home language first. Although it may be tempting to focus a lot of attention on how they are learning English, research indicates that mastery of their home language lays the foundation for all areas of learning, including learning to speak, read and write in English.
In addition, learning a second language takes time and is a process that unfolds in generally the same order as when learning the first language, although rates differ depending on children’s experiences with the second language (as well as the strength of their language development in their first language, as noted above). Knowing the basic pattern or stages of second language development can be very useful for an educator because in some cases a child may not appear to be making progress when they really are.
The table below describes the stages of second language development. Very young children who begin learning the second language from birth may progress to a more advanced stage relatively quickly, but children who experience the second language later in early childhood may be at the very first stage for quite a while and it may seem like they are not making progress. This is why it is important for educators to learn all that they can about when and how the dual language learner has been exposed to the new language to better understand the child’s learning and development (Robertson & Ford, 2019).
Stages of Second Language Acquisition
- Description of the Stage
- The child observes those around them who are speaking a different language but does not try to speak the second language. Known as the “silent period”, children may not speak with anyone for quite some time. They are listening, taking in the new language and beginning to make sense of it. Although this silent period is the beginning of learning a second language, sometimes teachers mistakenly assume that the child is not making progress toward learning the second language.
- Early Production
- As the child learns a bit more of the second language, they begin trying to use the second language occasionally, trying out key words or phrases and often making mistakes. Even though they are learning some of the second language, they are still listening to the second language more than using it so they may not speak a lot in the second language.
- Speech Emergent
- At this stage the child is able to comprehend much of what they hear when other people are speaking the second language. They can use clues from the situation to “catch” what others are saying and know how to respond. They begin to talk more in the second language and to learn new vocabulary words but continue to make errors in how they speak the second language.
- Beginning Fluency
- A child who is becoming fluent in the second language is able to talk about familiar topics and in familiar settings with family, friends and teachers in the second language. In new settings and/or talking about new topics, they may experience challenges in expressing themselves in the second language because they may not know the best words or phrases to use. Learning academic subjects may still be easier for them in their native language rather than in the second language.
- Intermediate Fluency
- When a child reaches this stage, they can communicate well in familiar situations and can communicate appropriately in new settings or talking about new topics. Their comprehension of what other people say in the second language is very good and they can speak the second language very well, although sometimes they may use a word that is different from what a native speaker of the language would say. They are able to learn academic subjects in the second language.
- Advanced Fluency
- The child is able to communicate fluently in new situations as well as familiar situations and can learn academic subjects well in the second language. They are comfortable communicating in the second language in all types of situations and make few errors when communicating in the second language.
Although these stages are common across Dual Language Learners, very young children who are learning English as their second language may only reach the Early Production or Speech Emergent stages. Their progress depends on opportunities to hear others use the second language as well as how strong their home language development is. One myth that educators sometimes hear is that children will learn the second language (i.e., English) more quickly if they are in settings that use only English. Research has shown that children learn English more effectively if they are in settings where both their home language and English are used. When children can hear their own language and English, they can pick up concepts more easily and begin to understand what the English words mean because they can use clues from their home language. Therefore, it’s important to encourage families to continue to speak their own language at home and to give children as many opportunities as possible to use their home language in the classroom.
Working with Families of Dual Language Learners
Educators who begin with a positive, strengths-based attitude and are knowledgeable about how second language learning unfolds are ready to consider what, specifically, they can do to promote learning among Dual Language Learners. Working with their families is just as important as it is for children who speak the same language as the educator, although it can require a little extra effort to work effectively with families of Dual Language Learners if you do not speak their home language.
The first step is to get to know the child and the child’s family. Showing interest in the child and investing time in learning about the family’s experiences, their hopes and dreams for their child, and their preferences related to the language(s) their child learns are important steps to communicate that you are invested in their child’s education. Make the effort to learn to pronounce their names the way they prefer, which can go a long way toward establishing a relationship with the family and the child. Ask what they prefer in terms of how to communicate. Families who speak some English may still prefer to communicate in their home language. Other families may prefer to speak in English but have written materials in their home language. Finding out their preferences for how to communicate can make the communication process more effective and efficient. These steps also provide opportunities to gain information that will help when planning learning experiences for the child. Educators who do not speak the family’s language can work with someone who does speak the family’s language to help gather information, or can use other creative ideas to help the family communicate.
It is important to use a strengths-based approach when working with families of Dual Language Learners. The families, their culture, and their language are assets in educating their child, and they bring considerable resources to the classroom as a whole. Instead of thinking about what a family or a child does not know or understand, consider and honor what they do contribute to the education of their own child and to the classroom.
In order to use a strengths-based approach to working with families of Dual Language Learners, educators should keep in mind several considerations. First, educators must work to ensure that families have the support that they need, including written documents that are translated into their language and interpretation services for oral communication, so they can fully participate in their child’s education. Materials can also be made available in formats such as videos in their language if families are not strong readers. Remember that families may have limited understanding of the education system and that language barriers can get in the way of families participating in conferences or other classroom activities. In addition, because of cultural differences, family members may view teachers and administrators as “experts” and be uncomfortable sharing their own observations of the child and/or concerns. Educators should take steps to understand families and to provide information and resources in ways that are best suited to the family’s preferences and situation.
Another important aspect of working with families of Dual Language Learners is the need to build mutual trust. Educators can foster either trust or distrust, depending on how they relate with family members. Verbal and nonverbal messages can convey interest and empathy, which build trust, especially when educators and families speak different languages. Therefore, educators need to be aware of both what they say and how they say it, and be careful to treat families with respect and openness. Also, keep in mind that members of other families who have a child enrolled in the program can be great allies in building trust. They can explain what to expect and introduce the educator to new families, helping them get off to a smoother start.
Using the Early Childhood Standards to Promote Success with Dual Language Learners
To help Dual Language Learner children make progress on the skills and knowledge included in the Early Childhood Standards, it’s important to take a look at the classroom environment to see if the Dual Language Learner’s language development and learning in other areas will be supported. For instance, how welcoming is the classroom? Will the family and the child see their own language on the walls in the classroom, in the books that are available, in parent newsletters and other documents for families, etc.? Can someone on staff help by communicating in the family’s home language? Are there other children and families who speak the same language? Paying attention to big and small ways to make the family and the child feel welcome can go a long way toward forming relationships and partnerships to support the child’s learning.
Educators will also need to be intentional in how they are using the Early Childhood Standards as a basis for teaching Dual Language Learners. First, remember that at the same time they are acquiring a second language, Dual Language Learners also need to have opportunities to learn the content that is described in the Early Childhood Standards, such as early mathematics skills, early literacy skills, science concepts, and social studies content. Therefore, when planning learning experiences, educators can take steps to make the content more accessible or understandable to children who speak another language. This may mean that educators use visual supports such as props and/or pictures to show children a concept rather than just talking about what they are teaching. Educators should also learn and use key words from the Dual Language Learner’s home language so they can label objects or concepts they are teaching in the child’s home language. They might also use other strategies, such as physically demonstrating a skill when talking about it. Although strategies such as these are helpful for all children, they are particularly important for Dual Language Learner children.
Educators who pay especially close attention to Dual Language Learner children’s thinking as they are teaching concepts from the Early Childhood Standards can gain insights into what the children are learning. Because Dual Language Learners may still be learning the vocabulary the educator is using, it’s important to check and make sure the child really understands the concept rather than relying on a simple correct answer that they might offer to questions. When working with any children, but particularly with Dual Language Learners, educators can get a better understanding of what the Dual Language Learner child is thinking by asking why they gave a particular answer. Educators can also ask children to demonstrate concepts such as using manipulatives to indicate a specific number, etc. Probes such as this will help educators get a better feel for whether the child really understands the concept they are trying to teach.
It is also important to think about how to integrate children’s experiences at home into the curriculum. Building on what the children experience at home is more effective than introducing new skills and concepts in a way that is unfamiliar to Dual Language Learners. For instance, educators can use activities similar to families’ daily routines to help children practice mathematical and science learning, or when talking about roles and cultural traditions as part of social studies. The Dual Language Learner’s cultural experiences should be integrated naturally into daily activities on a regular basis. Including objects, practices and traditions from the children’s families as part of all aspects of the curriculum can help educators avoid the “tourist” approach that focuses only on learning about a specific culture during designated times, such as holidays.
Educators also can look for ways to build on children’s home language when supporting children’s early literacy development. In fact, children who learn to read in their home language have a strong foundation to build upon when they learn early literacy skills in a second language. Therefore, it’s important to support learning early literacy skills in their home language, as well as in English. For instance, educators can help children build their vocabulary by using words in both the child’s home language and English. Making books and other literacy materials available in the children’s home language(s) gives the children additional opportunities to make the connection between print and language. Including stories from the traditions of the Dual Language Learner children in their home language can help them be motivated to participate in early literacy activities. Family members and others who speak the child’s home language can share stories, and educators can also use videos and recordings to introduce stories in Dual Language Learner children’s home language (Head Start ELKC, n.d.).
Finally, educators should help Dual Language Learners demonstrate what they know in different ways, including expressing what they know in their home language. In other words, children can demonstrate progress on the Early Childhood Standards even if they do not know how to speak English. For instance, a child who is learning to count can count in their home language rather than English. Even if the child is not counting in English, they are demonstrating that they understand the concept of counting. Young Dual Language Learners might demonstrate what they know through gestures, by pointing to pictures to answer questions, or by using props such as blocks or other objects. An observant educator can often determine children’s understanding of concepts even if they cannot express them verbally in academic English.
Dual Language Learners bring tremendous strengths to early care and education settings. Educators can use their knowledge of dual language learning plus the Early Childhood Standards to maximize learning opportunities for these children. The table below provides additional resources to support educators working with Dual Language Learners.
Useful Resources for Educators working with Dual Language Learners
- Colorin Colorado is a national multimedia project that offers bilingual, research-based information, activities and advice for educators and families of Dual Language Learners. https://bit.ly/39xHn0o
- Head Start Early Learning & Knowledge Center (ECLKC) is a national website that provides information on a variety of topics, including Dual Language Learners and the role of culture in children’s development in the “Dual Language Learners Toolkit”. Resources can be found under the Culture and Language heading. https://bit.ly/3u69mxN
- NAEYC houses a website titled, “Dual Language Learners” that provides links to a variety of resources. https://bit.ly/3u2iymK
- WIDA is a national website that provides language development resources for educators working with Dual Language Learners. The resources include language standards, assessments, and professional resources such as “Early Years Can Do Descriptors” which are examples of what two- to five-year-old DUAL LANGUAGE LEARNERs can do at various stages of language development. https://bit.ly/3CGpeKF
- Gonzalez, A. (2016, November 1). 10 assumptions to rethink about English-language learners. Education Week. https://bit.ly/3lLmGnH
- Head Start Early Learning and Knowledge Center. (n.d.) Dual language learners: Considerations and strategies for home visitors. Available at https://bit.ly/3lIM2Cy
- National Center on Cultural and Linguistic Responsiveness. (n.d.). The benefits of being bilingual. Washington, DC: US Department of Health & Human Services. Available at https://bit.ly/3CzQAC3
- Robertson, K., & Ford, K. (2019). Language acquisition: An overview. Colorin Colorado. Available at https://bit.ly/3nU1xdH