Preguntas, Preguntas: What Do We Know About Dual-Language Learners in Pre-K?
A symposium in Arlington on Tuesday brought together some of the most well-known researchers in the field of early childhood to dig into a tough and timely question: How do we help young children in the United States who know very little English?
The day-long symposium, "Investigating the Classroom Experiences of Young Dual Language Learners," was hosted by the National Center for Research on Early Childhood Education, based at the University of Virginia, in partnership with the National Center for Latino Child & Family Research. Designed to link together current research while also jumpstarting more probing studies, the symposium was peppered with lively discussions about how to gather and decipher evidence of what works in pre-K classrooms. The hosts intend to publish a collection of the day's papers.
Recent studies have shown that dual-language programs -- roughly defined as programs in which teachers give half of their instruction in a child's home language and half in English -- are effective at improving the school readiness of young children for whom English is a second language. But there is still vast uncharted territory for researchers to determine exactly what that these programs should look like in practice, what kinds of skills teachers need to teach dual-language learners, and what policies should be enacted (or scrapped) to turn classrooms into more appropriate language-learning zones.
The day was not billed as a seminar on research about children from Spanish-speaking homes specifically -- children arrive in early childhood centers speaking dozens of different languages -- but the Latino population was a main focus of discussion.
Among the many, many questions:
- Current thinking assumes that Latino parents are less likely to seek out pre-K programs for their children. Is that still true, or is it a supposition based on old research? Are we starting to see a shift in which Latino families are more comfortable, or have more access to, center-based programs and are starting to seek out more pre-K experiences for their children?
- How do we determine a child's first language? Just because a child comes from a home where Mom speaks Spanish, does that mean that the child's first language is Spanish or could he be gaining his first language skills from other adults or siblings in his life? Should we rely on the reports of parents and teachers to categorize children's language proficiency?
- Are Quality Rating and Improvement Systems taking language-learning into account? These systems use trained observers to rate the quality of early learning centers (giving them, say, a 1, 2 or 3 star rating.) Should those observers be measuring whether child care centers and pre-K programs are helping to support children's home languages as well as helping to teach them English?
- What words should we be using to describe children who come to classrooms without strong English skills: dual-language learners or English-language learners? Both? If we call them ELLs, are we ignoring the importance of them continuing to build their home-language skills? If we call them DLLs, will we get confused between categories of children and descriptions of formalized dual-language classrooms (in which half the day might be taught as an immersion in one language, and the other half in English?).
- How do state policies that favor English instruction, such as those in California for K-12 systems, impact what early childhood educators do in pre-K classrooms? What happens when a child transitions from a dual-language program into a kindergarten classroom where teachers speak only English?
- How should language skill be measured in determining "child outcomes," i.e., how well students are gaining new knowledge and skills? In other words, should we rely on a child's English-based math or English reading scores in determining whether he is learning math or language arts? Can proficiency in reading or answering qusetions in a home language be part of the picture? How do we tease apart what a child actually knows from how a child responds to an English-based test?
Ideas for how to support English-language learners have been trickling forth this year. For example, earlier in 2009, the Society for Research in Child Development published a policy report and accompanying commentaries on the needs of Hispanic children. One of the commenters in that series -- James A. Griffin of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development -- has been urging social scientists to go even further, noting the "paucity" of research on what interventions make the most difference to these English language learners.
Sounds like he's right, given that there are still so many questions hanging out there like those above. Much more needs to be investigated before we can speak definitively about how to prioritize resources and enact better policies to support young children's first language and help them master English. Hopefully the report from Tuesday's meeting will provide a better foundation for building pre-K programs that do the most good.
In the meantime, however, it's worth repeating one of the mantras that came out of Tuesday's symposium: "Good quality is good quality." No matter what a child's language background, we see mounting evidence that 3- and 4-year-old children benefit from teachers who converse with them, ask them about what they are seeing or doing, and respond to and elaborate on their questions. Rich language experiences, whether they happen in children's home language or in second language or both, are a cornerstone to a high-quality learning environment.