Early Childhood

For Young ELLs, Learning in Two Languages Best, Review Says

By Lesli A. Maxwell — August 19, 2013 2 min read
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Instruction in English and in a child’s home language in the preschool and early elementary years leads to the best outcomes for the youngest dual-language learners, both in terms of academic-content achievement and as English-language proficiency, a new research review and policy brief concludes.

In fact, evidence suggests that total immersion in English in the preschool years for students who speak another language at home leads to a loss of their first language, as well as lower academic achievement in the long run, writes Linda M. Espinosa, an early childhood and dual-language expert. This latest review— which is an update to a policy brief that Espinosa wrote five years ago—draws on newer evidence about young dual-language learners to counter what the author calls “common myths” about these students.

The brief was published by the Foundation for Child Development, a New York City-based philanthropy, and is the tenth in a series that focuses on policy recommendations for the pre-K through 3rd-grade years.

While the number of dual-language programs has been steadily growing over the last decade, there are still major barriers (without even mentioning those that get tied up with the politics of immigration) to providing such programs. The biggie, of course, is too few bilingual teachers.

But even with a vast shortage of bilingual teachers who can deliver instruction in English and another language, Espinosa writes that it would be “misguided” to conclude that the answer is to just provide preschool programs in one common language—English. That’s because the growing body of evidence which shows that students whose exposure to their home language continues through their earliest schooling years do better than their peers who lose their home language.

She discusses teaching practices that monolingual educators can use to support the ongoing development of a child’s home language, including visual displays in classrooms that represent different languages and cultures, providing books and other materials in the home languages, and using parents and volunteers who speak the home language in their classrooms.

Espinosa also confronts the idea that students who are native English speakers fall behind their peers if they participate in dual-language programs, where at least half of their instruction is provided in Spanish, Mandarin, or other target languages, citing the numerous studies that show the long-term cognitive benefits to learning more than one language.

There’s a whole lot more to sift through in Espinosa’s report, including a slate of policy recommendations.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.