ELLs Need Support in Home Language to Effectively Learn English

Aug 23, 2011

By Hannah Matthews

A recent news article states that "today's parents see the benefits of being fluent in more than one language, and they look for ways to encourage it." That's good news considering that children who are bilingual show evidence of higher cognitive abilities, among other benefits, and have the prospect of greater earning potential in our increasingly multilingual society.

Based on demographics, a quarter of children in this country should be on the road to bilingualism. One in four children in the United States has a parent who was born outside of the country, most of whom speak a language other than English at home. These children have the opportunity to become fluent in their home language, as well as English. But unfortunately it's not the reality for many English Language Learners (ELLs).

To learn a second language and reap the benefits of bilingualism, children must have a solid foundation in both languages. For very young children, research shows that support for the home language is critical to learning a second language. That suggests that for young ELLs-particularly those with parents with low levels of education-early education settings should support their language development through dual-language or native language curriculum with staff who speak their native language. 

Yet, only one state, Illinois, requires bilingual services for 3- and 4-year old children in state preschool settings. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), while other states permit bilingual preschool classes, others have no standards in place for regulating services for ELLs. Moreover, three states have bilingual education bans and additional states have English-only laws that restrict services in languages other than English. 

Recently, the Administration released draft criteria for the Early Learning Challenge, a competitive grant program for states to improve the quality of their early childhood systems for high-risk children. Among other criteria, states competing for Early Learning Challenge funds have to develop and use early learning standards that are linguistically and culturally appropriate across age groups and across settings, including preschool programs. According to the National Council of La Raza, only one state-Alaska-currently has comprehensive early learning standards that include indicators and strategies for supporting dual language learning across developmental domains. The state has a demonstrated goal of children preserving native language, while acquiring English. The Early Learning Challenge presents an opportunity for states to revisit their early learning standards and consider what changes or additions may be necessary to make them "linguistically and culturally appropriate" based on the most recent research on second language acquisition, bilingualism, and cultural competency. Not only should standards address ELLs, but teachers need to understand effective strategies for implementing appropriate strategies.

Meeting the needs of the growing population of young children of immigrants presents a challenge for the early childhood field; but it is a challenge that is essential to meet to move comprehensive early childhood systems forward.

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