Revisiting Early Learning Standards with ELLs in Mind

Jan 12, 2012

By Hannah Matthews

More than one in four young children under age 6 in the United States have a parent who speaks a language other than English, and one in seven has at least one parent who is limited English proficient (LEP). This growing group of young children is underrepresented in early childhood programs and often overlooked in policy conversations.

One way in which states can support programs in being more responsive to the needs of English Language Learners (ELLs) is through early learning guidelines. These state standards provide information to programs and providers on what children should know and do at different stages of development. Existing early learning standards related to ELLs are often vague or contain little guidance for implementation. According to analysis by 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. California is the only state to have specific early learning standards developed for ELLs. States can 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. Standards should stress the importance of both first and second language acquisition for ELLs and include appropriate expectations for progress in speaking, listening, and understanding in both home language and in English.

Standards providing instructions for implementation are most practical for those working with children. Materials should not only explain instructional practices that benefit ELLs, they should include basic explanation of second-language acquisition to aid teachers' understandings of the dynamics of how ELL children acquire language skills. Standards should be implemented with an awareness of the multiple and diverse ways children can demonstrate competence in particular skills. Children from different cultures approach learning and demonstrate competence in different ways, based on diverse childrearing practices and concepts of normative behavior. Caregivers need guidance on working effectively with ELLS and understanding where these children exhibit similarities and differences from monolingual English learners.

Some states have used preschool standards to provide guidance to teachers on working with ELLs. The Texas prekindergarten guidelines include an introductory section on how the guidelines support instruction for ELLs. The guidelines not only explain instructional practices that benefit ELLs, they also include basic explanation of second-language acquisition to help  teachers understand the dynamics of how ELL children acquire language skills. Throughout the guidelines, additional instructional techniques and child behaviors specific to ELL children are embedded. New Jersey's Preschool Program Implementation Guidelines contain several pages of information on supporting ELLs. They describe how bilingual staff should incorporate children's home languages into the program and serve as language models. They describe appropriate activities and strategies to support early language and literacy development for ELLs, appropriate classroom environments for ELLs, and the role for school districts in supporting teachers working with ELLs.

All standards should be accompanied by professional development and mentoring with all those working in early childhood settings, including directors and other administrators, teachers and paraprofessionals, and family service workers.

States report efforts to revisit early learning standards. Keeping ELLs in mind will help ensure future standards will meet the needs of this group of children.

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