Policy Statement Advances HHS and ED’s Shared Vision to Improve Access to High-Quality Early Education Opportunities for Dual Language Learners
By Christina Walker
On June 2, 2016, the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Education (ED) released a joint statement, and corresponding toolkit, to support early childhood programs, states, and tribal communities in promoting the development and education of young dual language learners (DLLs)—children who come from homes where a language other than English is spoken. Because early childhood is a critical time for acquiring language skills, these children are often learning two (or more) languages at the same time.
Changing demographics necessitate that early childhood programs across the country be able to appropriately serve DLLs, as approximately one in four young children in the U.S. may be considered a dual language learner. According to Census data from 2000, 27 percent of children under age 6 came from homes where at least one parent spoke a language other than English, and 2008 Head Start data show that 29 percent of Head Start preschoolers come from a home where a language other than English is spoken. While the majority (71 percent) of school-age children who are DLLs come from households where Spanish is spoken, overall, DLLs come from diverse family backgrounds speaking a large number of languages and dialects and with varying English language proficiency.
Early childhood is a critical time to support the development of language skills; and while DLLs may face academic challenges, there are many documented benefits of bilingualism, which suggest support for children’s home language and English is essential in the early years. Young children who learn more than one language starting in their earliest years show improved executive functions such as working memory, greater cognitive flexibility, a better ability to sort out relevant versus irrelevant cues, and improved language skills. These traits are associated with early bilingualism. Long-term, children who grow up learning two or more languages reap cognitive, linguistic, cultural, and economic benefits.
Supporting young children’s language development in both English and their home language is a difficult task and often requires additional supports for teachers, children, and families. Moreover, the early childhood system has yet to fully and universally implement best practices to foster the teaching and development of children who are DLLs. Therefore, as the number of young DLLs grows, policymakers, as well as early childhood educators, should consider the recommendations provided in this policy statement as important steps to better meet the development and learning needs of these young children. For example, states could collect data on the number of DLL children living in their communities to help inform outreach, resource allocation, professional development efforts, and state planning. Furthermore, early childhood programs can ensure that the workforce has the necessary training to support dual language learners and create culturally responsive learning environments. Taking these steps can help support the future economic success of these children, their families, and our nation.
This policy statement is the most recent effort from the Obama Administration to better support DLLs in early childhood programs. For example, it follows on the heels of the proposed changes to the Head Start Program Performance Standards released last summer, which underscored the strength of bilingualism and furthered Head Start standards to implement practices that support dual language development.
CLASP commends HHS and ED on the release of this joint policy statement, and we share their commitment to better serving these young children in early childhood programs and policies. CLASP is ready and eager to work with state policymakers and early childhood advocates to ensure young dual language learners have access to the high-quality education opportunities that they need to succeed in school and beyond.