Dual Language Learners: Who are They and How Can Teachers Support Them?

As August looms over us and summer comes to an end, teachers from all over the country will enter their classrooms to meet a whole new group of students as they do every year. The beginning of the school year can be an exciting time, however, amongst the excitement, there may be moments where teachers, students, and parents feel worried, nervous, and even anxious about what’s to come in the new year. For some students, these feelings may be amplified– particularly for those who are having their very first school experience! Now, picture these young preschoolers coming into our classrooms. Sometimes they cry, sometimes they remain quiet all day, and sometimes they happily enter the class without a second glance at their parents. Throughout the school year, educators assess each student to determine diverse strengths and needs. Perhaps, over time, that quiet student might garner our attention because language is a great indicator of a child’s development. We may begin to wonder, does that child talk at all? How do I get them to talk?

Often times, developmental delays and disorders are suspected when students do not demonstrate expected language skills; which is why it is important for educators to consider that the child may be an English Language Learner (ELL). An ELL classification means that a student is proficient in speaking their native language but are still learning English as their second language. Now that we know what it means to be classified as an English Language Learner, I will be focusing on Dual Language Learners. Who are Dual Language Learners? And how can we support these learners in our classroom?

According to the office of Head Start , Dual Language Learners are children in the early childhood education system who acquire two or more languages simultaneously, and learn a second language while continuing to develop their first language. This can make the school experience for a Dual Language Learner frustrating and confusing. Teachers can identify a Dual Language Learner by paying close attention to the child’s language skills or lack of. Although Dual Language Learners can show a wide range of behaviors, from quiet and shy to active and high energy, they ultimately do not communicate effectively in English or in their family’s native language. This may cause the child to communicate through pointing or babbling sounds.

Dual Language Learners are at high risk for being misdiagnosed for having a speech disorder, developmental disorder, or developmental delay and as a result, are placed into special education; thus, receiving unnecessary services that place dual language learners on a trajectory that hinders their chances for success. According to Fabiano-Smith, a professor in the department of speech from University of Arizona, “Latino children are four times more likely to be identified as having a speech disorder than their white, English-speaking peers.”  Furthermore, a 2005 study by the University of Alberta demonstrated that immigrant children are at risk for being shuffled into special education services they don’t need because of errors in assessment for speech problems. When being assessed by support professionals, Dual Language Learners may present with characteristics commonly associated with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and speech disorders, amongst others. It is essential for Dual Language Learners to receive the correct classification as it can impact their academic success for years to come. In addition, the special education resources provided to Dual Language Learners would not be provided to students who actually need these services.

In our country, schools are essentially designed to educate students who speak English as a first language. So where does that leave Dual Language Learners, English Language Learners and others? How can teachers ensure that these students are provided with an equal and equitable education as compared to their native English speaking peers? Here are some strategies teachers can use to support Dual Language Learners:

Try to help build the child’s vocabulary in both languages. This is a challenging one, especially if you are not familiar with their home language. It is important to ask parents to educate you on some commonly used short words that could come in handy during class time. The child may use the term they know to describe something and you can use the English term for it. For example, the child may point at a car and exclaim “carro!” You can then say, “Very good, that’s a car!” 

Develop a teaching partnership with the student’s family. Ask parents to be active facilitators in their child’s language development. For example, communicate to parents by sending home a note informing them of specific songs, poems or books that the Dual Language Learner enjoys and ask parents to continue to encourage these interests at home. This will help the student strengthen their phonemic awareness in both the home and school setting while building on their prior knowledge. 

Support their family traditions. In my article, “Multicultural Inclusion in an Early Childhood Education Classroom” I discuss how we can support family traditions in the classroom. Representation of all cultures in the classroom enhances dual language development. In my own class, I was able to promote this by doing a bread-tasting activity. Parents and family members were invited to bring in a bread traditionally eaten in their culture. I also brought in some of my favorites. Some of the breads from around the world were Pita, Challah from Eastern Europe, Naan from India, Focaccia from Italy, Irish Soda Bread, Tortilla from Mexico, Pão de queijo from Brazil, Kulich from Romania, and more. The students had an incredible time tasting the different types of breads and saying the names!

Use descriptive language when speaking. Whether conversing with another teacher, staff member, parent or child; it is important to model descriptive language to enhance language development. For example, instead of saying  “please pass me that crayon,” try saying “please pass me the red crayon that is in the small container.” Using descriptive language promotes vocabulary growth and by exposing students to it during naturally occurring situations, Dual Language Learners will be able to grasp it more readily.

With the knowledge of who Dual Language Learners are and how to identify them, educators could use the strategies presented in this article to help provide these learners with an equitable and equal education. An educator’s goal for Dual Language Learners should be to help them acquire fluency in the English language so that they can achieve success in a school system that is designed to educate native English speaking students.

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