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Supporting Dual Language Learners with High Quality Interactions

24 Feb 2021 by Emma Cahoon

The majority of early childhood classrooms have at least one child who is a dual language learner (DLL) and this population is growing. One in three children from birth to age six speak a language besides English at home. Consequently, the majority of teachers need strategies on how to best support this group of students. We reached out to Veronica Fernandez, Developmental Psychologist and Research Scientist at the University of Miami for strategies she’s found most successful.

Fernandez suggests, first and foremost, that teachers learn the languages of their DLL students in order to better connect with them. They do not need to become fluent in each language represented in their classrooms, but should make a genuine effort to learn key words or phrases, such as the child and family’s names and pronunciations, greetings, and emotion words. It is even better if the child can be an active part of this cultural exchange, as many children find it empowering to teach their teachers. This also helps ensure the teacher is learning the correct word in cases where the language in question has many dialects.

Other ways to include languages of DLL students in the classroom and to promote inclusivity would be to:

  • Bring in books and audiobooks in children’s home languages. Make sure to provide books and materials that give an authentic representation of the cultures and L1s of DLL students and their families. Have students, parents, and volunteers help read and explain them.
  • Incorporate morning meeting greetings; for example, teach kids how to say hello in each language.
  • When virtual, use visual cues, gestures, signals, and pictures to keep things accessible for all students. When in person, labels can help; for example, creating labels for pictures with words in a consistent color for a language.
  • Make time for frequent individual (3-4 children) and small-group language learning experiences. Encourage students to teach each other.
  • Incorporate songs, fingerplays, and chants.

Fernandez notes that this kind of language learning can lead to stronger relationships between teachers and DLL students and their families, as well as a better understanding of their cultures. Other suggestions she has for building these relationships include inviting the family into the classroom as much as possible. While this is currently difficult due to the COVID-19 pandemic, online or virtual engagement may still be an effective substitute. For example, whether in-person or virtual, ask the family about phrases that comfort the child and incorporate them into your classroom.

In addition, it is important to remember that each DLL child is an individual. In order to meet their needs, you must get to know each child’s background, experience, abilities, and interests. When children are young, we learn much of this through their families, making it especially important to engage with families of DLL children. Making the effort to build these relationships with DLL students and families can contribute to students’ sense of identity, belonging, and comfort in the classroom.

Fernandez also acknowledges the ways in which virtual learning has impacted DLLs, families, and teachers. Some challenges can be overcome - for example, using online translators to break down language barriers - but some do not have straightforward solutions. Parents who need to balance working from home and caring for their children face unique problems, as well as those who are unable to work from home and must find others to care for their children. There is also the issue of children not getting the routine and social interaction benefits that come with group-care settings.

However, Fernandez does not worry that some children may not be learning in English as a result, saying that “this idea that English-only immersion is beneficial for children is one of the biggest myths that has been debunked consistently by research. In fact, what we find consistently is that continued and intentional support and development of their home language is beneficial for English acquisition and their overall learning success long-term.” She encourages thinking of the child’s home language as an asset, and that parents should talk, read, sing, and most importantly play with their children in the language they are most comfortable in. According to Fernandez, if they are interacting in authentic ways, this is the best way to support their child's language development and success long-term.

Lastly, it is important to remember to not always focus on teaching specific skills or objectives. Instead, take time to engage in play with the DLL student’s home language, and start observing them during play. You can then describe what they are doing, using details, and ask questions, thus increasing your proficiency and making the child more comfortable.

To hear more suggestions, you can watch the webinar Veronica Fernandez recently hosted or register for the upcoming InterAct Now: CLASS Summit where she'll be presenting the session "Integrating Coaching and DLL Best Practices".

Dwayne Reed on The Power of Interactions March 25 2021 1-2pm EST