By Susan G. Hibbard
Executive Director, BUILD Initiative
Having lived part-time in Rome as a child, I grew up among Italian children who, like the majority of children all over the world, learn two or more languages in the earliest years of life. This is viewed as beneficial (even critical) and an asset that will serve them well in school and in their careers. When I started first grade in Italy, the children I played with were already adept at speaking to me in English. Though they may have considered it embarrassingly rudimentary, we might consider it quite good if it were a native English-speaker’s Spanish capacity after completing four years of High School Spanish.
In the U.S., children who are learning two languages in the early years are referred to as dual language learners; they now account for nearly one-third of all children under the age of six. However, in the U.S., bilingualism often is not viewed as an asset until you enter the workplace. During the formal schooling years, status as a dual language learner places a child “at risk,” despite clear research that young children are fully capable of developing and acquiring more than one language if the adults who care for them are able to support both. They are probably classified as “at risk” because our nation’s K-12 system has struggled to educate these children.
Our national perception of children who don’t speak English as at risk of school failure serves as an impediment to designing programs, policies, and systems that are responsive to their unique needs, and reflect high expectations for their capacity. In the case of language acquisition, the research is irrefutable, and yet we rarely if ever talk about the overwhelming benefits of bilingualism, and young children’s capacity to develop two languages, even when we talk about evidenced-based programs and policies.
States’ efforts to develop Early Learning and Development Standards (ELDS) are critically important for all young children. ELDS can bring together families, educators, and systems leaders around a shared vision for young children’s development and learning; frame the expectations for what children should know and be able to do by the start of kindergarten; and serve as the foundation for building an equitable early childhood. These standards provide an enormous opportunity for state systems to define expectations for young children in all their diversity. As such, ELDS represent a central opportunity for states to consider dual language learners’ language and literacy in their home language as well as in their emergent English.
BUILD turned to Dr. Linda Espinosa and Miriam Calderon to find out the extent to which states’ ELDS reflect the current research and address the learning needs of young dual language learners. They examined 23 states’ ELDS for pre-k-aged children to determine the most common approaches for representing dual language learners across a broad set of criteria. Their report, “State Early Learning and Development Standards/Guidelines, Policies & Related Practices: How responsive are they to the needs of young dual language learners?" includes an individual state profile that summarizes how each state is addressing the needs of young dual language leaners, and concludes with recommendations for how states can be more responsive to the needs of dual language learners in their ELDS and other components of their early childhood system.
The report’s findings are mixed. While most states have acknowledged the unique learning needs of young dual language learners in some fashion, usually by indicating the need to support the home language, no state has provided comprehensive guidance about what this means in the context of instruction, assessment, family engagement practices, or who is qualified to teach dual language learners. The reality today in most early childhood classrooms is that many, if not most, early childhood professionals have cared for a dual language learning child, or will do so in the near future. Without clear guidance on what is meant by “support the home language,” it is highly unlikely that these professionals will be able to deliver the type of experiences that research shows is most beneficial for these children.
We at BUILD hope this report sparks further reflection and action on behalf of young dual language learners and their families. It can serve as a tool to help states re-examine their stated vision and expectations for young dual language learners as compared to the research on best practices, and take action to better align this vision across all components of their early childhood systems. Indeed, the demographic shifts in our country create urgency for this work. If early childhood programs are not effective for young dual language learners and their families, then we must ask ourselves if they are effective overall.