How to Support Dual Language Learners in the Classroom

In this article, Lisa White, Ph.D., Researcher at the American Institutes for Research, discusses how to support dual language learners in the classroom using the research-based early childhood curriculum Cultivating Oral Language and Literacy Talents in Students (COLLTS).

Imagine a shared book reading lesson in an early childhood classroom with children who speak varying levels of English and Spanish. The teacher speaks some Spanish, but conducts her instruction mostly in English. She asks the class, “What do you see in the picture?” One student says, “a sky!” Another student says, “un pájaro!” A third student says, “Yea, I see a pájaro flying in the sky!” The teacher responds, “Wow, thank you everyone! That is right, there is a bird flying in the sky. In Spanish, the word for bird is pájaro.”

In this example, we see the powerful interplay between the child’s home language and English. Dual language learners (DLLs), or children who learn a language other than English at home, are unique in that they are developing two languages at once. Research has shown that learning two languages simultaneously has numerous benefits for children, including  better executive functioning[i, ii].  (Our first blog post in this series explains this in further detail.)

Given what we know about DLLs, it is important to support their language and literacy development as much as possible.

Here we provide tips for educators to do just that, with examples from Cultivating Oral Language and Literacy Talent in Students (COLLTS).

How can I promote DLL children’s vocabulary development?

A key way to support vocabulary development in one or both languages is to provide repeated exposure of the words across contexts and with different types of media (e.g., pictures, hands on objects, etc.). By giving children varied opportunities to recognize and use new words, they become familiar with the words and can start to generalize the word to new contexts. In another common technique, often known as Total Physical Response, children practice and act out new words using gestures and body movements. For example, when learning the word petal, a teacher could say: “Let’s pretend our fingers are petals. Let’s close our petals when it is hot. [Act out.] We are closing our petals during the heat of the day.”

How can I support bilingual development?

Supporting bilingual development means more than just supporting the development of each language, separately. It also involves building awareness of both languages as unique (and complementary) systems, the underlying structure of each, and understanding when to use which language. These are concepts related to metalinguistic awareness. Helping children notice the similarities and differences between two languages can help build this skill and generally support bilingualism. Encouraging children to learn the same word in two languages and make connections between the two languages is a helpful exercise. This can be done by exploring words for the same concept in each language and talking about whether the sounds and letters are similar or different (e.g., carro in Spanish and car in English).

See an example of a vocabulary card from the COLLTS curriculum, below:

It is also important to allow children to choose which language to express themselves in. You may notice that young DLLs codeswitch or use words from both of their languages in the same sentence (check out this Guide on Code Switching from the Office of Head Start for more information). This is a normal part of dual language development and offers an opportunity to bring attention to both languages, at once. Another strategy is to provide similar opportunities in both languages (i.e., engage in activities and review concepts in both languages) to help DLL children gain exposure to both. For example, you may decide to first read a book in the child’s home language, and then read the same book in English later. In the COLLTS curriculum, books and associated activities are provided in both languages to enhance exposure to both languages.

How can I help DLL children get ready to read?

Pre-reading skills are some of the most important predictors of future achievement[iii]. One of the key ways to support children in learning about books is introducing them to concepts of print. These concepts include things like the understanding that words carry meaning and that letters make up words. It can also include building vocabulary around the structure of books themselves (e.g., spine, author, illustrator, page, etc.).

Here is an excerpt from the COLLTS curriculum, that demonstrates how teachers can help children build knowledge of the concepts of print in the context of book reading:

Point to the title and author’s name on the cover. Explain to the children that a book’s title is the name of the book, the author is the person who wrote the book and the illustrator is the person who drew the pictures.

Then say: “Today we will read a story about a little girl. The title of this book is Lola Loves Stories. The author is Anna McQuinn and the illustrator is Rosalind Beardshaw. Remember, the title of the book is Lola Loves Stories. What do you think the little girl likes to do?”

Modeling writing can help young readers become comfortable with the idea that words carry meaning. One way to do this is to ask the child to draw something (ideally related to a story or relevant topic you have been talking about), and then ask them to tell you about the picture. Tell the child that you will write down what they say and do this as the child verbally responds to your prompt. This modeling can help children make the connection between words and print.

See below for an example of a writing activity from the COLLTS curriculum:

Another way to build early literacy is to practice identifying letters with young children and slowly build up being able to put letters together to create words. This can be done by naming letters for children as you model writing or helping children practice letter knowledge in other contexts (e.g., reading, exploring letter manipulatives, using hands-on materials to make letter shapes, etc.).

These are all ways that young children can start to become comfortable with literacy and reading and can help set the stage for starting to learn how to read.

What is the best way to ask questions to support DLLs’ language and literacy development?

Asking questions and encouraging young DLL children to speak is a great way to help their comprehension and oral language development. There are a few things you can do to figure out the best questions to ask. Generally, it is great to ask a mix of open- and closed-ended questions. Open-ended questions require a longer answer, and typically start with words like how or why (e.g., “Why do you think Lola was excited?”), while closed-ended questions have one answer (e.g., “What color is this?”). It is important to adjust the questions to the level of the child. For children who are just starting to express themselves verbally in the second language, you can still ask both types of questions, but you may need to start off with some easier questions that are closed-ended. A helpful tip is to model responses if you see a child is struggling to answer.

Here is an example of a snapshot of the interactive reading component of the COLLTS curriculum, that has questions embedded throughout the lesson:

What can families do at home to support language and literacy development?

Families play an important role in supporting language and literacy development at home. For parents and families of DLLs, it is best to speak in whichever language they are most comfortable. Caregivers can read books with children and make this an interactive experience with lots of questions and opportunities to build vocabulary. Families can also connect with teachers to understand and build on what children are learning in the classroom. The COLLTS curriculum offers several parent engagement activities that families can do at home to help make the connection between home and school learning experiences.

See below for an example of a family literacy activity, that accompanies the book Over in a River.

To read more about the COLLTS curriculum and learn about the background, supporting research, and materials associated with it, check out the COLLTS webpage. If you are interested in purchasing the curriculum, please visit: 

[i] Beatty-Martínez, A. L., Navarro-Torres, C. A., & Dussias, P. E. (2020). Codeswitching: a bilingual toolkit for opportunistic speech planning. Frontiers in psychology11, 1699, 1-12.

[ii] Bialystok, E., Craik, F. I., & Luk, G. (2012). Bilingualism: Consequences for mind and brain. Trends in Cognitive Sciences16(4), 240-250.

[iii] Sparks, R. L., Patton, J., & Murdoch, A. (2014). Early reading success and its relationship to reading achievement and reading volume: Replication of ‘10 years later’. Reading and Writing27(1), 189-211.

Lisa White is an early childhood researcher at American Institutes for Research (AIR). Dr. White’s areas of expertise include issues related to dual language learners (DLLs; including the cognitive advantages of bilingualism and culturally and linguistically sensitive classroom instruction), executive functioning development, early science teaching and learning, teacher professional development (PD), and measurement of child learning (including computerized assessments) and teacher/classroom quality in early education contexts. She has contributed her content knowledge and analytic skills to many DLL-focused projects at AIR, including the First Five CA DLL Pilot Evaluation, a large-scale study of practices used to serve DLLs in early learning and care settings across California and the DLL Professional Development (PD) Bridge Study, funded by Heising-Simons to examine the experiences of educators who participated in state grants for PD focused on DLLs. She played a key role in developing the newly developed Multilingual Learning Toolkit, a hands-on, evidence-based resource to help educators from PreK-3rd grade support young emergent bilinguals. She is fluent in Spanish (and German) and uses her language skills in her research with Spanish-speaking teachers, children, and families. Dr. White is a former preschool teacher, and obtained her doctoral degree in Applied Developmental Psychology from the University of Miami, in Miami, FL, and holds a bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, NJ where she studied Spanish, history, and psychology.

One thought on “How to Support Dual Language Learners in the Classroom”

  1. Yup, I totally agree with you regarding the use of constant repetition to further embed the bilingual knowledge into a learner’s mind. My niece is planning to take French as she’s about to enter 5th grade this year but she’s not sure if the subject is going to be as easy as she thinks. I’ll make sure she refers to a professional for further guidance so she can excel eventually.

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