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Supporting Dual Language Learners in the PreK Classroom

Heidi Larson

Heidi Larson
REL Northeast & Islands Cross-REL/TA Outreach Coordinator

Dr. Carrie Parker

Dr. Carrie Parker
Principal Research Scientist, REL Northeast & Islands

Thu Aug 01 2019

How can teachers support dual language learners in the preK classroom, especially when considering the number of languages spoken? In Boston’s Head Start programs in 2015 alone, children spoke more than 140 languages and more than 35 percent lived in households where English was not the primary language.1 In 2016, about 12 million (22 percent) of children in the United States spoke a language other than English at home. This rate has risen by 1.2 million (2 percent) over the last decade.2

Educators explored this timely topic in the webinar “Promoting Kindergarten Readiness for Dual Language Learners: Evidence-Based Language Models and Transition Strategies,” co-hosted by REL Northeast & Islands, REL West, and the Cross-REL English Learner Working Group. Featured presenters Linda Espinosa, professor emeritus of Early Childhood Education at the University of Missouri-Columbia, and Whit Hayslip, early childhood education consultant and former assistant superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, guided participants through evidence from research, classroom strategies, and instructional models to best serve dual language learners.

As dual language learners (DLLs) develop language skills in both English and their home language, Espinosa noted that this bilingualism carries a number of advantages to children—including social, linguistic, cognitive, and cultural benefits. However, knowing how to provide support for “balanced bilingualism” (having equal proficiency in both a first language and second or more) can be daunting for teachers, especially when they don’t know most of the languages spoken in the classroom themselves.

Espinoza and Whit presented the instructional model POLL—Personalized, Oral Language(s) Learning—to address this concern. POLL is comprised of three complementary supports for DLLs: Instructional Supports, Family Languages and Interests, and Environmental Supports. These are described briefly below.

Instructional Supports

Instructional Supports are processes and scaffolds to help all students meet the age- or grade-level expectations. One key instructional support the presenters explored was Interactive and Dialogic Reading, which promotes literacy skills for DLLs by building oral language, including listening, comprehension, and vocabulary. Instructional strategies include:

  • Anchoring text by giving a clear, intentional message as to what you are trying to teach
  • Reinforcing vocabulary through songs and chants
  • Using gestures and other visual clues to indicate the meaning of a word

Other strategies include pre-reading in a home language (parent volunteers are helpful here), and interactively reading a book or other literary selection multiple times with students. Each reading can have a different focus, fostering vocabulary and concept development. Students are also encouraged to speak and tell stories. Even when the teacher may communicate entirely in English, all of the children’s language attempts in any language are encouraged and praised.

Family Languages and Interests

This second component of POLL centers on the idea that getting to know and engaging the family in their child’s learning strengthens the child’s support system. There are many ways to involve families, such as conducting a Languages and Interests Interview, which covers topics not only about languages spoken at home, but also about family members, toys, books, songs, child interests, and any talents that the child has exhibited.

The survey can also ask about caregivers’ aspirations for their child and expectations for the year, whether the caregivers have hobbies or interests they could share with the child’s class, and if they would be interested in volunteering in the classroom. The presenters emphasized that engaging families takes time, and is a process that begins the moment the child is introduced to school and continues through his or her last day in the class.

Environmental Supports

Environmental Supports, the third component of POLL, uses the environment to help children feel safe, accepted, understood, and respected. Teachers can label items around the classroom in English and other languages, and color code objects—providing young students with environmental literacy cues. For example, displaying the words for “Hello” and singing a “Hello” song in every home language can help students understand that they and their home language are valued in the class.

Other ways of providing environmental supports described in the webinar include posting a daily schedule in English and home languages decorated with colorful visuals, to show what is happening now and what is coming next. This is helpful for the student, their families, and other visitors. Involving children in creating the schedule can help them feel that they have some ownership of the classroom.

To illustrate and underscore these concepts, Espinoza and Hayslip provided examples via classroom video clips, images, and even singing! The presenters concluded the webinar by asking us to reflect on what we had learned, and in turn we ask you to reflect: How can you adapt these strategies for your classroom, or perhaps with older children? How might these strategies address challenges in your work with young DLLs and their families?

View the webinar slides, recording, and Ask A REL reference desk responses to questions not addressed during the webinar.

Additional Resources:


1Baker, M., & Paez, M. (2018). The Language of the Classroom: Dual Language Learners in Head Start, Public Pre-K, and Private Preschool Programs. MPI National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy. Migration Policy Institute (MPI). Retrieved from https://www.migrationpolicy.org/research/language-classroom-dual-language-learners-head-start-public-pre-k-and-private-preschool.

2Kids Count Data Center. (2018). The Number of Bilingual Kids in America Continues to Rise. Retrieved from Annie E. Casey Foundation: https://datacenter.kidscount.org/updates/show/184-the-number-of-bilingual-kids-in-america-continues-to-rise