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Practices for dual language learners ages 0-3 — April 2019


Could you provide research on practices for dual language learners ages 0–3?


Following an established REL West research protocol, we conducted a search for research reports and resources on promising practices for young dual language learners ages 0–3. The sources included ERIC, Google Scholar, and PsychInfo. (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response. We offer them only for your reference. Also, we searched for references through the most commonly used sources of research, but the list is not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance.

Research References

Castro, D. C., & Espinosa, L. M. (2014). Developmental characteristics of young dual language learners: Implications for policy and practice in infant and toddler care. Zero To Three, 34(3), 34–40. Retrieved from Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This article discusses the current knowledge on the developmental characteristics and contexts of care for infants and toddlers who are growing up in bilingual environments at home and in their early care settings in the United States. The authors highlight relevant findings from the work of the Center of Early Care and Education Research-Dual Language Learners (CECER-DLL), a national research center funded to advance the research field to improve assessment, child care, and education for dual language learners (DLLs) from birth through 5 years old.”

Castro, D. C., Paez, M. M., Dickinson, D. K., & Frede, E. (2011). Promoting language and literacy in young dual language learners: Research, practice, and policy. Child Development Perspectives, 5(1), 15–21. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Research evidence supports the importance of a high-quality early education to foster young children’s school readiness and success. In particular, programs that focus on eliminating the readiness gap for young minority children, including dual language learners (DLLs), have increased in importance given the current demographic shifts in the United States and the need to promote learning in the early years. This article discusses current knowledge about effective instructional strategies for promoting language and literacy development among young DLLs. It presents a brief summary of research on the relationship between oral language and literacy development, reviews instructional practices and language of instruction approaches, and concludes with recommendations for policy and future research.”

Espinosa, L. M. (2015). Challenges and benefits of early bilingualism in the United States’ context. Global Education Review, 2(1), 40–53. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “The population of young dual language learners (DLL) in the United States has tripled in the last several decades and now accounts for 25% of all children in the United States (Migration Policy Institute, June 2014). Many of these children are exposed to multiple languages in the home and the early childhood setting (ECE) setting, and the vast majority are U.S. citizens. Despite the robust research documenting the extensive capacity of infants, toddlers, and preschoolers to learn multiple languages and the cognitive, social, and linguistic benefits of early bilingualism, most young DLLs in the United States do not receive enriched ECE that supports their emergent bilingualism. This article reviews the latest research, describes the developmental characteristics of young dual language learners, the similarities and differences between DLLs and young monolingual children, the current ECE policies and practices toward DLLs in the United States, and concludes with policy recommendations at the federal, state, and local levels.”

Espinosa, L. (2015). Getting it right for young children from diverse backgrounds: Applying research to improve practice (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Pearson Education. Sample chapter available from and available for purchase at

From the book description: “This authoritative book focuses on providing successful education for all children, especially those from non-traditional backgrounds, non-English speaking families, and those faced with the challenges of poverty. In it, current and future teachers, practitioners, trainers, and professional educators get an authoritative perspective on best practices that combines professional experience with available scientific evidence. The information is grounded in real-life experiences and is guided by current rigorous research findings. The new Second Edition looks at the advances in the scientific understanding of dual language development since the First Edition was published, and the new research on program models and classroom practices that improve the educational outcomes for children from diverse backgrounds. Substantially reorganized and streamlined to focus on the most relevant issues, the book includes updated research throughout and includes a new chapter dedicated to instructional strategies and classroom practices with video links, illustrations, sample lessons, and practical examples. Teachers, curriculum supervisors, and professional development specialists get concrete guidance about how to apply the latest research findings to improved classroom practices.”

Garcia, E. E., & Frede, E. C. (2010). Young English language learners: Current research and emerging directions for practice and policy. New York, NY: Teachers College Press. Book available for purchase from

From the book description: “It is well known that the number of non-English speakers is on the rise in the United States. What is less well known is that the largest proportion of this population is children under the age of 5. These young English language learners (ELLs) often demonstrate achievement gaps in basic math and reading skills when they start school. How best to educate this important and growing preschool population is a pressing concern for policymakers and practitioners. The chapters in this important book provide up-to-date syntheses of the research base for young ELLs on critical topics such as demographics, development of bilingualism, cognitive and neurological benefits of bilingualism, and family relationships, as well as classroom, assessment, and teacher-preparation practices. Each chapter reviews the research and answers the following questions: (1) What does the research clearly indicate for policy and practice? (2) How solid is this database and what findings are emerging? and (3) What should the research agenda be for young ELLs?”

McCabe, A., Tamis-Lemonda, C. S., Bornstein, M. S., Cates, C. B., Golinkoff, R. M., & Hirsh-Pasek, K. et al. (2013). Multilingual children: Beyond myths and toward best practices. Social Policy Report, 27(4), 1–21. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Multilingualism is an international fact of life and increasing in the United States. Multilingual families are exceedingly diverse, and policies relevant to them should take this into account. The quantity and quality of a child’s exposure to responsive conversation spoken by fluent adults predicts both monolingual and multilingual language and literacy achievement. Contexts supporting optimal multilingualism involve early exposure to high quality conversation in each language, along with continued support for speaking both languages. Parents who are not fluent in English should not be told to speak English instead of their native language to their children; children require fluent input, and fluent input in another language will transfer to learning a second or third language. Messages regarding optimal multilingual practices should be made available to families using any and all available methods for delivering such information, including home visitation programs, healthcare settings, center-based early childhood programs, and mass media.”

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2017). Promoting the educational success of children and youth learning English: Promising futures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. Retrieved from

From the book description: “Educating dual language learners (DLLs) and English learners (ELs) effectively is a national challenge with consequences both for individuals and for American society. Despite their linguistic, cognitive, and social potential, many ELs—who account for more than 9 percent of enrollment in grades K–12 in U.S. schools—are struggling to meet the requirements for academic success, and their prospects for success in postsecondary education and in the workforce are jeopardized as a result. Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures examines how evidence based on research relevant to the development of DLLs/ELs from birth to age 21 can inform education and health policies and related practices that can result in better educational outcomes. This report makes recommendations for policy, practice, and research and data collection focused on addressing the challenges in caring for and educating DLLs/ELs from birth to grade 12.”

REL West note: Chapter 5, “Promising and effective early care and education practices and home visiting programs for dual language learners (ages birth to 5)” (pp. 165–214) is especially relevant to this request.

Additional Organizations to Consult

Center for Early Care and Education Research-Dual Language Learners (CECER-DLL) –

From the website: “The Center for Early Care and Education Research-Dual Language Learners (CECER-DLL) project is a cooperative agreement awarded to the Frank Porter Graham (FPG) Child Development Institute of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The initiative targets children who are dual language learners (birth–age 5) and their families across settings such as: early care and education center-based programs, home-based and family child care providers, and Head Start and Early Head Start Programs.”

REL West note: Two reports published by CECER-DLL are relevant to this request, as follows:

Castro, D. C., Garcia, E. E., & Markos, A. M. (2013). Dual language learners: Research informing policy. Chapel Hill, NC: Center for Early Care and Education-Dual Language Learners. Retrieved from

From the introduction: “Key policy players in the early care and education of these children have included the federal courts, the U.S. Congress, state related agencies and state level legislative actions. Still, while the education of these young children from age 5 (Kindergarten) and age 10 (grade 3) has drawn significant policy attention, their early care and learning environments (ages birth to five) have not. In this paper, we describe the historical trends of both federal and state policy, focusing on the emerging research base related to DLLs and its role in informing policy and related practice in early care and education environments. We outline the major sections of this paper below: with a foundational understating about DLLs. To do so, we present a conceptual framework that will lead to better understandings of the development of DLLs and of being bilingual. Together, these three areas serve as the foundation for improved understanding of how DLLs develop and learn. They also shed light on how research might best highlight federal and/or state/local policy pathways that influence DLL initiatives. In the next section of the paper we present an overview of the current policy system environment surrounding early care and education (ECE) settings. In this section we highlight two federal legislative efforts related to early learning: Head Start and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, discussing the challenges that arise from the current disconnects between these separate pre-K and K–12 governing efforts. In the third section of the paper we offer suggestions for how to better coordinate policies and practices aimed at supporting DLLs between and across early care education and K–12 settings. In the last section, we outline final suggestions for policymakers at the federal, state, and local level aimed at bettering research and practice efforts related to DLLs.”

Fuligni, A. S., Hoff, E., Zepeda, M., & Mangione, P. (2014, March). Development of infants and toddlers who are dual language learners (Working paper #2). Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina, FPG Child Development Institute, Center for Early Care and Education Research-Dual Language Learners. Retrieved from

From the introduction: “The purpose of this working paper is to identify areas of empirical research knowledge and gaps in knowledge about the development of infants and toddlers who are dual language learners (DLLs). This information will inform the work of the Center for Early Care and Education Research, Dual Language Learners (CECER-DLL) on assessment and measurement as well as evidence-based practices. This paper builds on prior work of the CECER-DLL, which reviewed the literature on DLLs aged 0–5 in several domains, including cognitive, social-emotional, and language and literacy development; and early care and education (ECE) practices and measures. A common theme in those critical literature reviews was that much of the small but growing body of research on young DLLs has focused on preschool-aged children, and that more research is needed that focuses on infants and toddlers. This paper therefore draws upon the smaller body of empirical research on infants and toddlers who are DLLs, as well as research on non-DLL infants and toddlers to identify the gaps in knowledge and make recommendations for future research.”

Center for Early Care and Education, Academy for Educational Development – (previously

From the website: “Academy for Educational Development (AED)’s Center for Early Care and Education strives to enhance the lives of all under represented, at-risk children and families through research, technical assistance support, knowledge and provision of innovative strategies within early childhood programs throughout the United States. We are committed to supporting special populations within Head Start and the larger child care community in their continual process to improve services to low-income children and families. We strive to help all children enter school ready to learn.”

REL West note: One report published by AED is relevant to this request, as follows:

Stechuk, R. A., Burns, M. S., & Yandian, S. E. (2006). Bilingual infant/toddler environments: Supporting language and learning in our youngest children. Washington, DC: Academy for Educational Development. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “This Guide is specifically intended for staff in Migrant and Seasonal Head Start (MSHS) programs, which are funded to provide comprehensive child development services to the children of migrant farm workers from birth through compulsory school age. The authors attempt to navigate the research on first and second language acquisition and development on infants and toddlers, consistent with the Head Start definition of ‘infants’ (i.e., children younger than 36 months of age) (ACF, 1996). They also identify and attempt to respond to key questions and concerns obtained from MSHS program staff. At its core, this Guide aims to integrate information about children’s developmental progress in acquiring one or more languages in infancy with practical considerations of how adult caregivers can best support that development. The author’s aim is to produce as practical and as meaningful a resource as possible. Bilingual Infant/Toddler Environments (BI/TE) MSHS Program Questionnaire is appended.”

EdSource –

From the website: “EdSource works to engage Californians on key education challenges with the goal of enhancing learning success. It does so by providing timely, useful and accurate information to key education stakeholders and the larger public; advancing awareness of major education initiatives being implemented in California and nationally; and highlighting effective models and strategies intended to improve student outcomes, as well as identifying areas that are in need of repair or reform.”

REL West note: One report published by EdSource is relevant to this request, as follows:

Freedberg, L., & Frey, S. (2016). Promoting success for dual language learners: The essential role of early childhood education programs. Sacramento, CA: EdSource. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Early childhood education programs in California have a crucial role to play in preparing dual language learners to enter kindergarten with the skills they need to succeed in school and beyond. The reason is simple: there are more dual language learners under the age of 5 in early childhood education programs in California than anywhere else in the country. This gives these programs—from infant care to preschool—an outsized opportunity to shape the futures of these children, with social and economic implications for the future of the state and the nation as well. In recent years, California has taken the lead nationally in promoting a variety of strategies for ways that early learning programs can more effectively serve these children. The state is now at a pivotal moment in the implementation of a range of reforms that are putting additional pressure on educators to ensure that dual language learners succeed and on state leaders to provide the necessary resources. Most of the focus is on dual language learners and preschool, which primarily serves 3- and 4-year-olds. Attention also needs to be placed on the role of child care providers serving infants and toddlers, an equally important age for language development. As a recent PACE report noted, it ‘is a moment of immense opportunity to examine and shape English learner policy and practice in the state.’ For that reason, it is essential to revisit strategies—and devise new ones—to strengthen the role of early education programs in promoting the greater success of dual language learners. This report identifies key challenges facing these programs and describes some strategies to tackle them.”

First 5 California –

From the website: “Californians believe that our state’s children are a top priority. That’s why in 1998 voters passed Proposition 10, adding a 50-cent tax to each pack of cigarettes sold to create First 5 California, also known as the California Children and Families Commission. First 5 California is dedicated to improving the lives of California’s young children and their families through a comprehensive system of education, health services, childcare, and other crucial programs. Since its creation, First 5 California has brought these critical services to millions of parents, caregivers, and children ages 0 to 5, and we’re striving to reach thousands more every day. First 5 California distributes funds to local communities through the state’s 58 individual counties, all of which have created their own local First 5 county commissions. Eighty percent of the annual revenues are allocated to the 58 county commissions, while the remaining 20 percent fund the state’s overall guiding programs and administrative costs. The amount of funding provided to each First 5 county commission is based upon the area’s birth rate. Funds are used to address the local needs of communities statewide.”

REL West note: One report published by First 5 California is relevant to this request, as follows:

First 5 California. (2018). Dual language learner resource guide: Best and promising practices for supporting young dual language learners in California, 2018. Sacramento, CA: Author. Retrieved from

Excerpt from the introduction: “California’s approach to enhancing the quality of early learning settings includes a focus on the learning and development of young dual language learners (DLLs), birth to five years of age. It is critical early educators support the continued development of the home language to enable children to take full advantage of their developing ability to learn concepts through their home language, prevent language loss, foster positive social and emotional development, and provide a foundation for English language development. To optimize the learning and development of young DLLs, early educators must partner with families to support language development in the home language and in English. This guide provides early learning programs that serve young DLLs (infants, toddlers, and preschoolers) with resources that highlight evidence-based strategies to improve the quality of instructional practices and interactions with young DLLs, including partnering with families in this effort.”

Office of Head Start, Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Center (ECLKC) –

From the website: “Head Start programs prepare America’s most vulnerable young children to succeed in school and in life beyond school. To achieve this, Head Start programs deliver services to children and families in core areas of early learning, health, and family well-being while engaging parents as partners every step of the way…… Across early childhood systems and programs, managers and staff must be prepared to enhance experiences for the growing number of young children who are learning their home languages and English. Administrators, teachers, caregivers, and families can use these resources to help ensure culturally and linguistically appropriate services for all children birth to 5. These resources can also help staff provide high quality services for children who are dual language learners (DLLs). Programs can promote positive experiences for DLLs by holding high expectations. They can also emphasize children’s cultural and linguistic strengths.”

REL West note: Two documents published by ECLKC are relevant to this request, as follows:

Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Center. (2018a). Language modeling with dual language learning infants. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from

Excerpt: “Children who learn two languages from infancy are simultaneous dual language learners. They are learning different language systems at the same time. As they hear the sounds of their languages and interact and listen to adults and older children, infants begin to learn and sort out the sounds and sound patterns associated with each of their languages. When adults provide children with a safe, warm, predictable environment and engaged, attentive, and responsive language interactions, children have the security and motivation to explore, learn, and grow.”

Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Center. (2018b). Language modeling with dual language learning toddlers. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from

Excerpt: “One- and two-year-old children can learn more than one language if they have sustained, ongoing, engaging experiences that use each language. Dual language learners need to interact frequently in each language in order to optimally develop their language skills. Toddlers already have some experience listening and ‘talking’—babbling, making sounds, speaking words, or more. They are expecting that you will talk with them but will quickly learn that they do not understand what you are saying. Toddlers will, over time, begin to understand the meaning of the sounds you make.”

State Advisory Council on Early Learning and Care, California Department of Education –

From the website: “The State Advisory Council on Early Learning and Care (SAC) is a governor-appointed leadership body that ensures statewide collaboration among early childhood programs that will help to define future policy for children birth to kindergarten. The SAC on Early Learning and Care makes recommendations on the future policy direction for early learning and related services for young children in California.”

REL West note: One report published by the State Advisory Council on Early Learning and Care is relevant to this request, as follows:

Goldenberg, C., Nemeth, K., Hicks, J., Zepeda, M., & Cardona, L. M. (2013). Program elements and teaching practices to support young dual language learners. In California’s best practices for young dual language learners: Research overview papers. Sacramento, CA: State Advisory Council on Early Learning and Care. Retrieved from

Excerpt from the introduction: “The availability of recent research offers new insights about program elements (such as class size and instructional approach) and strategies (such as how to address the components of language learning and what instructional supports to use) that may be effective in preparing young DLLs for entry into kindergarten. This paper summarizes research on the effectiveness of program elements and instructional strategies currently available in California and elsewhere to address the needs of the diverse population of young DLLs. Knowledge gaps are identified, and recommendations based on the strongest available evidence are provided.”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

[(“Dual language learner” OR “English language learner”) AND (“infant” OR “toddler” OR “0-3” OR “infant/toddler”) AND (“promising practices” OR “best practices” OR “strategies” OR “language development” OR “second language acquisition”) AND (“early childhood settings” OR “early education settings” OR “child care”)]

Databases and Resources

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences. Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and PsychInfo.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When searching and selecting resources to include, we consider the criteria listed below.

  • Date of the Publication: References and resources published within the last 15 years, from 2004 to present, were included in the search and review.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations and academic databases. Priority is also given to sources that provide free access to the full article.
  • Methodology: Priority is given to the most rigorous study designs, such as randomized controlled trials and quasi-experimental designs, and we may also include descriptive data analyses, survey results, mixed-methods studies, literature reviews, or meta-analyses. Other considerations include the target population and sample, including their relevance to the question, generalizability, and general quality. Priority is given to publications that are peer-reviewed journal articles or reports reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations. If there are many research reports available, we select those with the strongest methodology, or the most recent of similar reports. When there are fewer resources available, we may include a broader range of information.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the West Region (Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory West at WestEd. This memorandum was prepared by REL West under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0012, administered by WestEd. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.