Young children who speak another language are still trying to learn that language when they enter preschool, which means learning English in addition to their home language can by difficult and frustrating for children and their families. Teachers report that this has become increasingly common as the United States' population grows more diverse. This presents a challenge for many educators because the training they received didn't cover how to support children who are learning more than one language.
In Many Languages, One Classroom, author Karen Nemeth defines dual language learners as "a phrase that describes children who are growing up with some degree of bilingualism" and clarifies that it does not imply a particular teaching approach. Nemeth also discusses how it's helpful to think of educational practices for dual language learners (also known as DLLs) as a continuum. "Services for linguistically diverse preschool children can best be described by where they fit along a continuum from fully bilingual with emphasis on the non-English language to fully English with few supports for the home language."
Wherever your school, center, or classroom falls on the continuum, you still need tips and strategies to effectively teach and support DLLs in the preschool classroom. Here are a few areas you should focus on accompanied with tips on how to make the classroom environment welcoming for all children:
- Welcome Time - The time when children and parents arrive at the start of the day is important, because the tone of the day can be set by how welcome and comfortable they feel. Make sure you post multilingual welcome and direction signs outside the building, at building entrances, and inside the building. Also try to welcome each child with a greeting from their home language if possible.
- Dramatic Play Area - Adding authentic clothing and accessories from different countries and cultures can help children with diverse backgrounds want to participate more in this area. Try to incorporate empty food containers from different ethnic food stores in the play area. Offering a variety of utensils and appliances, such as chopsticks and tortilla makers, is another great way to support DLLs. Maps, brochures, menus, and newspapers in other languages can also help children with different language backgrounds participate in dramatic play.
- Outdoor Play Area - Adding authentic items to the outdoor play area can help children learn to recognize the meanings and functions of signs and other items. It's also a good idea to create a vocabulary guide of safety words to post outside to help teachers communicate with DLLs. Outdoor toys that are popular in the other cultures should also be available. Soccer balls, for example, are popular in Mexico and European countries, so children who speak languages from those areas will often feel more comfortable if they can play with familiar toys.
- Library and Reading Area - Make sure that books are available in the languages the children in your care speak. Public libraries and children's librarians are also great resources for you to use when trying to figure out what books you should include. Placing props, such as puppets, in the reading area is another way to help children enjoy and understand the stories they are reading.
- Manipulatives Area - One way you can support DLLs in this area is by labeling containers with pictures and descriptions in their home languages. Signs or placemats that show children how to use the available manipulatives are also beneficial to DLLs in preschool.
- Writing Area - Offer a variety of writing utensils and papers in different textures, colors, and sizes to help encourage children to have fun and enjoy writing. Showcase posters and models of the different kinds of writing the children in your care may see at home and in school or recognize from their culture. All of these strategies can be used to capitalize on and increase a DLL's interest in writing.
- Science Area - Support DLLs in this area of the classroom by labeling science items in children's home languages. Including pictures of each item and demonstrating how to use them will also help DLLs understand how they should participate. You can also ask families to send science items from home. Children will more comfortable using items that come from their own home.
- Block Area - Several sets of blocks should be offered in this area. Incorporate architectural blocks to represent a variety of cultures and to support DLLs. Including pictures of a variety of structures in your block center is another way you can encourage DLL's to participate. Block accessories and props that represent other cultures are also a great addition to this area.
- Mealtime - Mealtime can be especially frustrating for DLLs. They may not know how to communicate with others or simply don't recognize the types of food available. You can support DLLs at mealtime by writing the menu in English and other relevant home languages of the children in your class. Placemats with mealtime words and pictures in English and other languages are also a great addition to this area.
For more information about dual language learners and additional tips on how to support them in the preschool classroom, read Karen Nemeth's Many Languages, One Classroom. We also offer a variety of bilingual/Spanish materials and books that would be helpful for you to include in the classroom.