How Expanding Transitional Kindergarten in California Can Benefit Dual Language Learners
The start of the 2022-23 school year marked the beginning of the expansion of California’s transitional kindergarten (TK) program, which provides an additional year of early education prior to traditional kindergarten. Until now, only about a quarter of the state’s four-year-olds (those turning 5 between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2) were eligible to attend transitional kindergarten. With the expansion, this eligibility window will widen each year until all four-year-olds—nearly half a million children—are eligible in 2025-2026, effectively creating a universal prekindergarten program. Likely more than 50 percent of these children will be dual language learners (DLLs), young children who are learning two or more languages.
This expansion of TK has the potential to put hundreds of thousands of children on a more equitable footing when they enter kindergarten. Research has shown that transitional kindergarten improves learning for children overall, with especially pronounced benefits for DLLs.
How Transitional Kindergarten Boosts Learning, Especially for Dual Language Learners
Findings from the Study of California’s Transitional Kindergarten Program—funded by the Heising-Simons Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and First 5 California and completed by AIR when TK was first rolled out—demonstrated that TK improves literacy and math skills, as well as engagement. Additional findings from this rigorous statewide study reveal that the benefits of transitional kindergarten for DLLs are even more pronounced. Dual language learners who attended TK enter kindergarten six to seven months ahead on literacy and math skills compared with peers who did not attend such programs. The findings also show that TK significantly improves dual language learners’ English language skills.
With these benefits in mind, expanding TK to all four-year-olds will likely boost learning for many more children throughout the state, including dual language learners. A recent study found that in 2019, about 80% of eligible students attended TK, and participation rates among dual language learners mirrored this estimate.
Training and Resources to Effectively Support Dual Language Learners
We found that using the home language more in the classroom was linked to a wide range of positive outcomes for children, including on mathematics and literacy skills, executive functioning, social-emotional well-being, bilingualism, home language vocabulary, and oral comprehension in both the home language and English.
Ensuring that transitional kindergarten classrooms are set up to provide high-quality early learning experiences for DLLs is critical. The recent DLL Pilot Study, conducted by AIR and funded by First 5 California, offers a number of insights on strategies for supporting DLLs and their families in preschool classrooms that can inform practices in transitional kindergarten classrooms. Most strikingly, we found that using the home language more in the classroom was linked to a wide range of positive outcomes for children, including on mathematics and literacy skills, executive functioning, social-emotional well-being, bilingualism, home language vocabulary, and oral comprehension in both the home language and English. Expanding home language support into transitional kindergarten classrooms could provide substantial benefits for DLLs in these settings as well.
TK teachers will need resources to ensure their classroom libraries are filled with linguistically diverse children’s books, reflecting all students’ home languages. They will need professional development to ensure they can provide language-rich learning environments and appropriate scaffolding for their dual language learners, even if they don’t speak the home languages of all of their students.
We found that teachers who participated in more DLL-focused professional development were more confident in their ability to support DLL learning and used more evidence-based instructional practices to do so. Additional resources, like the Multilingual Learning Toolkit, may also be useful for transitional kindergarten programs aiming to implement evidence-based practices.
Given the thousands of new teaching staff that will need to be hired to support the increasing number of transitional kindergarten students, the state also has an opportunity to prioritize hiring teachers with diverse language skills who can help support DLLs.
Giving Children a Strong, Equitable Start to Their Education
The Study of California’s Transitional Kindergarten Program showed positive effects on learning for four-year-olds who were eligible for the program in its first few years, but the exact benefits for younger four-year-olds—including younger DLLs—are yet unknown. At the same time, we know a lot about what effective early childhood education looks like, including best practices for DLLs, and it will be important to ensure that transitional kindergarten teachers have the training and resources to provide those language rich and supportive learning environments for all of their young students. Evaluating the success of universal prekindergarten over time for all students is also important. Identifying ways to improve classroom practices and strengthen the program will help us give children a strong and equitable start to their education.