How Early Learning and Care Programs Can Support Dual Language Learners

Three kids reading
Revisit the August 26, 2022 webinar, Promising Practices for Supporting California’s Dual Language Learners, to learn more about the study's findings.

For decades, California required English-only instruction in K-12 classrooms. In 2016, the state shifted away from that policy and has since made investments to promote bilingual development in both K-12 and early learning settings. More than half of California’s youngest children are dual language learners—children living in households where a language other than English is spoken.

A large-scale study on the experiences and outcomes of dual language learners in California, a central component of First 5 California’s Dual Language Learner Pilot initiative, showed notable and consistent benefits associated with home language use for children in early learning and care settings. The study also highlighted other promising strategies for supporting dual language learners and their families. The findings from this multifaceted study in a bellwether state could inform policy and practice nationwide.

About the Study

To help California better understand how educators and systems can better support dual language learners and their families, AIR conducted interviews, surveys, and direct assessments as part of a three-phase correlational study from 2018-2022:

  • A statewide background study to characterize the landscape of supports for dual language learners, from birth to age 5;
  • An in-depth study of more than 2,000 dual language learners in 174 early learning and care centers to capture the range and distribution of practices that support dual language learners and to examine how those practices relate to child and family outcomes; and
  • An expansion study of the implementation of activities in 16 pilot counties that received funds to expand strategies to support dual language learners.

More Home Language, Better Outcomes

A key finding from the study was that, in general, an increased use of children's home language was associated with increased outcomes for dual language learners on multiple measures. This association was true for preschoolers of multiple language backgrounds and for Spanish-speaking toddlers as well. Focusing on Spanish-speaking preschoolers, the largest group of dual language learners in the state, researchers categorized preschool classrooms serving dual language learners from Spanish language backgrounds by their use of language—predominantly Spanish, a relatively equal balance of Spanish and English, or predominantly English.

“It was in the predominantly Spanish classrooms where we saw the strongest outcomes for dual language learners,” said Heather Quick, managing researcher at AIR who led the study of child outcomes. “The balanced classrooms also did well. The weakest outcomes were observed in predominantly English classrooms.”

Specifically, researchers found that the more time preschool teachers reported speaking in Spanish, the better Spanish-speaking children performed on Spanish vocabulary and oral comprehension, basic mathematics, bilingualism, literacy skills, executive functioning, social-emotional wellbeing, and even English oral comprehension. “The most surprising finding was the consistency of the relationships across multiple outcomes at the preschool level. We also found some connections between home language use and positive outcomes for infants and toddlers,” Quick said.

“These findings are consistent with a lot of prior research on the use of home language, but they also suggest some new potential promising practices for dual language learners,” said Karen Manship, principal researcher at AIR and project manager of the First 5 pilot study. “This means that we need to keep looking at this topic, ideally in a more rigorous, controlled way.”

A major contribution to the field of this study was the inclusion of infants and toddlers, family child care homes, and languages other than Spanish, which are underexplored in research.

The study also included speakers of Cantonese, Mandarin, and Vietnamese, the most prominent home languages after Spanish among dual language learners in California. “This was important to First 5 California because the vast majority of research that exists on dual language learners is on preschoolers who are Spanish speakers in center-based programs,” Manship said. “They’re the biggest population. First 5 California wanted to intentionally broaden the research and look at other widely spoken languages, different ages of children, and a diversity of early learning settings.”

“It’s critical to understand how learning works for children who are not Spanish speakers, because one size does not fit all,” said Rebecca Bergey, senior researcher in the Center for English Learners at AIR. “A major contribution to the field of this study was the inclusion of infants and toddlers, family child care homes, and languages other than Spanish, which are underexplored in research. But there is still so much more to be done.”

While the study found some consistent patterns in the outcomes of preschoolers whose home language is Spanish, Cantonese, or Mandarin, the patterns differed for Vietnamese speakers. Further research on children’s exposure to and instruction in their home languages and English—and considering the similarities and differences between home languages and English—could provide insights about these findings.

Promising Family Engagement Strategies

Many early learning and care programs across California reported to the researchers that they communicate with families of dual language learners in their preferred language; convey positive messages about families’ language, cultural strengths, and bilingualism; and provide home learning materials.

Families’ priorities reflect these affirming messages, AIR’s research found. Across all language groups, the vast majority of parents reported that they want their children to grow up speaking both their home language and English. Families that received positive messages about bilingualism and cultural diversity were more likely to value home language skills as an aspect of school readiness.

“When programs provided concrete learning materials to families to take home, that was associated with those parents engaging in more learning activities with their child at home,” Manship said. “That was particularly the case when programs made materials available in the home language.”

The study also highlighted opportunities to engage families more meaningfully. Families whose programs contacted them more frequently were more likely to attend program activities and engage their child in learning activities at home more frequently, for example.

Professional Development Can Support Teacher Practice—and More Is Needed

Few early learning programs across California require their staff to receive professional development focused on dual language learning. Family child care homes, in particular, have less access to professional development.

However, teachers who had received more professional development related to dual language learning reported:

  • More favorable attitudes about bilingualism and greater confidence in their ability to support dual language learners;>
  • Greater likelihood to use evidence-based instruction to support dual language learners; and
  • Use of more linguistically and culturally responsive family engagement strategies.

The study also revealed that most early educators want more professional development to prepare their dual language learners to thrive in school.

Informing Policy and Practice

California is putting AIR’s research findings to use in policy and practice for early learning.

The state now has a law, Identifying and Supporting Dual Language Learners in California’s Early Learning System, outlining how programs should collect information on dual language learners, a move that the First 5 Pilot study findings supported. “To serve dual language learners better, it’s important to know who they are, where they are, what languages they speak, and how many of them there are,” Manship said.

In 2020, as the study was still in progress, California also unveiled a Master Plan for Early Learning and Care that elevated the importance of supporting dual language learners and their families. The state also invested in professional development opportunities focused on dual language learning in 2018—and continues to consider broadening support for early educators serving all dual language learners.

These promising practices could inform policymakers, administrators, and teachers in other states and districts as well.