Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children
Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

Across the country, schools are welcoming growing numbers of young dual language learners: children who are in the process of learning English as well as their native language.

They will grow up to play a vital role in the social and economic fabric of the country, so it’s crucial to provide them with high-quality educational experiences, as the New America Foundation notes in a 10-week series on its EdCentral blog.

The series looks at “research, policies, and practices pertaining to the education of dual language learners (DLLs) in U.S. public schools.” It is designed to help educators and policymakers understand how best to serve these students.

“Dual language learners are the fastest-growing group of U.S. school children. However, these students rarely garner enough attention when it comes to considering how changing policies impact their education,” the inaugural blog post says. “When DLLs are mentioned in research, policy, and practice, it is often to compare them to monolingual peers. In such instances, DLLs’ language differences are often framed as deficits to be overcome rather than strengths to be leveraged.” 

Meeting these children’s needs and capitalizing on their strengths is a sizeable challenge for birth-to-third-grade educators.

As the second post in the series notes, “Children between the ages of zero- and eight-years-old are the most diverse age group in the United States. Compared to other age groups, they are more likely to be racial and/or ethnic minorities, be born to immigrant parents, and speak a language other than English.”

While many of these young children are considered dual language learners, “it is somewhat difficult to find a good estimation for just how many DLLs there are. At the early childhood education level, Head Start, Early Head Start, and some state-funded preschool programs keep track of DLLs, but most primary schools do not.”

Based on 2015 Census data, “a reasonable estimate for the number of DLLs is somewhere between seven and nine million, or between 21-27 percent of children under the age of eight.” That’s double the size of recent estimates, which is why for these children “fostering their bilingual and biculturalism at school should be a national priority.”

EdCentral notes that the range of languages these children and their families speak is global.

“Overall, 40 percent of immigrant families in the U.S. come from Mexico, but the remaining 60 percent come from all over the globe—including the Caribbean (7 percent), Latin America (13 percent), and Asia (19 percent).”

“While DLLs speak some 150 languages, the majority of them are Spanish speakers. In fact, about 73 percent of ELLs (again, these numbers are harder to calculate for young DLLs, but are likely similar) speak Spanish. That means that about a quarter of DLLs speak 149 other languages! The next largest language group after Spanish is Chinese, but less than five percent of DLLs are Chinese speakers. This has substantial implications for schools trying to instruct and assess DLLs in languages other than English or Spanish and for communicating with students’ families.”

The third post in the series discusses how different schools and states identify, serve, and monitor DLLs. Most states use “the WIDA ACCESS for ELLs” a K-12 test “that evaluates a child’s reading, writing, speaking, and listening abilities in English across major content areas.”

What’s often missing, however, is a strengths-based approach. EdCentral explains:

“In sum, the processes for identifying, monitoring, and exiting ELLs from language services are structured to emphasize students’ burgeoning English abilities, but almost always overlook an invaluable resource for acquiring English: home language skills. A strengths-based approach to identifying, monitoring, and exiting ELLs from language services would both measure students’ home language proficiency as well as leveraging their home language abilities during English instruction.”

The series, once it’s completed, will “constitute a DLL Reader that aims to provide a common, foundational base of knowledge to inform policy conversations about these students.”

The reader is part of the work being done by New America’s DLL National Work Group and its efforts to promote “research-based reforms that can improve access, quality, and alignment in early education programs for DLLs. While the DLL National Work Group is officially housed at New America, we’ll be working with as many organizations and individuals as we can to improve the conversation around dual language learners.”

So follow the series and share it on your social media networks. The country has a chance to grow thanks to the assets that young dual language learners bring.