What Parents Have to Teach Us About Their Dual Language Children
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The research reported here was part of a larger ethnographic study conducted at an Italian-English bilingual preschool (ages 3 to 5 years old) in a large metropolitan area in the Northeastern United States. The author conducted the research and worked collaboratively with the team of preschool teachers to create a home-school strategy for the preschool.
My children, 5-year-old Marie and 4-year-old Marc, speak English to each other. I think it’s because they speak it at school. At home we speak Italian and sometimes Spanish. My husband speaks only Spanish to the children and makes them answer him in Spanish. We don’t want to lose that connection or they won’t be able to talk to their grandparents or cousins.
Marie and Marc are typical of the 20 percent of children in America under the age of 5 who live in a household in which no one over age 13 speaks English as their first language (US Census Bureau 2013). Many young children come to child care, preschool, and kindergarten programs as English language learners or as dual language learners (DLLs) (USDOE 2015). Although the population of multilingual children has increased in US schools, teacher education programs and early childhood curriculums spend little time discussing the role that bilingualism plays in language, literacy, cognitive, and social and emotional development (Michael-Luna & Heimer 2012). Many early childhood educators have questions about DLLs’ language development and the home language’s role in their learning English at school. Yet, teachers often do not consult with the very people who can answer these questions—the families.
Although the language development of children who are dual language learners is similar to that of children who are monolingual, they do not fully coincide (De Houwer 2009). DLL’s vocabulary and language use depends on the experiences they live in each language and how different members of their family use language (King & Mackey 2007; Baker 2011). For example, a child bilingual in Italian and English might go to the zoo and read animal books with his Italian-speaking mother, but visit the seashore with his English-speaking grandparents. Although the child has experienced both the zoo and the seashore, the child’s ability to express his seashore visit in Italian may be limited by his lack of “seashore” vocabulary in that language. Teachers often ask children to talk about their experiences, such as a weekend visit to the zoo or seashore, as a part of the morning meeting. For DLLs, the knowledge and experiences are in their minds, but the language to share them with English-dominant teachers or peers may not be available. This makes sharing time a challenge for DLLs and teachers.
The home language environment has a foundational influence on a young child’s oral language development (King & Mackey 2007; Bohman et al. 2010). A DLL’s family language influences how the DLL expresses or understands a given language. For example, in one kindergarten class, Sunghee has monolingual Korean-speaking parents and an older brother and sister who speak English to her. Yi-Chin has monolingual Mandarin-speaking parents and no siblings. Each family presents a distinct language environment that calls for different types of supportive pedagogies, curriculums, assessments, and home–school connections. Because early childhood programs are required to meet English language and literacy goals (Copple & Bredekamp 2009), teachers need extensive information about home language environments. Without parent insight into family language use, teachers end up seeing a language puzzle with missing pieces.
Asking the experts—parents and families
This article provides guidance for collecting and understanding parent knowledge about their children who are dual language learners to enhance classroom practice. The findings were from parent and teacher surveys and interviews that were part of a 24-month ethnographic case study. The 39 linguistically diverse families participating in this study sent their children (ages 2.8 years to 6.3 years) to a dual language preschool. In this article, four areas of parent knowledge that aid teacher effectiveness in supporting DLLs in an early childhood setting are addressed:
- Home language context: Who speaks what language to whom and when
- Family language and behavior observations: What families hear and see at home
- Language and literacy practices in the home
- Family concerns, assumptions, and questions about language learning
Each of these four areas of parent knowledge is examined, followed by discussion that includes questions asked to parents; a sample parent answer; analysis of the answer; and ways classroom practice changed as a result. Finally, different methods for collecting information from parents and families in the classroom are described.
Home language context
Question to parents: “What languages do you speak in your home?”
Susan, the mother of 3-year-old Emma and 5-year-old Leo, answered,
We have a lot of languages in our home. [My husband] Daniel speaks Italian and English. I understand Italian, but I don’t speak it well. I speak English to the children. We did that right from the start. Our babysitter speaks Spanish. At the dinner table Daniel speaks Italian, I speak English, and the children talk in the language of the parent they are talking to. I guess it sounds pretty confusing to someone listening, but [the children] get it. Sometimes when they don’t have the word in one language, they use the other because everyone listening understands English and Italian.
Susan’s family speaks two languages at home, and with the help of the babysitter, they’ve added a third. Susan reports that Emma and Leo switch between languages (code switching or language mixing) with ease during dinner conversations. She also reports that they “get it” and don’t seem confused. Susan talks about their bilingual home practice—a one parent–one language strategy. Although language mixing may sound like a language deficit to a monolingual, switching between languages is typical in the early stages of bilingual development (Baker 2011)—especially for young children (Bialystok 2007). Families use different home practices to help create boundaries between languages, such as the one parent–one language strategy that Susan describes (King & Mackey 2007).
Young children use language as a tool and use all their resources, including gestures and multiple languages, to make their meaning known—such as providing a name for something in their home language. A teacher’s job is to help children produce the language of the classroom while respecting the home language. This is the teacher–child interaction strategy used in the classroom: (1) listen to the child’s phrase, paying special attention to nonverbal cues; (2) repeat what the child said, but add target language, such as vocabulary or sentence structure that reflects the classroom language; 3) have the child repeat phrase.
Family language and behavior observations
Question to parents: “What concerns or questions do you have about your child’s language development?”
Two different families provided unique insights to this question. First, Isabelle, mother of 3-year-old Mateo, answered,
Mateo just stopped speaking to me in Italian. He would only speak in English . . . it was like his Italian just switched off and he turned all his energy to English. Eventually, he started speaking Italian again, but only after he had gotten somewhere with his English.
Parents’ perceptions of their children’s productive (the language children speak) and receptive language (the language children understand) closely mirror the teachers’ reports (Shiel et al. 2012). Isabelle’s observation about Mateo’s language use at home mirrored the teacher’s report in school. At school, Mateo gained confidence in his English and began to play with English-dominant peers. Mateo responded to both English and Italian at school; however, the teachers did not take special note of his lack of spoken Italian.
A survey sent to parents helped uncover the children’s home language environment. The teachers and Mateo’s parents noted his progress through the developmental sequence of second language acquisition: home language use, silent/nonverbal, telegraphic use of second language (where children use short two-word sentences to convey meaning, such as “Me go”), and productive use of second language (Tabors 2008). Young children move back and forth through the levels. Mateo’s mother noted his silent period in Italian; however, she did not make note of his telegraphic use of English. Mateo’s teachers reported his increased use of English during peer interactions. Together, the teacher and parent reports give a clear picture of Mateo’s dual language development.
A second family provided an insight into parental concerns and observations. Sam’s family was monolingual English speaking, but wanted their son to have a dual language school. David, father of 4-year-old Sam, discussed his observation of Sam speaking Italian (the school language):
I noticed that Sam started getting worried. He wouldn’t sit still when we’d arrange play dates with Italian children. Sometimes he wouldn’t talk at all, and other times he’d use a word or two in Italian.
David’s observation about Sam’s behavior in a nondominant-language environment reflected the developmental levels of language learning (Tabor 2008). Sam appeared to be moving back and forth between silent period and telegraphic speech in Italian. Sam’s behavior in the classroom during this period was less focused. The teachers reported that Sam didn’t speak Italian in class. However, David’s observation suggests that, although Sam was anxious, he was able to produce some Italian when paired with an Italian-dominant peer.
Informed by David’s observations, Sam’s teachers began to put him in smaller groups and pairs with his Italian-dominant peers. Angese, Sam’s Italian teacher, mentioned that “previously, when a child seemed worried or unfocused, we began to think ADHD or something like that. For Sam, we discussed calling in the school psychologist for an evaluation, but in the end it was really just the language. He was nervous.” The teachers made note of Sam’s behavior in English class and found that the unfocused behavior wasn’t evident. Sam was calm and participated in class discussions and activities normally.
With insights from families, teachers can optimize interactions and pairings of children in class. For example, to provide opportunities for a child who speaks Spanish to gain more experience with English, a teacher might pair her with an English-dominant child at the water table or in the kitchen center. However, to help that child understand a new concept, such as “sink or float” in science, a teacher might initially pair the Spanish speaker with another Spanish bilingual to share knowledge and vocabulary.
Home literacy practices
Question to parents: “Do you read to your child? If so, in what languages?”
Christina, mother of 5-year-old Anton, answered,
My husband reads in French to Anton. It is important to us that [Anton] read and write in French. The summer before Anton started kindergarten, he became very interested in reading. We always read to him in French and English and sometimes Italian, but Anton was interested in the words and sounding them out. He started figuring out French at home, and then Italian at school, and soon was reading in English too.
Christina and her husband read to Anton in English, French, and Italian. Anton experienced literacy in these three languages before his teachers began to teach decoding (applying letter–sound relationships to correctly pronounce written words). Research has shown home literacy practices affect how children learn a new language in school (Bialystok 2007). Anton drew on his home literacy practice—reading aloud with his father and mother. He also used his knowledge of French and Italian to make sense of words in English. DLLs transfer home language literacy practices, phonemic awareness, phonics, and content knowledge between languages (Bialystok 2007). When bilinguals learn to read in their home language first, learning to read in English becomes easier.
With the help of the school’s Parent Association, the teachers created a lending library so children could take home books in their home languages. They also listed online resources and bookstores in the monthly newsletter and family handbook, and sent home guidelines for reading books to children, which included different types of questions to ask while reading. Read-aloud strategies were covered as part of the bilingual lecture series the school offered for families. (See Morrison & Wlodarczyk 2009 for read-aloud strategies.)
Family concerns and questions
Question to parents: “Do you have any questions or concerns about your child learning two languages?”
Nicole, mother of 4-year-old Lena, answered,
The teacher at our old preschool told me that my then 3-year-old daughter had a speech delay. She said that Lena didn’t speak clearly—that she didn’t sound like the other children. She said Lena needed a speech therapist. We found a bilingual speech therapist who tested Lena in English and Spanish. Lena was fine—within the normal range for both languages. When I took this back to the teacher, she said Lena was behind the other children, that learning two languages confuses her.
Nicole’s experience is not unusual. Teachers, doctors, and other professionals are not always trained in second language acquisition and bilingualism, yet are often asked to give professional opinions about a bilingual child’s language development. They rely on their experience and professional knowledge about first (monolingual) language acquisition. This practice may contribute to the disproportionate number of English language learners who are referred to special education (Baker 2011). DLLs sometimes develop their two languages at different rates (Bialystok 2007). When contrasted with monolingual children, DLLs may appear to have a temporary pause in learning one language, including its vocabulary. But in reality, bilingual children’s combined vocabulary in two languages can exceed their monolingual counterparts (Baker 2011).
In the “Parent Home Language Survey,” sent home at the beginning of the school year, families were asked to estimate their children’s vocabulary production in each language. Later in the school year a second survey was sent home, and families were asked to report the vocabulary and phrases their children used at home in different languages. Teachers asked follow-up questions during parent–teacher conferences and provided family workshops on children’s bilingual language development.
Learn more about home language practices
Although effective early childhood educators strive to involve parents in the education of their young children, building an open partnership is hard work. When families speak different languages and come from different cultures, it can take a long time.
The school in this study had many of the traditional home–school connections, including weekly classroom newsletters, monthly preschool newsletters, open house night, curriculum night, parent–teacher conferences, and daily communication via a home folder in the children’s backpacks. Teachers were available to parents during drop-off and pick up, and by telephone and email. Though these practices let families know what was happening at school, they did not provide teachers with information about what was happening in the children’s homes. As part of the study, the preschool expanded home–school communication by adding parent focus groups, a home language survey, individual interviews, and family workshops on bilingualism and home–school projects.
- Parent focus groups. A Parent Association-sponsored group that met four times a school year was open to all families. School staff and teachers worked with the Parent Association to create open questions regarding home-language use and experience with dual language learning for focus group discussions. Families used this forum to voice concerns, ask questions, and share resources with each other.
- Home language survey. A short survey was sent home to all families at the beginning of the school year. Parents provided information on the languages spoken at home, the context for each language, and their perceptions about their child’s language production. Teachers kept copies of the completed surveys in their classrooms and reported referring to them frequently (“Parent Home Language Survey”).
- Home language tracking. A few months into the school year we sent a second survey to families of 3-year-olds and new enrollees. Teachers asked families to keep track of new vocabulary and phrases used by their children in different languages (“Home Language Tracker”). The survey was distributed at the preschool open house and the teachers sent home additional copies.
- Individual informal interviews. Based on the information gathered in the focus groups and home-language survey, teachers and other school staff often asked families follow-up questions about language use in the home. These interviews were not recorded; however, the teachers made notes of the information on a copy of the students’ home language survey. The teachers asked parents questions at parent–teacher conferences, pick-up/drop-off, as well as by email and phone.
- Parent workshops on bilingualism. The school offered workshops on second language acquisition, bilingualism, and biliteracy to parents four times a year.
- Creating home–school projects. The preschool teachers created four schoolwide home–school projects that could be done by all age groups. The projects were open ended and each family would work on the project, such as drawing a picture or taking a photo of “what you wear when it is raining.” In school, teachers asked the children to describe their home project in two languages (Michael-Luna 2013).
Parents have a significant influence over their children’s language development and later academic success. Creating a space for family knowledge, beliefs, and concerns about their children’s language use and development at home gives teachers crucial insights into meeting the individual needs of dual language learners in early childhood settings. Families’ insights into code switching, family language strategies, the sequence of second language acquisition, social and emotional development, and language transference and development help teachers create a welcoming and supportive setting for children who are dual language learners.
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Sara Michael-Luna, PhD, is an assistant professor of early childhood education at Queens College, in New York City. Sara has worked as a teacher educator, an early childhood curriculum coordinator, and an English as a Second Language teacher in New York, New Jersey, California, and Wisconsin. firstname.lastname@example.org