National Press Club

Newsmaker: Early Identification and Assessment of Dual Language Learners Will Help Them Succeed in School

May 14, 2013 | By Marie Robey Wood |

New studies on the unique learning experiences of young dual language learners (DLLs) indicate they require different tools and approaches to assure academic success compared to English-only speaking children, according to an extensive study released at a National Press Club Newsmaker on May 14.

The study's report, “Public Policy for the Emerging Population of Dual Language Learners,” was prepared at the University of North Carolina’s Frank P. Graham Child Development Institute and funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It is designed to be used by lawmakers at the state and federal levels as they determine how to fund and assess Head Start, publicly funded preschool and literacy and cognitive development programs.

According to Dr. Dina Castro, head of the Graham Institute, “The research and recommendations ... are essential for two reasons: first because in the 21st century young children in the U.S. are growing up more and more surrounded by many languages and cultures. More than 31 percent of preschoolers in Head Start and one third of children in Early Head Start nationally are considered dual language learners. The number of language minority students in preK-12 has recently been estimated to be over 6 million.” Secondly, “As young DDLs transition from early education to a K-12 learning environment, they are lagging behind their monolingual speaking peers on their school readiness; when they move into the early grades the gap continues to widen and is reflected in these children's low educational attainment in math and reading.”

Castro emphasized that “describing DLLs as an at-risk population may be misleading because they are only at risk if they are living in poverty or having limited exposure to rich language interactions.”

Her research concludes that bilingualism by itself has no inherent negative consequences for children's development. It even may benefit young children cognitively, linguistically and socially. In fact strong language skills in the home language can facilitate English language development for dual language learners.

Dr. Linda Espinosa, Professor of Early Childhood, University of Missouri-Columbia, believes that supplemental learning and support is essential to the success of DLLs: “We have compelling evidence on the substantial benefits of high quality early intervention in children's development and achievement … particularly for children of the most vulnerable families.” The problem, she emphasized, is that these studies focus almost exclusively on monolingual English-speaking children. “Very few studies focus on how to best teach DDLs. They need additional language support and structural adaptations in order to reach a high level of success.”

The final speaker, Dr. Eugene Garcia, Professor Emeritus, Arizona State University, pointed out that research on dual language learners is relatively new. He believes that initially, “DLLs might appear to be behind their monolingual fellow students but with time and exposure in both languages they will acquire competencies in both languages.” He added that “problems with DLLs' development arise when support of home language is taken away.”

Dr. Garcia summarized the study's recommendations for DLLs:

- Arrange early and accurate identification and assessments;
- Create or support special programs to prepare, hire and train individuals working in early childhood programs to acquire competencies to foster the language, literacy and overall development of DLLs; and
- Enhance the programmatic coherence across early childhood education and the K-12 system.