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The Language of the Classroom: Dual Language Learners in Head Start, Public Pre-K, and Private Preschool Programs
March 2018

The Language of the Classroom: Dual Language Learners in Head Start, Public Pre-K, and Private Preschool Programs

As more communities across the United States experience superdiversity in their young child populations, preschool programs are enrolling Dual Language Learners (DLLs) with a range of cultural backgrounds, migration histories, and languages spoken at home. And while considerable research has explored teaching practices that are effective in bilingual settings, where DLLs share the same home language, much less is known about what works well in classrooms where young children speak a variety of languages.

This report examines how teachers in different program types—Head Start, public pre-K, and private preschool—use English and their students’ home languages to support their linguistic, academic, and socioemotional development. It draws on interviews with teachers and program directors, family surveys, and classroom observations to explore when and how educators chose to use these languages, both with DLL children and their families.

Even in cases where the teachers in this study did not speak the home languages of their students, the authors found that many made a point to include them in morning messages or greeting routines, or to invite family members into the class for certain activities. As federal, state, and program policies also shape the linguistic environment in preschool classrooms, the report offers recommendations that decisionmakers at all levels can use to better support DLLs.

Table of Contents 

I. Introduction

A. The Importance of High-Quality Early Learning Programs for DLLs

B. Preschool Program Types

C. Policy Landscape: DLLs in Early Childhood Programs

D. Study Goals and Research Questions

II. Methods

A. Classroom and Participants

B. Data Sources

C. Data Analysis and Limitations

III. Findings

A. Head Start

B. Private Preschool

C. Public Pre-K

IV. Discussion

A. Similarities across Programs

B. Differences between Programs

V. Implications and Policy Recommendations

A. Professional Learning (Individual)

B. Classroom-Level Structures and Practices (Microsystem)

C. Local/District Policies (Exosystem)

D. National/State Policies (Macrosystem)