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Effective practices and principles to support English language learners in the early childhood classroom.

In the United States, early childhood teachers must balance diverse needs in their classrooms, and often must modify instruction for students who are learning English as a new language. Fortunately, many teacher preparation programs have incorporated strategies from English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) instruction into their curricula. This article synthesizes a few of what the authors, as teacher educators, believe are the key principles that early childhood teachers should utilize in order to support English language learners' (ELLs) English language development in early childhood classrooms.

More and more mainstream teachers are seeing ELLs at earlier stages in their English language development; thus, teachers are taking on more responsibility for teaching ELLs the academic English they need to be successful. For example, in 1998, California voters approved a measure that effectively ended bilingual education in public schools, replacing it with a system of one year of English-immersion instruction. The state of Florida mandates that every teacher be trained in English as a Second Language (ESL) strategies. From this perspective, the following practices and principles embody the essential knowledge for successfully including ELLs in mainstream classrooms.

Fair does not mean "equal"; rather, treating children fairly means treating children differently.

Early childhood programs have changed in recent years. The revised edition of Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997) expanded the definition of developmentally appropriate practices (DAP) to include: 1) what is known about the strengths, interests, and needs of each individual child; 2) what is known about children's development and learning; and 3) knowledge of the social and cultural contexts in which children live. It is this third aspect that was added in the revised edition. The focus on children's cultural contexts is critical for ELLs and for their acceptance in early childhood classrooms:

Increasingly, programs serve children and families from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds, requiring that all programs demonstrate understanding of and responsiveness to cultural and linguistic diversity. Because culture and language are critical components of children's development, practices cannot be developmentally appropriate unless they are responsive to cultural and linguistic diversity. (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997, p. 4)

If teachers truly follow DAP guidelines, then instructional content and methods will vary depending on what the teacher knows about each child, including a child's developmental level as well as the social and cultural context of the family. Consequently, fair treatment means that classroom instruction and methods should reflect the children's differences.

In the landmark Lau v. Nichols case (1974), the U.S. Supreme Court established that providing an "equal" education for ELLs did not always mean that students were given a fair opportunity to learn. In fact, the courts found that Chinese students involved in the suit were being excluded from educational opportunities. Although they were provided with the same instruction and materials as the English-speaking children, their inadequate English skills left them unable to take advantage of those opportunities. Given that many ELLs often need accommodations well after they enter mainstream education (Cummins, 1994), it is not equal, fair, or developmentally appropriate for teachers to utilize the same instructional strategies for all the children in their classrooms.

Furthermore, in an attempt to be color-blind, teachers often do not acknowledge the cultural and linguistic differences that can affect how ELLs learn (Nieto, 1996). These educators are trying to be fair and impartial. However, disregard for diversity often results in teachers not fully accepting children's differences and appropriately accommodating ELLs' needs. Consequently, we must embrace the differences that all children bring with them in order to educate each according to his/her own needs.

Young ELLs acquire English skills in a fairly specific order, and they learn best in an appropriate language environment.

Components of an appropriate language environment for young children include conversation, acceptance, experience, and children's literature (Gestwicki, 1999). Early childhood teachers recognize the importance of engaging children in direct conversation to foster their oral communication and cognitive thought. Teachers must understand that overcorrecting and judging emergent language can discourage children from making further attempts at communication. Early childhood teachers are often masters at scaffolding firsthand experiences for children, thus promoting language experiences through continued communication with adults and through play experiences with peers. These conversations and experiences are further supported through the use of children's literature.

These same four principles apply to ELLs. As any classroom teacher who has taught ELLs knows, special accommodations must be made to provide an appropriate language environment. Understanding the stages of emergent language is crucial for early childhood teachers, and by understanding the stages of second-language acquisition, a teacher gains more effective teaching strategies. Although theories on second-language acquisition differ, the natural approach (Krashen & Terrell, 1983) provides a practical framework for teachers juggling the needs of native speakers of English and multilevel ELLs.

The natural approach (Krashen & Terrell, 1983) divides the stages of second-language acquisition into pre-production, early production, speech emergence, and intermediate fluency. While learners move through these stages at different rates, they do so in essentially sequential order. By understanding learner characteristics and teaching strategies for each stage, teachers can easily integrate appropriate support and activities for ELLs into regular instruction. As seen in Table 1, adapted from Krashen and Terrell (1983), the characteristics and strategies for ELLs are similar and compatible to best practices found in an appropriate first-language learning environment.

ELLs Can learn social English in a year or two. However, to really achieve academic proficiency, many ELLs need anywhere from 5-8 years of English instruction.

Research indicates that students develop social language known as basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS) through interactions with peers in formal and informal settings, and that this type of language is distinct from the English required for academic success (Collier, 1987; Cummins, 1984). In his now classic work, Cummins notes that BICS typically is acquired over a period of one or two years, but that academic language, or cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP), can take from five to eight years to master.

What this distinction means for early childhood classrooms is that appearances can be deceiving. Although an English language learner may seem fluent in social language used among peers, she or he may experience difficulty with academic language. In general, developing CALP in a second language takes five to eight years, but this progress varies according to the student's prior development of CALP in the native language, as well as according to the learning strategies and teaching techniques used. Numerous studies indicate that students can transfer their native language CALP and literacy skills to English, shortening the amount of time needed to acquire English CALP (Baker & de Kanter, 1981; Cummins, 1994).

For all children, both native English speakers and children who have yet to develop CALP in English, teachers must provide contextual support. All teachers of young children face the challenge of working with children who have a vast amount of knowledge, yet are limited in their language skills to communicate that knowledge. Although native English-speaking children and ELLs may have the cognitive capacity to grasp material, they may lack the language skills to comprehend explanations of complex concepts or to express their thoughts. Therefore, teachers must use contextual clues, which include, but are not limited to, visuals, hands-on learning, gestures, labels, a print-rich environment, finger plays, songs, role-playing, show-and-tell, and other nonverbal accompaniments to instruction. The more that instruction is contextualized, the better chance both the native English and the English language learner have to develop understanding of complex concepts and the language used to explain them (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997; Cummins, 1984).

Children do not automatically learn language faster and more efficiently than adults do.

Researchers in second-language learning continue to struggle with the issue of whether or not there is an optimal time for acquiring fluency in a second language. The one clear-cut conclusion that can be drawn from the research is that younger children will be able to develop a more native-like accent (McLaughlin, 1984). However, there is little definitive research that can unconditionally indicate the existence of a critical period for second-language acquisition (Brown, 2000; Hakuta, Bialystok, & Wiley, 2003). For example, teachers often hear stories of young children who become proficient in English within a year. This myth has become so pervasive that many teachers have come to expect this rapid acquisition of English by all ELLs, but this is not likely to be the case. We also must define proficiency. Most of these cases actually reflect the kind of social proficiency discussed earlier, which can lead teachers to make incorrect assumptions about how children should perform academically.

Just as teachers would never compare the language ability of young children with that of adults, comparisons between child and adult second language acquisition are often oversimplified because of the different tasks and demands made on children and adults. We expect older children and adults to be able to manipulate the language at complex levels early on in their learning process. Yet, younger children are not required to perform at such high levels as soon. Also, each group brings its own strengths to the language learning task. Young children are often less self-conscious about taking on a second language, making them more accepting of building another "language ego" (Guiora, 1983). However, as early as 1964, Ausubel noted that adults and older children often bring with them cognitive skills that make them more efficient language learners than young children.


Teaching is a challenging profession, made even more so by the increasing demands placed on teachers. Teachers are being held more and more accountable for what they do; at the same time, their student population is becoming more diverse. Hence, teachers are now responsible for the education of students they were not originally trained to teach (Henley & Young, 1989), and the approach that "good teaching will work for everyone" is too simplistic to address the very real challenges that these teachers face.

The authors have outlined some of the basic concepts that early childhood teachers should understand concerning issues of equality in instructional content and methods, linguistic skills acquisition, and English academic proficiency. All young children, whether native or non-native English speakers, bring a wealth of information, culture, and resources with them. Yet, they need accepting and knowledgeable early childhood teachers if they are to contribute to their classrooms and society. By understanding some of the concepts used in the field of ESL, early childhood teachers can tap into the resources that ELLs bring with them. Thus, teachers can not only make the transition to the mainstream classroom easier for the ELLs, but also enrich the experiences of all the children in the classroom.
Table 1
Stages of Second Language Acquisition

Preproduction Early Production

Characteristics Characteristics

1. Listening 1. Continued listening
2. Student responds nonverbally 2. Student responds with 1 or 2
3. 10 hours to 6 months of words, and nonverbally
 exposure to English 3. 3-6 months to 1 year of
 exposure to English

Teaching Strategies Teaching Strategies

1. 90% teacher talk 1. 50-60% teacher talk
2. Total Physical Response (TPR) 2. TPR with responses--verbal and
3. Modeling nonverbal
4. Active student involvement 3. Answering who, what, where, and
5. Yes/no questions either/or questions with one-
6. Use of pictures word answers
7. Use of props and hands-on 4. Role-playing
 activities 5. Completing sentences
8. Simplified language 6. Questions to be answered with
 phrases (Where ...? in the
 7. Labeling (older learners)

Speech Emergence Intermediate Fluency

Characteristics Characteristics

1. Sight vocabulary 1. May seem fluent, but needs to
 (older learners) expand vocabulary and CALP
2. Students speak in phrases and 2. Engages in dialogue
 sentences 3. 3-4 years of exposure to
3. 1-3 years of exposure to English

Teaching Strategies Teaching Strategies

1. 40% teacher talk 1. 10% teacher talk
2. Scaffolding and expansion 2. Essay writing
3. Poetry, songs, and chants 3. Analyzing charts and graphs
4. Predicting 4. More complex problem solving
5. Comparing and evaluating
6. Describing 5. Continuing with how and why
7. Social interaction questions; students must
 (cooperative learning research and support their
 with information gaps) answers
8. How and why questions 6. Pre-writing activities--writing
9. Language experience approach process, peer critiquing, etc.
10. Problem solving 7. Literary analysis
11. Group discussion
12. Labeling
13. Listing, charting, graphing

Adapted from Krashen and Terrell, 1983


Ausubel, D. (1964). Adults vs children in second language learning: Psychological considerations. Modern Language Journal, 48, 420-424.

Baker, K., & de Kanter, A. (1981). Effectiveness of bilingual education: A review of the literature. Washington, DC: Office of Planning and Budget, U.S. Department of Education.

Bredekamp, S., & Copple, C. (Eds.). (1997). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood education programs (Rev. ed.). Washington, DC: The National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Brown, D. H. (2000). Principles of language learning and teaching (4th ed.). White Plains, NY: Longman.

Collier, V. (1987). Age and rate of acquisition of second language for academic purposes. TESOL Quarterly, 21(4), 617-641.

Cummins, J. (1984). Bilingualism and special education: Issues in assessment and pedagogy. San Diego, CA: College-Hill.

Cummins, J. (1994). Knowledge, power and identity in teaching ESL. In F. Genessee (Ed.), Educating second language children: The whole child, the whole curriculum, the whole community (pp. 33-58). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Gestwicki, C. (1999). Developmentally appropriate practice: Curriculum and development in early education. New York: Delmar.

Guiora, A. Z. (1983). Introduction: An epistemology for the language sciences. Language Learning, 33(1), 6-11.

Hakuta, K., Bialystok, E., & Wiley, E. (2003). Critical evidence: A test of the critical period hypothesis for second language acquisition. Psychological Science, 14(1), 31-38.

Henley, R., & Young, J. (1989). Multicultural teacher education, Part 4: Revitalizing faculties of education. Multiculturalism, 12(3), 40-41.

Krashen, S., & Terrell, T. (1983). The natural approach: Language acquisition in the classroom. New York: Pergamon Press.

McLaughlin, B. (1984). Second-language acquisition in childhood (2nd ed.). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Nieto, S. (1996). Affirming diversity: The sociopolitical context of multicultural education (2nd ed.). White Plains, NY: Longman.

Vickie E. Lake is Assistant Professor, Department of Elementary and Early Childhood Education, Florida State University, Tallahassee. N. Eleni Pappamihiel is Assistant Professor, Department of Middle and Secondary Education, Florida State University, Tallahassee.
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Author:Pappamihiel, N. Eleni
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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