Teaching English language learners in preschool

by Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. on December 16, 2009

in Language Arts

A guest post by Karen Nemeth
http://www.languagecastle.com/

Excellence in early childhood education is a wonderful goal that we’d like to achieve for all young children. As the population changes, that means all early childhood teachers should be prepared to teach children who speak different languages. Right now as many as 20%-25% of the children in preschool come from different home language backgrounds. A growing body of research strongly tells us that preschool children need to continue learning in their home language while they also begin to learn English. Dropping them right into an English-only environment too early is likely to hurt their chances of succeeding as they go through the later grades. How can you feel confident about meeting diverse language needs? I have worked with so many teachers on this topic over the years that I have been able to develop a few simple strategies you can use right away in any early childhood education classroom.

What’s in a name?
You’ll want to really connect with every child, especially if they are worried about not speaking your language. To start, be sure you know how to pronounce every child’s name correctly. It may not always be easy, but it’s worth it. After all, their name is the key to their identity!

Know the language.
Find out what language the family speaks at home. Don’t assume you know their language based on their last name. Sometimes the family will be reluctant to tell you and they may ask you to teach their child only in English. You can confidently tell them that you share their desire to see their child succeed in English, and research says the best way to make that happen is by supporting their home language in preschool. You need to know the home language(s) so you can provide the learning supports each child will need.

Learn survival words
If you visit a country where everyone speaks another language, do you really care about the days of the week or the colors? Of course, not! You want to know how to ask for food or a bathroom. Survival words are terms that will meet a child’s urgent needs or help them feel welcome when they first walk into your classroom. You don’t need to take a language course – just start with the following and ask parents to record how they say the words or write them phonetically for you.

Make it real
When children speak little English it’s a good idea to use as many real items in the classroom as possible. The focus should be about building on prior knowledge. We do that by using things that are already familiar to the children. If you introduce a new set of plastic shapes, for example, the children will have to spend time figuring out what they are and what to call them and they may not get to learn about sorting at all. If, instead, you bring out a basket of socks, they already know what they are so they can focus on sorting and matching skills. Then, if you use the same socks to make puppets later in the week, you will get even more mileage out of everyone’s shared knowledge and vocabulary in home languages and in English. This also helps the children learn English words they can actually use. Knowing how to say ‘socks’ will fill a lifelong need. Knowing how to say ‘little plastic shapes’ is not so useful.

Don’t forget to sing
The rhythms, repetition, and movements of music will help you and the children build vocabulary in English and the other languages they speak. Pick songs that are authentic and familiar to you as well as to the children. It will be easy for you to learn words in another language if they are set to a song you already know.

Make reading meaningful
Try to have wonderful, authentic, well written books in the home languages of all the children in your classroom. They should be about the same proportion. If you have half English and half Spanish speakers – then half the books on your shelves should be in Spanish. If you have rarer languages, ask your public library to help, or ask parents/volunteers to translate some of your books. Use digital photos to make class books that parents or volunteers can fill with words in their languages. And don’t be afraid to try reading in other languages. You’ll be amazed at how helpful your little bilingual learners will be! They love to have a turn at being the expert!

Resources, resources, resources…

Language Castle

Language Lizard

Culture for Kids

Everything ESL

Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Center

NAEYC – Teaching Young Children

Make a difference!
Teaching children from different languages is a both a privilege and a challenge. It truly is a wonderful goal to provide excellent early childhood education to all children – not just the easy ones!

A Note from Deborah…
I want to express my greatest appreciation to Karen for sharing her expertise on the topic of ESL. I met Karen several weeks ago and listened to her speak on this topic at NAEYC. While listening to her speak, I knew that she would be such an asset to know and learn from. When I asked her to write about ESL for my blog, she didn’t even hesitate. I hope you will be sure to follow Karen’s blog – it is a connection you will greatly appreciate as you continue in the field of early childhood education.

This article is being shared with you by Deborah Stewart of Teach Preschool - Promoting excellence in early childhood education at home and in the preschool classroom!

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