Foundations and Assessment of Education/Edition 1/Foundations Table of Contents/Chapter 4/4.3.1

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How should we teach English Language Learners?:
Birth to Age Three Instruction
By Deanna Lavery
Learning Targets:

• Readers should be able to identify the two different types of communication.
• Readers should be able to identify two different concerns that parents have about raising a dual language learner.

• Reader should be able to identify and explain different ways a early childcare facility may foster the learning of an English Language Learner.
Supporting Young English Language Learners

The subject of English Language acquisition is surrounded by controversy. Approaches touted as "best practice" are many and parents are faced with contradictory information on a regular basis. Amidst the turmoil, the birth to age three sector of English Language Learners are often forgotten. Perhaps there are fewer reports on this age group as they are not yet of public school age. Never-the-less, young English Language Learners are a growing group and this area of research is lacking in thoroughly researched information. The United States Census reports that 25% of young children live in immigrant families and represent 10% of all children in the United States (Hernandez, Denton, & Macartney 2008, p. 5). Furthermore, the statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau suggest that "[o]ne half of children in newcomer families have a mother or father who has limited proficiency in speaking English [and]...58% of children in newcomer families live with at least one parent who is not proficient in English (by self-report or report of an adult in the household)" (Hernandez et al., 2008, p. 5). Thus, our youngest English Language Learners are an integral part of the story of the United States.

Finally, for this article the reader may notice that I have mostly pulled resources from the Zero to Three Journal, one of the leading journals in early development. This journal pulls from a variety of different academic sources and presents the most broad approach to understanding the benefits and challenges of teaching early English Language Learners in the United States. Furthermore, of the information that I have been able to find in the form of an academic journal, Zero to Three presents the information in the most concise, reader friendly manner. As I have previously stated, there is very little researched information available on the topic of English Language Learners in the birth to age three area of development. One possible reason for this deficit in research is that it is particularly difficult to gather information on a group that is considered minority in number and is not found in large, testable groups, such as the public pre-kindergarten to high school group. Regardless, the few academic journals that speak particularly to the birth to age three group are of equal consensus. Because of limited information, there is the possibility of the authors drawing conclusions based on bias, and that is a factor to be considered as the reader approaches this article.

Early Language Acquisition: Who are the teachers and how do we learn language?

Early English Language Learners are found in day care centers, home day care facilities, at home, and in the home of family members. Because infants and toddlers learn through play, the "teachers" are often not those whom we would traditionally view as teachers. The "teachers" are caregivers: whether they are parents, family members, adoptive families, or daycare providers.

The first three years of life are important to a child's foundation as these are the very beginnings of communication (Eichten, 2000, p. 4-5). In order to delve into the issue of teaching English Language Learners or ELL's, one must first grasp a general understanding of early language acquisition in all infants and toddlers. According to Philip I. Eichten, CCC-SLP, there are two basic kinds of language: receptive and expressive (Eichten, 2000, p. 16-17). Receptive and expressive language are closely linked to all other areas of development and are integral to the discussion of English Language Acquisition. According to Eichten:
Receptive Language " the processing of language information being received by a child [and] his ability to understand what is said to him"
and expressive language " the processing of language information being spoken by a child [and] his ability to state his needs, ideas, and feelings" (Eichten, 2000, p. 16-17).

Birth to Age Three and Beyond... "Children between the ages of 1 1/2 and 6 years quickly acquire an extensive vocabulary and learn to comprehend over 14,000 words" (Pham, 1994)

An example of receptive language, according to Eichten's definition, might be expressed through a toddler retrieving his shoes when his mother asks him to go find them. In contrast, expressive language might be the mother asking the toddler, "What do you want?" and the toddler proclaiming, "Juice!" Along with understanding the different kinds of language, it is important to note that infants and toddlers from all cultural and linguistic backgrounds learn these skills in similar ways. Betty Bardige and M. Kori Bardige note that, "Around the world, babies in widely varying cultures and circumstances tune in to human voices and non-verbal communications; build relationships through responsive interactions; coo and babble; attach meaning to words; use single words to label, inquire, demand, and insist; put words together in novel combinations; and master the key elements of grammar in a similar pattern and on a similar timetable." (Bardige & Bardige, 2008, p. 4)

Most Importantly... Across the board, therapists, specialists, and experts emphasize meaningful social interaction as the basis for successful communication and language development. This concept is vital to remember when interacting with all infants and toddlers, including ELL's. Often, instructors and parents become frustrated with an overload of information about "best practice" and forget that the fundamentals are the most important in raising a child that is a successful communicator.

Teaching: Early Childhood Centers and Daycares

The Center for Early Childcare and Education notes that, "human interactions, accompanied by the use of language, are exceedingly complex. The term 'socio-linguistic environment' (SLE) is used to acknowledge that a multitude of variables influence human communication processes" (Stechuk, Burns, & Yandian, 2006, p. 32). Thus, it follows that an environment that honors the equal importance of the family's culture and language will further the child's ability to learn. In fact, there is even a great deal of evidence that exposure to another child's minority language may benefit the native English speaking children in the class. (Espinosa, 2008, p. 10) Pilar Fort and Robert Stechuk state "In a place where no one speaks the child's language and knows very little of his culture, a child could feel lost, misunderstood, and alienated" (Fort & Stechuk, 2008, p. 24). However, they also suggest that "Staff members [of early childhood facilities] struggle with how to best support children and families who are working to preserve their home language and culture while helping their children succeed in educational settings outside the home where English is the predominant language" (Fort & Stechuk, 2008, p. 24).

In their article "The Relationship Between Language and Culture," Wendy Jones and Isabella Lorenzo-Hubert offer the following suggestions for preserving language and culture that all reflect intense family involvement as the cornerstone, "Whenever possible ensure that signs, memos, announcements, or materials are translated into the families' preferred languages; use interpreters or bilingual staff trained in interpretation when conveying information orally, and use translators or qualified bilingual staff to provide information in written formats; encourage bilingual staff and families to assist staff members who are not bilingual to learn and use basic phrases (e.g. hello, good-bye, thank you) in the languages of the families that participate in the program" (Jones & Lorenzo-Hubert, 2008, p. 14). Thus, a daunting task is made palatable by a mere focus on a parent-staff relationship and a utilization of community resources. At the same time, access to bilingual teachers is not always readily available, but evidence suggests that fully bilingual teachers are not essential to maintenance of a child's first language (Hernandez, Denton, Macartney, 2008, p. 5). As previously expressed, what is most essential is a dedication to encouraging families to "talk, read, and sing with the child in the parents' home language, and to use the home language in everyday activities" (Hernandez et al., 2008, p. 6) as a part of the inclusive learning environment.

Teaching at Home: Parents and Guardians as Teachers

For the purposes of Early Intervention, parents or primary caregivers are seen as the teacher within the context of the home. In an English-dominated country, parents often feel a great deal of anxiety about the task of raising a dual language learner (Hornblower, 1998). However, in his article "Early Dual Language Learning," Fred Genesee puts parents at ease by summarizing the research available on the benefits and challenges to dual language acquisition. Genesee suggests that there is no research that opposes dual language acquisition, if that is what the parent chooses (Genesee, 2008). According to Genesee, parents are generally concerned with whether or not their child should attain two languages. Research shows that there are, in fact, both social and cognitive advantages to bilingualism over monolingualism (Genesee, 2008, p. 17). Furthermore, as stated previously, "Children need to learn their home language to connect with family members." (Genesee, 2008, p. 18) As for questioning whether bilingual children are normal, the research reports a resounding yes (Genesee, 2008, p. 16-19)! In fact, it is possibly more "normal" to be bilingual as "It has been estimated that there may be more children who grow up learning two or more languages than children who learn only one" (Genesee, 2008, p. 18). Finally, children do not become confused when acquiring different languages (Genesee, 2008, pp. 18–19). In general, Genesee encourages bilingualism and minority language preservation as a successful in-home strategy. Learning two languages, Genesee suggests, is natural and promotes a well-rounded social experience. In fact, there is further research to suggest that "proficiency in the heritage language acquisition and leads to higher academic achievement, but also results in greater cognitive flexibility including an enhanced ability to deal with abstract concepts" (Lee & Oxelson, 2006, 453-455)


Though the topic of teaching early English Language Learners is still under-researched, the information that we have available suggests that there are no negative side affects to dual language acquisition (Genesee, 2008, p. 18). In fact, the information is quite to the contrary. Furthermore, though we have a sizable oppositional group to bilingual or dual acquisition, pre-kindergarten to high school, classroom environments (Hornblower, 1998), there appears to be no headlining opposition to the individual's personal choice of whether or not to raise their child bilingually. Regardless of personal opinion or language ability, the research further suggests that caregivers and parents should equally honor the child's heritage, which is deeply connected to their language of origin (Fort & Stechuk, 2008, p. 24). Finally, as educators we must always approach the subject with the child's best interest in mind and think of each child as a unique individual from a unique familial situation.

For more information on English Language Learners in Virginia and other great powerpoints about the largest population of English Language Learners visit:

1. Who could be considered an infant/toddler's teacher?
A. Grandmother that has full custody.
B. Head Start teacher
C. Mother
D. All of the above.

2. Which of the following is a good way to support a young English Language Learner in a daycare setting?
A. Encourage the staff to learn some simple words and phrases in the child's native language.
B. Refuse to allow the child to speak in his native language.

C. Speak with the parents about phrases and words that the child already knows.
D. All of the above except A.

3. Jose's mother is concerned about raising him as a dual language learner, and she asks his daycare provider for advice for her two year old. His daycare provider tells Jose's mother that she should only speak English around him in the home because he needs to learn it by the time he gets to school. Is this good advice? Why? Choose one.
A. No, the research shows that dual language acquisition is not harmful for young children.
B. No, in fact, Jose's mother should ask that they incorporate some of Jose's greetings and vocabulary so that Jose feels comfortable in his new setting.
C. Yes, children can only learn one language at a time and two years old is too young.
D. Both A and B.

4. Which of the following can be considered expressive communication? Choose one.
A. Crying "Milk!" and pointing to the refrigerator.
B. Going and getting shoes when his mother asks.
C. Pointing to her nose when asked, "Where's your nose?"
D. Sitting and watching cartoons.

Answers: (1)D, (2)A, (3)D, (4)A


Bardige, B. & Bardige, M. (2008). Talk to me baby! Supporting language development
in the first 3 years. Zero to Three, 29(1),4.

Eichten, Philip I., CCC-SLP. (2000). Help me Talk: A Parent's Guide to Speech and Language Stimulation Techniques for Children 1 to 3 Years. Glen Allen, VA: Pi Communication Materials. 1-16.

Espinosa, L. M. (2008) FCD Policy Brief: Advancing PK-3. Foundation for Child Development. Retrieved
February 4, 2009, from

Fort, P. & Stechuk, R. (2008). The Cultural responsiveness and Dual Language
Education Project. Zero to Three,29(1), 24.

Genesee, F. (2008). Early dual language learning. Zero to Three, 29(1), 17-21.

Hernandez, Donald J., Denton, Nancy A., & Macartney, Suzanne E. (2008). The lives of America's youngest children in immigrant families. Zero to Three. 29(2), 5-11.

Hornblower, M. (1998). No habla espanol. Time, pp. 1–2. Retrieved February 7, 2009,

Jones, W. & Lorenzo-Hubert, I. (September 2008). The relationship between language and culture.
Zero to Three, 29(1), 14.

Lee, Jin Sook & Oxelson, Eva. (2006). "It's not my job": K-12 teacher attitudes toward students' heritage language maintenance. Bilingual Research Journal. 30(2), 453-477)

Pham, Lee. (1994). Infant dual language acquisition revisited. The Journal of Educational Issues of Language Minority Students. 14, 185-210.

Stechuk, R. A., Burns, M. & Yandian, S. E. (2006) Academy for Educational Development. Bilingual
infant/toddler environments: A guide for migrant & seasonal head start programs.
Retrieved February 3, 2009, from

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