March 2014
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Karen Nemeth, EdM, Language Castle LLC, USA

Last year I wrote an EEIS article about teaching preschool ELLs. At that time I said: “We don’t yet have research to specifically guide ESL teacher practices with preschool children.” Since that time, a wave of research reviews appeared to help teachers chart a course. In this article, I share some of the new information that was published and presented in the past few months. I’ll be talking more about this topic in my presentations at the TESOL conference (“Quality Pre-K for ELLs: Why? What? And How?” March 28, 9:30 am, Room A105; EEIS Academic Session, March 28, 2 pm, room B119).

Big news was announced at a press event in Washington, DC, on May 14, 2013. A major review of the research on early learning for dual language learners was released. (Keep in mind that researchers and policymakers are using the term dual language learner, or DLL, instead of ELL for children under age 6.) The findings were so compelling that the report quickly appeared in articles in Education Week and other major outlets. This first report is from the Center for Early Care and Education Research—Dual Language Learners. It is called “Dual Language Learners: Research Informing Policy” (Castro, García, & Markos, 2013). Since that event, I have seen the presenters share this information at several national conferences and webcasts. One key message that was spoken by Linda Espinosa as a panelist at that press event has been repeated frequently: “Use of home language, in addition to English, is probably THE most important aspect of effective early childhood education settings for DLLs.”

In her report for the Migration Policy Institute, Dr. Espinosa (2013a) reframes the statement in this way: “The instructional features of high-quality programs that have been shown to improve school readiness among this population include responsive language interactions in English as well as the students’ home languages, opportunities for children to learn and practice new skills and vocabulary, frequent assessment, and parental engagement” (p. 5). Incorporating home languages in work with young DLLs is not an entirely new idea for TESOL practitioners. What is new is the sense of urgency that makes home language support more of a necessity than a luxury.

What are some of the ways TESOL members can support these goals when they work in schools that serve young students who are DLLs?

  • Help teachers find resources for home language activities or materials that include both English and the children’s home languages. Public libraries can be a helpful source because many children’s librarians are participating in initiatives to meet the diverse language needs in their communities.
  • Integrate home language connections in the work you do with pre-K and kindergarten students. For example, read a story together in two languages, and point out the connected words and phrases.
  • Work with teachers to create and support family home language literacy activities. Support for the home language doesn’t have to happen only at school.
  • Engage general education, special education, art, music, physical education, media, and other teachers in discussions about how the new recommendations might be implemented at your school across disciplines.
  • Be a role model and advocate for establishing a climate of respect for the home language and cultural assets of every child and family.

I think one of the biggest challenges to meeting these goals is the persistent myth that full immersion in English will help children learn English faster. In another summary of the research, Linda Espinosa (2013b) addresses that myth and helps to move the field forward to meet the distinct language development needs of young children. A similar message also appears in a report on evidence-based preschool practices from the Society for Research in Child Development (Yoshikawa et al., 2013), which contains a section that uses recent findings to support recommendations for teaching DLLs in preschool. One of the key findings is that supporting the home language is critical for effectively teaching young children who speak home languages other than English.

With the rapidly increasing linguistic diversity in many schools, supporting each home language can be a tall order. Families can be the best partners in this endeavor to ensure success in preschool and kindergarten and beyond. It is surely worth the effort. As Linda Espinosa said in her May 2013 presentation, “The educational success of our nation depends on the educational success of our young DLLs."


Castro, D., García, E., & Markos, A. (2013). Dual language learners: Research informing policy. Retrieved from

Espinosa, L. (2013a). Early education for dual language learners: Promoting school readiness and early school success. Retrieved from

Espinosa, L (2013b). PreK-3rd: Challenging common myths about dual language learners: An update to the seminal 2008 Report. Retrieved from

Yoshikawa, H., Weiland, C., Brooks-Gunn, J., Burchinal, M., Espinosa, L., Gormley, W., . . . Zaslow, M. (2013). Investing in our future: Evidence base on preschool education. Retrieved from

Karen Nemeth is an author, consultant, and advocate on improving early childhood education for ELLs. She is the founder of Language Castle LLC. She serves as a steering board member for EEIS, a consulting editor for NAEYC and is on the board of NJTESOL/NJBE.

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