December 2016
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Karen N. Nemeth, Ed.M. Lead Consultant, Language Castle LLC, Newtown, Pennsylvania, USA

A recent Institute of Medicine and National Research Council (2015) report, Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation, was presented at most of the early childhood education conferences. It sparked lively conversations about changes needed in teacher education. One element that surprised many readers was the intense demand that teacher education programs must prepare all teachers to succeed in working with diverse students. For example, the report highlights “the importance of building a workforce with a deeper understanding of 1st and 2nd language development and the need to support the home language” (p. 338). The authors say the superficial approach to “respecting” linguistic and cultural diversity does not go deep enough. The “blueprint for action” sectionrecommends that teachers need the following:

  • “ability to advance the learning and development of children from backgrounds that are diverse in family structure, socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, culture, and language”
  • “ability to advance the learning and development of children who are dual language learners” (p. 498)

By contrast, schools are finding that their PreK–third grade teachers are not well prepared for the diversity they encounter. In a recent Education Week article, the findings of Arthur Levine’s research revealed that "barely a third of principals think education schools are doing very or moderately well at preparing teachers overall. Only 16 percent believe they prepare teachers to address the needs of students with limited English proficiency” (Stevens, 2015). Adding ESL certification is not always the best answer if the coursework does not focus on the unique learning needs of children under the age of 9 years.

Teacher educators can find out more about English language learner policy in their states and compare to neighboring states in order to strengthen their teacher preparation programs by checking the report from the Education Commission of the States: 50 State Comparison: English Language Learners: Keep in mind that most states have separate polices and regulations governing preschool, and still more separate policies and regulations that address special education, even though students in either of these groups might also need supports as English learners.

Many think tanks are working to raise awareness of the need to update preservice teacher preparation as well as in-service professional development and supervisory supports. The Learning Policy Institute reviewed a large body of research to find the 10 Building Blocks of High-Quality Early Childhood Education Programs, and “supports for diverse learners” was on that list. Conor P. Williams (2016) wrote about this topic in an article for the New America Foundation, “Starting Early, Starting Right With Dual Language Learners,” raising a key concern for many teacher education programs. How many colleges and universities are feeling caught between the drive to graduate more teacher candidates with different languages while addressing the drive to produce more graduates who meet standards for highly qualified teachers?

With so many recommendations about preparing early childhood education teachers to work effectively with children who are English learners, collaborations between general education and ESL departments will have to rise up. Many teachers say that they have had to go back for additional certifications to meet the needs of their diverse young students. This causes concern when they report they completed a full elementary education degree with little or no attention to English learners and then completed a full ESL certification program with no coursework on early childhood. Requiring students to take two disparate degrees is far from the goal of demonstrating true collaboration at the college level. What if all colleges and universities took the lead in breaking down unnecessary silos of specialization and prepared teachers to succeed with what Nemeth, Brillante, and Mullen (2015) call DECAL, or students with Different Experiences, Cultures, Abilities, and Languages? On our EEIS/TEIS InterSection panel at the TESOL 2016 convention, two members of the Teacher Education Interest Section discussed the initiatives they have undertaken at their universities. Andrea Hellman reported on the results of her university’s effort to add an ELL course to the teacher education major at Missouri State University, and Esther De Jong described the initiative to infuse ELL content throughout the teacher education coursework at the University of Florida. Going forward, this will be a great topic for further collaborations at the TESOL conventions and throughout the year.


Institute of Medicine & National Research Council. (2015). Transforming the workforce for children birth through age 8: A unifying foundation. Washington, DC:National Academies Press.

Nemeth, K., Brillante, P., & Mullen, L. (2015). Naming the new, inclusive early childhood education: All teachers ready for D.E.C.A.L. Newtown, PA: Language Castle.

Stevens, K. (2015). Early-education teachers need better training. Education Week.

Williams, C. (2016). Starting early, starting right with dual language learners. Washington, DC: New America Foundation.

Karen Nemeth, EdM, is an author, consultant, and advocate on improving early childhood education for ELLs. She is the founder of Language Castle LLC, having previously taught at Felician College, Rutgers University, and William Paterson University. She is a steering board member for EEIS, panelist for the EEIS/TEIS InterSection presentation at TESOL 2016, co-chair of the Early Childhood Education SIG at the National Association for Bilingual Education, and Affiliate Council member at the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

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