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Teachers and Families of Dual Language Learners (DLLs): Partners from the Start

Originally published:

Family playing with toys

Nina is 4 years old. Nina and her family speak Spanish as their home language. The family lives in a town where many residents speak only English; however, their home is in a neighborhood where nearly everyone speaks Spanish. Nina has an expanding vocabulary and is developing age-appropriate language skills in Spanish.

Nina’s parents want her to attend the nearby public school prekindergarten class this fall. They have learned that attending a half-day prekindergarten class will help Nina’s adjustment to public school before she goes to kindergarten. They wonder about how Nina will communicate when she starts prekindergarten because she will also be learning to speak English for the first time. Although their friends have assured them that Nina will enjoy attending the prekindergarten program, her parents are worried about the preschool teacher’s expectations and how Nina will react if no one is able to understand her.

Many parents have concerns when their young child starts preschool. When a family speaks a language other than English, parents may be particularly concerned about their child’s ability to communicate in school. Teachers of young children can ease these concerns by partnering with families of dual language learners from the start and reassure families that they and their child are welcome in their classroom. Ms. Jenny, Nina’s preschool teacher, followed these recommended practices to welcome Nina and her family to the prekindergarten program:

  1. Partner with a Cultural Mediator: A week before Nina started school, Ms. Jenny arranged to meet her and her family at their home. She asked the parents and grandmother for permission to invite Ms. Marta, a cultural mediator who is known and respected by many Spanish-speaking families in the community, to come with her to the home visit. A cultural mediator is an individual who helps translate between the culture of a school environment and a child’s family to enhance understanding, share information, and create a relationship that supports families. Ms. Marta served as an interpreter and engaged her family in conversation about what to expect from the prekindergarten program.
  2. Focus on Home/School Partnership: Ms. Jenny and Ms. Marta spoke with Nina’s parents about the importance of all of them working together as partners to prepare for Nina’s transition to preschool. Ms. Marta asked Nina’s parents to describe the songs, rhymes, stories, and snacks that Nina enjoys. Through Marta, Ms. Jenny asked Nina’s family how they would prefer to receive communication about Nina’s preschool experiences (e.g., written notes, e-mail, phone calls, and/or home visits). A strong home/school partnership includes teachers and parents staying in close communication when young dual language learners (DLLs) enter prekindergarten. Ms. Jenny and Ms. Marta recognize that Nina’s parents and grandmother are important partners in supporting Nina’s continued development and use of Spanish, her home language.
  3. Provide Visuals/Pictures: Ms. Marta and Ms. Jenny created a picture book using digital photographs of the classroom activities with simple captions in Spanish and English that explained the daily schedule. The photos show Nina and her parents the routines and learning experiences she would have in prekindergarten. This book was given to the family prior to the start of school so they could refer to it and allow Nina to become familiar with what she will see and do in her prekindergarten classroom. Nina brought this book to school with her during the first few weeks and, if needed, used the photographs to communicate with Ms. Jenny during the day (e.g., Nina would point to the picture of snack to indicate that she wanted to go to the snack center with her friend).
  4. Learn About Each Family’s Traditions: On the first home visit, Ms. Jenny brought materials (poster board, glue sticks, and markers) so that Nina, her parents, and grandmother could create a family poster to bring to the classroom on the first day of school. The poster they created included photos of the family celebrating Nina’s birthday, pictures with her cousins, pictures of Nina’s favorite foods, and some activities they enjoy as a family. Nina and her grandmother brought the family poster to preschool on her first day, and Ms. Jenny and Ms. Marta made sure to greet them and take extra time to point to the photographs and other items on the poster with Nina and her grandmother. Ms. Jenny and Ms. Marta asked Nina to help them find a place to display her family poster in the classroom. Taking time to acknowledge and display the family poster that Nina and her grandmother brought to school demonstrated to them that Ms. Jenny values their family and culture and that they are welcome members of the prekindergarten classroom community.
  5. Incorporate the Child’s Home Language in the Preschool Classroom: Nina’s mother and grandmother agreed to let Ms. Marta videotape them singing some of Nina’s favorite songs and rhymes in Spanish. Before school started Ms. Jenny uploaded the video to the class website where she, Nina, and her classmates can watch and sing along to the video during music time. The video of her mother and grandmother singing in addition to several children’s stories Ms. Marta recorded in Spanish and uploaded to the class website provides Nina with comforting songs, rhymes, and stories in her home language that she can listen to while she is at preschool. As she becomes more comfortable, Nina can even teach Ms. Jenny and the other children more songs and rhymes in Spanish.

For young children who are DLLs adjusting to the first few weeks of prekindergarten can be stressful. Teachers can ease some of the stress during this transition period by forming a partnership with the families before school begins. Helpful practices may include bringing along a cultural mediator during initial home visits to interpret for the child and family, intentionally welcoming the child and family to the classroom through activities that affirm their traditions and culture, establishing a plan for home/school communication that works for parents and teachers, and, whenever possible, incorporating the child’s home language in the classroom.

Because Ms. Jenny, Ms. Marta, and Nina’s family worked together as partners, Nina’s adjustment to the prekindergarten classroom was very successful. Nina likes to tell everyone that she LOVES going to preschool!

Bernie Laumann

Bernie Laumann

Dr. Bernadette M. Laumann was the coordinator of the Illinois Early Learning Project from 2013 to 2019. She has been a child care teacher, an early childhood special education teacher, director of an inclusive early childhood program, researcher, and university teacher educator. Her research interests include mentoring and induction activities for beginning teachers and the use of technology in connecting evidence-based practice.

About this resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Preschool Program

Intended audience(s):
  • Teachers / Service providers

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Related Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards:
Reviewed: 2022