Keys for Supporting Hispanic Dual Language Learners in Early Education

As I discussed in yesterday’s post, Hispanic dual language learners (DLLs) are a large and growing share of the American population under the age of five. And while there is considerable political interest in expanding public pre-K programs, policymakers rarely design these new programs with DLLs’ (Hispanic or otherwise) needs in mind.

Policy always lags schools’ needs, of course. The critical, proverbial Policy Reforms of Minerva fly only at dusk. It’s hard enough to get a new pre-K expansion launched, so many policymakers wait until they have things up and running before considering how to adjust it for particular student groups.

A new report from the Educational Testing Service (ETS), Enhancing Young Hispanic Dual Language Learners’ Achievement: Exploring Strategies and Addressing Challenges, suggests that it’s high time to consider how to make the last few years of early education policies work better for Hispanic DLLs. So: what can we do?

First, ETS’ Debra Ackerman and Mercy College professor Zoila Tazi argue that early education programs need better information on—and better strategies for supporting—these students’ growing abilities in both English and Spanish.

The importance of strong language screening mechanisms should be relatively clear. DLLs’ linguistic profiles vary considerably: early educators’ instructional choices should meet these students where they are. A student who arrives in school proficient in English and Spanish has different educational needs than a student who arrives with limited English but strong in Spanish. As Ackerman and Tazi put it,

[I]f teachers don’t have access to accurate data about their Hispanic DLL students, it makes it even more difficult to determine the most effective way to enhance their short-term learning outcomes and long-term achievement.

Yet few states require these screenings, let alone collect data from them. What’s more, the utility of data from screeners and assessment tools are often limited by poor design. Misuse of a test for purposes other than those for which it was intended can also muddy the waters. And young students can be difficult to assess reliably simply by virtue of their age. So we need better data on Hispanic DLLs’ linguistic abilities, but these data can be tough to come by in the current system.

Second, Hispanic DLLs’ success also depends heavily on how schools engage their families. This should not be surprising. The Condition of Latinos in Education (the factbook cited in my last post) notes survey data showing that Hispanic students bring considerable family-based assets to school with them. Their parents value education—91 percent expect their children to pursue post-secondary degrees—and tend to be actively engaged in their students’ schooling.

Yet Ackerman and Tazi cite research suggesting that low-income Hispanic families read less often to their children than other low-income families. Whatever the reason for this, it indicates an under-used lever with strong potential for improving these students’ academic paths.

Ackerman and Tazi trace out ways that federal—and some state—policies address these challenges. They sum up their findings in that section thus:

[F]ederal and state legislation and learning standards reflect an awareness of the growing numbers of DLL students in publicly funded pre-K programs and K–12 school districts. However, while professional position statements emphasize support for young children’s home language development and responsiveness to families’ culture, [No Child Left Behind] provides states with wide latitude in the type of instruction preschoolers and K–12 DLLs will receive.

It’s worth noting that this push for more prescriptive federal policy flies in the face of the one No Child Left Behind bill currently being discussed in Congress. There is currently little Washington appetite for narrowing states’ and districts’ flexibility for educating DLLs—let alone prescribing how schools reach out to engage with DLLs’ families.

But whether it’s the Department of Education or a lone, reflective early educator making the decisions, there are instructional practices that work particularly well with young Hispanic DLLs. Ackerman and Tazi identify several: explicit vocabulary instruction, direct instruction of letter sounds (in English and Spanish), and intentional oral language practice (among other strategies).

Of course, both the Department and the aforementioned lonely early educator will need assessments to check how well they’re implementing any or all of those strategies. It all comes back to data. And good data require the regular administration of well-designed assessments by linguistically and culturally savvy educators. (For an example of how effective implementation of education policies depends upon the availability of appropriate assessments, see my recent brief on Minnesota’s 2014 DLL reforms.)

Ackerman and Tazi suggest that policymakers—especially in the context of the push for larger early education investments—could do more to support the development of valid and reliable tests suited for Hispanic DLLs. While reasonable people can disagree about the appropriate scope of federal involvement in state and local policies governing the education of DLLs, greater investment in fairer assessments for DLLs is something that ought to attract broad support.

This would be a useful addition to Congress’ current debate over the future of No Child Left Behind. There are a number of grant programs in the law that could be changed to support the development of better assessments for DLLs. But so far, that’s not the conversation Congress is interested in having—so this particular policy lag seems destined to continue.

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

Conor Williams

Conor Williams is a Senior Researcher in the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation. Find him on Twitter: @ConorPWilliams