Three-year-old Thao was born in Minneapolis to a Hmong family. He does not speak English. At clean-up time, he continues to play rather than pick up the toys, seemingly oblivious to the teacher’s requests. He’s been in this program for two weeks. His teacher wonders when he will understand classroom rules, and is unsure what to do.
As a consultant and trainer, I’ve seen educators find creative ways to teach multilingual learners — but I’ve also seen anxiety. You might be unsure about how to accommodate all your young students too.
In this article, I want to give practical suggestions to help early educators support children like Thao, who are learning in multilingual classrooms.
English is the common language for children and educators in the US and UK, so it’s critical that you give children a strong English language base in their early years. At the same time, you need to honor children and families’ home languages and cultures. For immigrant and refugee families, language is the strongest emotional connection to their home culture, and it helps them to maintain close relationships.
As an educator, you can help multilingual children feel respected, affirmed and welcomed by using their home language in your classroom, and helping families to maintain it at home.
Foundation for Success in a Multilingual Child Care Setting
A program that serves multilingual students must consider three key points for success:
Acknowledge the hard work of language learning. Language learning is like playing a musical instrument. Some might have amazing natural talent and learn to play the guitar by ear. But for most of us, learning the guitar takes a lot of teaching, hard work, and practice. Children are active learners, and they make sense of the meaning and nuances of language, be it their first or second language. But in every case, it takes effort.
Be intentional in teaching language. Teachers must be intentional in developing children’s play by talking about what they are doing, thinking, and feeling as they play. When I observe programs that teach multilingual students, I worry when I see a simplified curriculum of one word sentences, coloring worksheets, and silent play — I worry that children aren’t intellectually stimulated.
Intentional teaching looks like:
Educators playing with children and teaching them new words to expand language and concept knowledge
Children talking with each other, even disagreeing and negotiating.
Asking lots of questions during book reading and lessons.
Provide a comprehensive curriculum. Children use language to process what they’re learning — so your lessons need to build children’s vocabulary, so they have many different ways to process new thoughts and ideas.
As an example, if I’m teaching about animals, I’ll consider many different types of words and questions to discuss what animals are, and how they live: foods, places, actions, descriptors, feelings, objects, and people. I’ll include plenty of animal toys, and maybe even bring in a pet for show-and-tell. All of these expand the framework upon which children can “hang” their knowledge.
You can ask your children plenty of different questions — what do animals like to eat? Where do we find them? What do they do all day, and how do they communicate? Approaching your learning themes from many different angles encourages children to be more explorative with their language learning.
Three Techniques to Teach English
It goes without saying, but children who speak English at home will have a much easier time learning English in the classroom. To help every child in your class feel included and accommodated, here are three language exercises that can be especially helpful for connecting with children who are learning English as a second language.
1. Total physical response (TPR) TPR is the method used by any tourist who is lost in a foreign country: gestures and smiles. But in your classroom, you can be a bit more strategic. Look at the game “Simon Says”: Touch your nose or your arm. Or sit down, stand up, or open your book. TPR helps children associate actions and objects with their English words, in a way that’s accessible to children of all language backgrounds.
2. Repeated read-aloud in English Research shows that reading a featured book several days in a row will result in increased vocabulary learning. This is especially effective when the book connects to a bigger learning theme in your classroom, and if you take the time to go over any unfamiliar vocabulary. As the days progress, the children will understand more and more of the story, can chime in to finish sentences, and begin to use the new words in their play.
3. Modeled talk Modeled talk means giving children the words they need when you join them in play. For example, Sarita speaks Spanish, and Marian speaks Arabic at home. They’re playing in the housekeeping corner, making soup with toy vegetables and pots. They’re obviously familiar with cooking, but they are playing silently — because they do not know enough common words to converse. The teacher joins in.
Teacher: Sarita and Marian, I see you are making soup. (Girls look up and smile).
Teacher: This is soup with tomatoes, and carrots. (Shows the tomatoes and carrots).
Teacher: Yes, you make soup.
Marian: Make soup. (Points to Sarita. Both girls giggle.)
As the teacher moves on, the children continue to play adding one or two words here and there. Through this method, children can boost their common language with intentional support from their teacher.
Five Techniques for Honoring Home Languages
It’s often impossible to have staff who are fluent in all the languages in a diverse child care program — but you can still make all those languages part of your learning. The most practical approach to find speakers of a particular language is to bring in family or community members as guest speakers. Even if you and your team only speak English, there are still some easy ways that you can help honor children’s home languages, and make everyone feel included.
1. Individual greetings Learn how to say hello in all the languages of your group, and practice correct pronunciation for the names of the children and parents. These simple home language greetings are welcoming and help children build relationships.
2. Circle time greetings Circle time is a great way to practice-greetings and songs in different languages. You can incorporate home languages by choosing a language for different days of the week. It might be in English on Monday, Spanish on Tuesday, and Somali on Wednesday, and so on.
When you do this, be explicit — say, “Today is Spanish day. In our classroom, Sarita, Pablo, and Kevin speak Spanish at home, and we can all say hello and sing together in Spanish too.” The point is to have a regular schedule that the children can anticipate.
3. Group songs Songs are a great way for children to learn how different languages sound, and for children to understand that languages have different words for the same ideas or objects.
For each home language in your room, choose one or two songs in these languages that connect to your lesson plan — you might find these on Youtube, or you can ask children and their families for ideas.
You might listen to a recording together first, to learn the words and the melody. Then turn off the recording and use your own voices. Again, be explicit about what language you’re using each time.
4. Read-aloud in the home language To read aloud in a home language where you’re not fluent, you definitely need the assistance of a parent or community member. Pick the same book as the core book you’re reading at story time, or at least related to your main theme or topic of study. If you can’t find a person to come to your program to read, you could find a YouTube recording instead.
Say to the children, “We have been reading The Hungry Caterpillar in English. But today I want you to listen to the Hungry Caterpillar in French. It’s the same story, but the words are in French and will sound different. Angèle and Yana speak French at home, and they will understand the words. Let’s all listen carefully now.”
5. Educators and families working together for children’s success Families and educators need each other’s help to promote both languages. You can engage families in the curriculum by informing them of the topic of study, and by asking them to talk about the same ideas at home. For example, if your topic of study is butterflies, ask families to talk about butterflies at home too, in the home language. Reassure parents that you are teaching about butterflies in English at school. Also let them know that these conversations with their children help them be bilingual, and that’s a good thing.
A successful multilingual program is a vibrant community of people sharing life, language, and learning. The techniques I have presented are meant to increase your skills as educators to teach children who speak many different languages at home. By teaching English, you give children the skill of a new language to succeed at school and at work. And by honoring children’s home languages, you affirm their culture and identity, and show that you value them and their families as a part of your community.
Angele Sancho Passe is an early education consultant, trainer, and writer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. You can learn more at www.angelesanchopasse.com
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