Dual Language Learning: The Benefits & Challenges of Implementing a DLL Program

Author: Helios Education Foundation

Posted on: April 4, 2018

As the composition of our nation continues to diversify, incorporating that diversity into educational instruction is essential for this and future generations. Nurturing strong emergent literacy skills is foundational to education success, as these skills trace back to the early months of life.

Research studies have demonstrated that children who speak two languages often outperform monolinguals on general measures of executive function. This may be due to the child attending to more than one set of sounds, words, and intonations requiring the use of executive functioning skills to manage two languages.  Executive function, which is a major predictor of academic success, includes specific behaviors such as the ability to focus attention, delay gratification and help manage self-regulation. According to Dr. Karen Ortiz, Vice President, Early Grade Success Initiatives with Helios, these abilities contribute to a child’s motivation and curiosity enabling her to put effort into studying and remain focused, providing a solid pathway to social emotional development and academic success.

Based on evolving research, and recognizing the importance of a child’s home language to educational development, Helios engaged partners Arizona State University and Childsplay, Inc., and the Osborn and Creighton School districts in Arizona as well as Orlando Repertory Theatre, Inc., and Orange County Public Schools in Orlando in the implementation of dual language learning in voluntary prekindergarten classrooms. The two-way dual language immersion model utilizes dramatic frames to bridge the linguistic barrier between English and Spanish in order to engage children in the holistic learning of both languages.   

School districts in Arizona led implementation in 2015, while Florida schools incorporated dual language learning 2016. Despite the short period of implementation, educators are seeing positive outcomes, in both their students and classrooms. “The most significant change has been in the way students view themselves, particularly students for whom English is not their first language” said Marguerite Bowen, Director of Elementary Curriculum and Instruction at Orange County Public Schools. “The sense of pride these students feel is evident in the confidence they show as they assist peers in learning Spanish. Prior to this program, students who entered school not speaking English may have felt as though they had a language deficit,” she concluded.

Within dual language learning classrooms, students whose first language is not English are on an equal footing with native English-speaking students who are learning Spanish. Sharing equal classroom space and signage between the two languages emphasizes that one is not preferable to the other. A similar classroom dynamic is observed in Arizona shared Dr. Virginia Shuss, Director of Student Services at Osborn School District, who emphasized “children are starting to converse in Spanish or Spanish speakers are using English more frequently.”

While implementation in both Arizona and Florida is rated positively, partners have addressed challenges - both those anticipated and those unpredicted including educator recruitment and student enrollment. 

One anticipated challenge centered on educator recruitment. Dr. Ortiz explained, “Finding bilingual, bi-literate early childhood educators that not only speak, read, and write a second language but also have an in-depth understanding of the children’s family culture has been the biggest challenge for our Arizona-based school district partner”. Surprisingly, Orlando Public Schools has not had the same experience. “While we were initially concerned that finding highly qualified Pre-K teachers who were also bilingual might be difficult, most of the existing Pre-K teachers in the selected sites were already bilingual,” explained Bowen.

Despite the positive attributes of dual language learning, many parents, including immigrant parents, are hesitant to enroll their children in DLL programs for various reasons. “Students in DLL programs learn everything their peers in non-DLL classes learn, but with the added benefit of learning another language,” said Bowen. “I would encourage those parents to visit one of the programs in action to see what an amazing experience it is for students or talk to parents of children who have participated in the program. We hear of many parents at other schools requesting this program at their own site after learning about the program from peers and colleagues,” she shared.

While the positive outcomes of dual language classrooms has overcome initial skepticism, Orange County Public Schools did encounter hesitancy to implementing the program where school leaders and teachers did not originally opt-in to the program, but rather were selected by the district based on school criteria of 50/50 mix of native English speakers and native Spanish speaking students.

“We are excited to see the academic outcomes, which we have every reason to believe will show increased Kindergarten readiness, improved vocabulary, and more advanced early literacy skills as a result of this program,” Bowen concluded.

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