Federal Policies Highlight ELLs in Early Education

Most of you who have been reading my blog are familiar with Karen Nemeth, who has written many guest blogs over the past few years. Karen is a nationally-known expert on ELLs/DLLs in early childhood education. Please enjoy this review of policy discussions that have taken place over the past year. Many organizations and government offices now use the term dual language learners (DLLs) to refer to all children under the age of 9 years who are learning in two or more languages. For purposes of this article, Karen uses ELLs/DLLs.

Karen Nemeth: ELLs/DLLs in early childhood education, especially those of preschool age, have been the focus of many policy discussions at the federal level in the past year. The number of preschool classrooms in public school districts is increasing rapidly, and a growing number of TESOL members are being assigned to work with English learners under the age of 6 years. Teacher preparation programs for early childhood education, English as a second language, and special education are being called on to update course content and practical experience components in response to these policies

In June 2016, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Education released their Policy Statement on Supporting the Development of Children Who Are Dual Language Learners in Early Childhood Programs. This statement included eleven recommendations that focus on preparing the workforce for diverse populations and meeting the learning needs of each student with appropriate interactions, curricula, assessments, and environments.

Leading up to this policy statement, the 2015 report from the Institutes of Medicine,
Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation,
recommended that early childhood teachers need “ability to advance the learning and development of children who are dual language learners” based on an exhaustive review of the research.

Nonregulatory Guidance Document Clarifies Importance of Preschool in District-Wide Plans for English Learners

Now we see that the term preschool is mentioned 32 times in the 2016 Non-Regulatory Guidance: English Learners and Title III of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), as Amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). This guidance document contains an entire section, Section F, that covers early learning (p. 31) and clarifies the importance of including preschool in district-wide plans for English learners. The report states that Title III funds can be used to serve ELLs/DLLs as young as age 3, and the new amendments specifically promote the inclusion of ELLs/DLLs in preschool programs under Title III. When the guidance addresses support and professional development for teachers, the words “including preschool teachers” have been added. Programs are encouraged to use Title III funds to develop and implement effective programs for ELLs/DLLs in PreK–12.

All of these reports have elevated the importance and the relevance of preschool services for ELLs/DLLs to a degree that can no longer be ignored by the field. We know that preschool is no longer a rarity in school districts across the United States. In fact, more than 60 percent of elementary districts currently offer some type of preschool, and most of those include students who come from diverse language backgrounds.

Head Start Updates Program Performance Standards

Further strengthening the case for preparing teachers and programs to better serve ELLs/DLLs in preschool, the Office of Head Start has updated their program performance standards that programs must meet to keep their funding.

(2) For dual language learners, a program must recognize bilingualism and biliteracy as strengths and implement research-based teaching practices that support their development. These practices must:
(i) For an infant or toddler dual language learner, include teaching practices that focus on the development of the home language, when there is a teacher with appropriate language competency, and experiences that expose the child to English;
(ii) For a preschool age dual language learner, include teaching practices that focus on both English language acquisition and the continued development of the home language; or,
(iii) If staff do not speak the home language of all children in the learning environment, include steps to support the development of the home language for dual language learners such as having culturally and linguistically appropriate materials available and other evidence-based strategies. Programs must work to identify volunteers who speak children’s home language/s who could be trained to work in the classroom to support children’s continued development of the home language.

ELLs/DLLs were also specifically addressed in the new US Department of Education Guiding Principles for Use of Technology in Early Childhood Programs (2016), (The section under the heading “Dual language learners” offers some specific examples of appropriate use.)

Reports Recommend Cultural and Linguistic Responsiveness in Meeting Needs of ELLs/DLLs

The following reports, which have appeared in the past year, also recommend cultural and linguistic responsiveness in guidance about meeting the needs of young children:

For more information about how to address these increased expectations for programs and individuals working with young children who are ELLs/DLLs, keep following this TESOL blog by Judie Haynes and take a look at

Karen Nemeth is an author, consultant, and presenter focusing on effective early education for dual language learners. She is a consulting editor and author for NAEYC, the co-chair of the early childhood SIG of NABE.  Karen is the author of many books on teaching dual language learners, including Many Languages, One Classroom, and Many Languages, Building Connections. She coauthored Digital Decisions and New Words, New Friends, a bilingual book for young children, and was editor of  Young Dual Language Learners: A Guide for PreK-3 Leaders.


About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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