by Eileen M. Torres
Developing the Vision
Implementing the Vision
Celebrating the Vision
"When I was little and really wanted something, I prayed to God in two languages, just in case God didnt know one of them. Knowing two languages opens many doors for children, ensuring that nothing is lost in the translation." Rafael Guerra, Executive Director of East Coast Migrant Head Start Project
Head Start programs that serve children and families whose primary language is other than English face a unique challenge. How do they ensure childrens progress in listening, understanding, and speaking English as specified in the Child Outcomes Framework while at the same time being developmentally and linguistically appropriate as required in the Head Start Program Performance Standards (1304.21)? Thoughtful and committed program leadership is key.
Before age 3, children exposed to two languages will appear to learn both as one. They may often mix the two languages as they speak. At about 3 years of age, children begin to separate the two languages. They often associate each language with its primary speakers, such as Spanish or Chinese with their parents and English with Head Start teachers.
Excerpt from Phillip C. Gonzales, Becoming Bilingual: First and Second Language Acquisition
Developing the Vision
Language and culture are intricately linked. They are fundamental to the development of identity and are essential connections for families. When a familys language and culture are not valued in the educational setting, children may experience emotional distress or feel distanced from their parents and other relatives. Without a solid social-emotional foundation, childrens cognitive development may be jeopardized. Therefore, establishing a language policy that affirms cultural and linguistic identity is central to Head Starts commitment to promoting positive child outcomes for all children.
What are the steps Head Start program leaders can take to ensure that local policies and practices support children and families whose language is other than English?
First, program leaders need to understand the Head Start Program Performance Standards. They need to understand what the Program Performance Standards do and do not say. They do require that programs recognize, accept, and affirm the language and cultures of families and children. They do require that, if possible, one staff member speak the same language as the majority of children.
Second, program leaders need to be well-informed about second language acquisition. Research demonstrates the positive effects of supporting the home language and of bilingual learning environments. Administrators also need to reflect on their own experiences as language learners and as members of a cultural group.
Third, program leaders need to examine their agencies systems and services in order to formulate a sound language policy. Other staff can be included in this process. Consider these questions:
- How does the program support cultural and linguistic diversity?
- How does the program use the childrens first language in the classroom?
- How do the policies and practices impact children and families whose home language is not English?
- How do family literacy efforts reflect the languages spoken by the families?
- How do hiring practices reflect the diversity of the families served?
Some programs find that they have an "unspoken" language policy without realizing it. By addressing these questions honestly and openly, current policies and practices will be clarified and, where necessary, adapted and modified. Some programs may want to consider including these questions in their program self-assessment.
Finally, it is essential that program leaders formulate and articulate a positive vision regarding second language acquisition and home language use. They need to ensure that both parents and staff have the opportunity for questions and input on the language policy. By sharing up-to-date information about best practices, collaboration can be fostered.
Implementing the Vision
The implementation of the programs vision is contingent upon a number of factors. First, the program must define the ethnic and linguistic composition of the Head Start population in order to plan appropriate services. Where there are predominately two languages, such as English and Spanish, dual language models may be considered to give all children the opportunity to acquire two languages. Multi-lingual Head Start programs need to consider the number of languages spoken by the families and children and then develop strategies to support the diversity. If only a few children speak a language other than English, programs need to ensure that services designed to serve the majority are equally responsive to all children and families.
Another factor is the availability of community resources that can assist a program in supporting first language development and affirming the culture(s) of the children and families. Programs need to identify staff and volunteers who speak the home languages. Finding resources can be challenging, but nonetheless essential to ensuring that the children have the opportunity to develop a strong linguistic foundation in their home language that will facilitate their learning English.
Also, an important factor is having leadersboth staff and parentswho model the vision for others in the organization. Their behavior demonstrates how cultural and linguistic diversity can be supported. For example, they intentionally speak their home language inside and outside of the classroom or at program meetings.
Of course, Head Start staff affect the implementation of the vision. Therefore, administrators must emphasize how important it is for all staff to learn about second language acquisition, to develop an understanding of the families cultures, and to support language development at home and in the program. Program leaders can ensure there is teacher training on relevant topics, such as language development and instructional strategies; they can encourage teaching teams to apply their knowledge to the child assessment process. Programs also can review and improve existing management systems to make them more culturally and linguistically responsive. Most important, leaders can inspire a shared vision among the staff by appealing to the common goal of providing the best services to Head Start children and families.
Celebrating the Vision
Head Start leaders are busy, but they must take time to reflect on accomplishments that bring them closer to their goals. The identification of new community resources or a new volunteer who speaks the language of the families or new bilingual materials for the curriculum are small steps to show commitment. Leaders need to communicate the positive results of the programs language policy, whether these include an increase in parent participation or observable gains in child outcomes. Also, leaders need to acknowledge the contributions of families and promote the idea that literacy behaviors can be cultivated in any language.
With informed and committed leadership, Head Start programs can establish policies and practices that support the development of the childs home language and emphasize the childs connection to the family as well as the childs progress in learning English. Such policies and practices aid in preparing children for success in school and in life. Let us continue to hold the presence of more than one language in the life of a child in high esteem and create Head Start programs that provide linguistic continuity for all children.
Eileen M. Torres works in the Agribusiness Child Development Office of Program Support in New York. T: 585-232-1610; E: email@example.com