Culture & Language

Highlights for Teaching Children Who Are Dual Language Learners (DLLs)

This resource highlights strategies discussed in the Head Start Science Teacher's Guide that teaching teams may use to help children learn their home language in addition to English. Teachers are encouraged to focus on language and literacy skills as integral to the exploration of science topics in the natural world. Specific suggestions from the Guide provide evidence-based practices that are effective for working with dual language learners in Head Start programs.

The following is an excerpt from The Office of Head Start Teacher's Guide to Discovering Science Webcast Series.

Planning: Setting the Stage for Effective Science Teaching Strategies
Communicating: Sharing the Results of Investigations
Investigating: Systematically Studying Objects and Events or Activities
Resources Available on the ECLKC


The Office of Head Start Discovering Science Webcast Series (see links below) demonstrates ideas and teaching techniques for addressing school readiness through the Science Knowledge and Skills domain as well as the Language and Literacy domains of the Head Start Child Development and Early Learning Framework. The Office of Head Start Teacher's Guide to the Discovering Science Webcast Series promotes science learning for infants and toddlers, children with special needs, and children who are dual language learners (DLLs). This resource presents DLL strategies from the Head Start Science Teacher's Guide, along with additional details to inform evidence-based practice in Head Start programs.

Science learning depends heavily on the language we use to question, observe, describe, and remember. Supports and adaptations can be provided for children who are dual language learners to ensure that they understand and participate in science learning. Fortunately, the hands-on, demonstrable concepts that are explored in early childhood science experiences can be very effective in helping DLLs to grasp not only the ideas in the activity, but to build thinking, vocabulary, literacy, and math skills at the same time. Science provides many rich opportunities to enhance learning experiences for children who are DLLs.

In this brief video clip from The Office of Head Start Discovering Science Webcast Series, Dr. Patton Tabors, a dual language learning expert, describes what teachers may do to support science learning for children who speak different languages.

Planning: Setting the Stage for Effective Science Teaching Strategies

When planning science learning experiences for children in your class, it is important to understand the strengths and needs of each child. Children who are dual language learners—learning both English and a home language other than English—need specific strategies to maximize their learning.

Science is great for sparking children's interest and engaging all learners in the discovery process. Enhance your talk about science by using lots of gestures, repetition, and visual cues. Emphasize key words that will support deeper understanding. Children who are DLLs often understand more than they can say, so they may show their engagement and learning with nonverbal behaviors. Provide plenty of opportunities for children to respond to questions by using their actions. For example, instead of asking a child what kinds of things float, you might ask the child to show you which of a collection of items will float. When teachers are aware of nonverbal behavior and accept minimal verbal responses, they can allow children to show what they know and can do in any language.

Include real objects, photos, and other representations of objects under discussion to enhance communication and build vocabulary. Three-dimensional models are especially helpful as these support communication with children building concepts about their understanding of the natural world.

Adaptations for children who are DLLs involve strategies that enhance communication by combining verbal and nonverbal messages. These strategies are helpful to all young children, so it is a good idea to engage other children in the discussion when addressing DLLs. Help children who speak different languages to connect with each other by encouraging nonverbal communication, such as pointing, gesturing, and making different facial expressions. Initially, it is important to focus on small group activities so the children will feel supported and willing to take risks to communicate in a new language.

Children who are dual language learners will gain valuable linguistic and cognitive skills through scientific investigation. Curiosity propels engagement, and engagement facilitates learning. Children who are DLLs can benefit from this kind of learning as they understand it using their home language, and they can also benefit from the combination of spoken words and nonverbal cues to build important vocabulary knowledge in their new language. Use science activities to increase basic vocabulary, particularly concept words in both home languages and English. To strengthen cognitive skills, plan to spend time with individual children and model the processes of sorting, classifying, and investigating.

In the example below of an investigation that stems from children's interests, a teacher has the opportunity to engage children, introduce various investigative processes, and facilitate family engagement. Encourage children to use multiple data collection methods and record what they see in journals using their home language, English, or pictures when conducting a study.

Tomás and Eva, on their way into the classroom, discover a small worm. Tomás picks it up and it begins to wiggle. Immediately, he drops it on the ground! Eva smiles as she picks it up and places it in her hand. Together they giggle. Ms. Rodriguez, after observing the interaction, crouches beside them and suggests bringing the worm into the classroom for further study, and so a small study on worms and how they move begins.

When you introduce new pieces of equipment into the class, make sure to demonstrate their use and then label them in both English and the children's home language. Involve parents in science discoveries in as many ways as possible, from requesting that they bring in a natural item from around their homes to asking them to host a science exploration day. Remember that science is natural for all learners and can be individualized for the children in your classroom.

Young DLLs may have little or no vocabulary to help them understand or talk about the past or the future, or about things that they cannot see or touch. When working with beginning English learners, talk about concrete things that focus on the present. Include real objects, photos, and other representations of the objects under discussion to enhance communication and build vocabulary.

For children with more advanced English skills, include opportunities for them to observe changes over time—sprouting seeds or melting snow or ice. In these instances, children can learn vocabulary that expresses predictive ideas about future events, as well as describe what happened in the recent past.

Communicating: Sharing the Results of Investigations

The communication skills children develop as they explore and discover scientific knowledge also helps their language, literacy, and conceptual development. Science often involves the use of difficult words and lengthy discussions about complex interactions. Through their study of science, children can have fun learning and using big words and other important language skills, such as the ability to ask and answer questions or to use words in different contexts.

Communicating thoughts through words, drawings, or three-dimensional models lays the foundation for developing literacy. These same activities deepen children's conceptual understanding.

Children acquiring a second language can transfer already learned words and concepts from their first language. As you work with DLLs—and other children as well—remember to:

  • Show a genuine interest in what interests them;
  • Be observant. Notice how the children explore novel objects or situations and think about how to support and deepen those experiences;
  • Choose a meaningful conversation topic. Their choice of a toy or play area signals their interest;
  • Learn to accept and read the meaning of gestures and facial expressions, such as a nod of the head or a smile. Is a child asking for a word? Does she want to join a particular child?
  • Use names of people and objects, rather than pronouns; and
  • Focus on the present and concrete. Use props to demonstrate the topic of discussion or the challenge or problem under study by the group.

Investigating: Systematically Studying Objects and Events or Activities

It is important to remember that one of the goals of this guide is to provide strategies to help children learn to use scientific process skills effectively, not simply to learn science facts. Children are actually learning how to engage in the process of scientific inquiry and investigation. Because science and the exploration of the natural world can be so language-rich, it is an excellent domain for fostering language learning and vocabulary. Through scientific investigation, DLLs can make gains in the domain areas of language and literacy development as well as cognition and general knowledge.

Children who are DLLs need specific strategies to help them get the most from their learning opportunities. Plan to spend time with children individually, modeling the process of investigation. Here are some strategies for teaching teams to consider when working children who are learning both English and their home language:

  • Use real objects to introduce basic vocabulary and concepts such as heavy, light, hot, and cold;
  • Pair real objects with picture cards to help children understand the picture represents a concept;
  • Create small groups with children who are dual language learners and peers whose first language is English to explore science topics together;
  • Incorporate nonfiction books written in children's home languages;
  • Develop sequencing photo cards that show sequences of natural processes, such as tadpoles becoming frogs or caterpillars becoming butterflies;
  • Label science activities and tools in children's home languages and in English and encourage them to copy the words into science journals; and
  • Model hands-on exploration for children by actively engaging with them in science activities and investigations.

Science is an important part of every high quality early childhood program. The strategies described in this document will help preschool teaching teams support science learning for children from different language backgrounds. The Teacher's Guide to the Discovering Science Webcast Series offers evidence-based practices that can be used in multilingual preschool classrooms.

Resources Available on the ECLKC: