How Can Teachers and Parents Help Young Children Become (and Stay) Bilingual?

There is growing recognition that being bilingual can provide opportunities that may not be available to people who only speak one language. Head Start teachers and parents will learn how to collaborate and help young children become bilingual. Information on classroom organization and communication techniques to help children who are learning English is also included in this article.


The following is an excerpt from Head Start Bulletin.
Head Start Bulletin

How Can Teachers and Parents Help Young Children Become (and Stay) Bilingual?

Teachers can take a first step by gathering information about the languages and cultures of the families.
by Patton O. Tabors and Lisa M. López

Collecting Information About the Children and Their Families

Developing a Plan for Children’s Continued Use of the Home Language

Developing a Plan for Children’s Acquisition of English

Communication Techniques to Help Children Who Are Learning English

Classroom Organization to Help Children Who Are Learning English


Enrollment by Primary Language of the Family at Home


... yo creo que una persona siendo bilingüe tiene muchas mas posibilidades de llegar mucho mas lejos que una persona que sepa solo un idioma.

“ ...I think that a person being bilingual has many more opportunities to get much further [in life] than a person who only knows one language.”
— Clara’s mother, Head Start, May 28, 2002.

When children in the United States enter early childhood classrooms from homes where English is not the primary language, they become involved in the process of becoming bilingual (learning to speak more than one language). As expressed by Clara’s mother, there is growing recognition that being bilingual can provide opportunities that may not be available to monolinguals, people who can speak only one language. Further, bilingualism can be beneficial for children’s early language and literacy development, for family communication and functioning, and for children’s feelings of self-worth.

In order for the process of becoming bilingual to be successful, parents and teachers need to work together to build understanding about what it means for a child to become bilingual and how becoming bilingual can be accomplished under varied circumstances. How should teachers and parents collaborate in helping young children become bilingual? We think that these activities are important:

  • collect information about the children and their families
  • develop a plan for children’s continued use of the home language
  • develop a plan for children’s acquisition of English

By emphasizing the support of the home language at home and encouraging positive and stimulating learning experiences in the early care settings and in the community, caregivers are working to prevent the overall language delays that can affect future school-related academic achievement (Thomas & Collier 2002).

Excerpt from Sylvia Y. Sánchez. Is It Wrong to Speak to My Babies in Their Home Language?

Collecting Information About the Children and Their Families

Me vine con mi mamá, mi papá ya estaba aquí, me vine con mi hermano menor, pero por mejorar. [En este país hay] más oportunidades de progresar que en el país de nosotros. [Pero todavía tengo] un hermano, el mayor, y mi abuelita, así que es por la que mas bien viajo por allá.”

“I came with my mom, my father was already here, and I came with my younger brother, but to have a better life. [In this country] there are more opportunities to succeed than in my country. [However, I still have] a brother, the oldest, and my grandmother, and that is my main reason for going back to visit.”
—Rosa and Ramon’s mother, Head Start, June 12, 2002.

The first step is for teachers to find out all they can about the language(s) and culture(s) of the families. Of course, this may not be easy when teachers and parents do not communicate in a common language. For this reason, it may be useful for teachers to use a questionnaire that can be translated into the parents’ home language or that can be filled out by parents in English with the help of community members. Designed to gather cultural and linguistic information about the child and the family, a questionnaire might ask:

  • What name do you use for your child? How did you decide to give your child this name? Does this name have a particular meaning or translation?
  • What language(s) do you use to talk to your child? Who else does your child spend time with and what language do they use?

Other questions could gather information about the child’s preferences and routines and the parents’ expectations for the child. (See the sample questionnaire in Tabors’ book One Child,Two Languages (1997), pp. 96-98). A questionnaire could be incorporated into the initial home visit when the family and child enroll in Head Start.

Once teachers have collected this information, they can begin thinking about how they want to discuss the issue of bilingualism with parents. In interviews with Head Start parents and other parents of children who speak Spanish at home, two themes emerge. Parents want their children to continue to use Spanish. And parents want their children to learn English. In fact, it is only if children continue to learn their home language and begin to learn English that they will be on the pathway to bilingualism. How can this goal be accomplished?

Developing a Plan for Children’s Continued Use of the Home Language

Aparte pues que esa es la lengua de uno su maestra nos dice siempre, la maestra de Tomás, que siempre en casa puro español. Como en su escuela todo el día es puro inglés entonces nos dice que en casa no le hablemos por favor inglés para que aprenda la lengua natal de uno y no el puro exactamente inglés.

“ Besides being our language, his teacher always tells us, Tomás’ teacher, that at home always use only Spanish. At school he spends all day using English so she tells us to please not speak to him in English so that he can learn his native tongue and not only English.”
—Tomas’ mother, public pre-K, August 24, 2002.

Encourage parents to maintain the home language. Working with parents around the issue of home language use can be challenging, as parents may hear from many sources that it is important for them to start speaking English with their children as soon as possible. The important messages to get across to parents are:

  • Children will need to continue to speak their home language if they are to become bilingual.
  • Communication within the family provides children with necessary information about the world.
  • Families should communicate in the language they feel most comfortable using.
  • Research shows that children with a strong foundation in their home language do better in school (Tabors 1997). Teachers who are confident about these messages and are willing to collaborate with parents to help maintain the home language can help parents make the decision, as Tomás’ mother has, to keep using their home language with their children.

Bring the home language(s) into the classroom. Depending on the linguistic composition of the classroom (both the children and the staff), different approaches are used to incorporate the language(s). If the teachers and the children share the same home language, then the curriculum can capitalize on this fact. With the collaboration of parents, teachers can set appropriate goals for home language use.

However, if teachers and children do not share the same language(s), then it is necessary to make the curriculum multi-linguistic. Suggestions for teachers include:

  • encourage children to speak their home languages with classmates who share that language.
  • introduce the different alphabets or writing systems of the home languages.
  • ask parents to teach an activity, present a song, tell a story, or read a book using their home language.
  • find story books in the children’s home languages and/or have parents develop story books in their home languages to add to the classroom library.
  • introduce new vocabulary words in English and find out what that word would be in at least one other language.
  • bring story-tellers into the class who can tell a story in another language.

Developing a Plan for Children’s Acquisition of English

Sí, sí sí sí eso sí, [que ella aprenda inglés] me preocupa...aquí el inglés es predominante y en toda parte necesita hablar inglés.

“ Yes, yes, yes, that is so, I worry [about her learning English] [in the United States] English is the predominant [language] and you need to know how to speak English everywhere you go.”
—Maricarmen’s mother, Head Start, June 17, 2002.

When and how should English be introduced to young children from homes where it is not the primary language? Of course, it depends. In a classroom where all of the children and the teachers share the same home language, English can be introduced as a “foreign language.” One approach designates a particular time of the day as English period. At this time, another teacher who is a native speaker of English is in charge of the classroom activities. Goals for these activities will be set by the teachers and the parents together.

A second option for using a home language and English at the same time would involve developing a two-way or dual language classroom or classrooms. In this model, approximately half of the children have a greater proficiency in the home language and half have a greater proficiency in English. In these classrooms, instruction is planned to occur in one or the other of the languages at a given time so that all of the children are developing bilingual abilities.

In a multilingual classroom where children come from a variety of home language backgrounds, teachers usually use English as the classroom language. In this situation, a variety of well-documented techniques are useful in helping children make progress in acquiring English. Some techniques focus on how teachers communicate in English, and other techniques focus on how teachers organize their classrooms.

Communication Techniques to Help Children Who Are Learning English

When teachers use English with children who are just learning English, they try to ensure that they are understood. For this reason, teachers rely on techniques like buttressing (using non-verbal cues, such as gestures), repetition (using the same phrases over and over again), and talking about the here and now (referring to objects and activities in plain view of the children). Teachers often provide running commentary (talking about what they are doing while they are doing it) during activities and are careful to expand and extend any words or phrases that a child uses in English. Finally, teachers also use a technique called “upping the ante” in which they encourage children to respond in English when they are ready (Tabors 1997).

Classroom Organization to Help Children Who Are Learning English

Classrooms with consistent routines are extremely helpful for young children who are learning English. They come to know what to expect and begin to navigate the classroom successfully. By using small groups for activity work and by making sure that the English learners are included in those activities, it is possible to tailor the use of English to the ability level of individual children. It is also possible to establish a buddy system, where children in the classroom who are already proficient in English pair up with English learners. Finally, it is important to have places in the classroom where English learning children can sit quietly or use manipulatives or look at pictures or play alone. These places can be thought of as safe havens in an otherwise demanding classroom situation.


Although we often think that young children can learn a second language with little effort, research demonstrates that this is not the case. In fact, the process of learning a second language and the process of maintaining a home language at the same time are cognitive and social challenges for young children. However, with the help of their parents and their teachers, it is possible for young children to become bilingual.

Enrollment By Primary Language of the Family at Home

As reported in the Head Start Program Information Report for the 2003 – 2004 Program Year:

Languages No. of Children No. of Percentage
English 772,320 72.40%
Spanish 243,541 22.83%
East Asian Languages 11,830 1.11%
Native Central/ South American and Mexican Languages 8,671 0.81%
Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages 7,160 0.67%
Pacific Island Languages 5,173 0.48%
European and Slavic Languages 5,026 0.47%
Caribbean Languages 4,182 0.39%
African Languages 4,063 0.38%
Native North American/ Alaska Native Languages 2,063 0.19%
Other Languages 2,678 0.25%

All quotes in this article come from interviews administered by Lisa M. Lopez, National Science Foundatoin (NSF) Minority Postdoctoral Fellow (010920), in collaboration with the Early Childhood Study of Language and Literacy Development of Spanish-speaking Children, a sub-project of Acquisition of Literacy in English, a program project of the Center for Applied Linguistics, Washington, DC, funded by the NICHHD and the Institute of Education Sciences (5-P01- HD39530), Patton O. Tabors, Principal Investigator.


Tabors, P. 1997. One child, two languages. A guide for preschool educators of children learning English as a second language. Baltimore, MD: Paul. H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Tabors, P. 2002. Language and literacy for all children. Head Start Bulletin 74: 10-14. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Head Start Bureau.

Patton O. Tabors is a Principal Research Associate, Harvard Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, MA. T: 617-495-3096; E:

Lisa M. López is an Assistant Professor of Educational Psychology, University of South Florida, Tampa, FL. T: 813-974-1260; E:

See also:
    English Language Learners: Head Start Bulletin #78

"How Can Teachers and Parents Help Young Children Become (and Stay) Bilingual?" English Language Learners. Head Start Bulletin #78. HHS/ACF/ACYF/HSB. 2005. English.

Last Reviewed: July 2009

Last Updated: November 13, 2014