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September 16, 2008

Learning English in Pre-K

Leda holds her milk carton up in the air toward me and grunts, "Uuhhh!"
"Do you need something?"  I ask.
"I no can't," she replies with a sad face.
"You can't open your milk?" I reply, and Leda shakes her head no.  "Then you need to ask for help.  You can say, 'Can you help me, please?'"
"Help me, please!" Leda repeats with a smile.  I show her how to open her milk and she promptly says, "Tank you!"
Teaching in a school that is comprised of approximately 60% African American and 40% Hispanic students, I have learned a great deal about English language acquisition in young children.  One of my students last year came to school with very limited English skills and began speaking in complete English sentences within four months; Leda began school last winter with literally no English, and just this week she began formulating short sentences independently.  Each child follows the same general trajectory of English language development, but proceeds at his/her own pace. 

I recognize that good teaching practices for English Language Learners (ELLs) are generally good teaching practices for early childhood in general -- picture cues, hand gestures, and teaching students how to use words to communicate -- but I also recognize that pre-k for ELLs can be dramatically enhanced by additional supports and services.  I was impressed to read that the School District of Lancaster, PA is providing additional funding to enhance the pre-k education of their ELL students.  They will be providing "a preschool English-as-a-second-language teacher, three bilingual assistants, three literacy coaches and an advocate to serve as liaison between the schools and the prekindergarten students and their families."  These are wonderful supports that will help teachers, family members, and most importantly, students, get the most out of their pre-k experience. 
Research clearly demonstrates that pre-k benefits all children, but the data is particularly strong for ELL students.  Pre-K Now published a report in July 2006, Pre-K and Latinos: The Foundation for America's Future, which clearly outlines these benefits and makes policy recommendations regarding ELL pre-k students.  State policymakers are beginning to get the message; 17 state funded pre-k programs currently include ELLs in their eligibility criteria, and many states have policies for how to support ELLs in the classroom.  States need to continue expanding eligibility for all children, especially ELLs, and ensure that students, families, and teachers get the supports they need to succeed. 
Do you have a success story of an ELL student in pre-k?  If so, please share it in the comments section!

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