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UW Researcher Identifies Early Literacy Support Strategies for Young Dual Language Learners

November 15, 2021

There is a large and growing population of children in the United States who are younger than 5 years old who have a first language other than English and will be forced to learn two languages simultaneously, as well as learn academic subjects in a new language.

To adequately serve these families, a University of Wyoming researcher says educators and speech-language pathologists must work closely with parents and provide them with culturally responsive strategies and activities that align with their language background and interaction styles.

Mark Guiberson, a professor in the UW Division of Communication Disorders, led a study that identified several ways to help this segment of children learn effectively.

“The goal of this research was to identify culturally responsive teaching strategies and activities that align with developmental priorities and cultural and linguistic backgrounds of Spanish-speaking parents of toddler-age ‘dual language learners’ or bilingual children,” Guiberson says.

Guiberson is corresponding author of a paper, titled “Early Literacy Strategies for Parents of Young Dual Language Learners,” that was published today (Nov. 15) in Topics in Language Disorders. The quarterly journal is peer-reviewed and serves as a scholarly resource for researchers and clinicians who share an interest in spoken and written language development and disorders across the lifespan, with a focus on interdisciplinary and international concerns. It also provides relevant information to support theoretically sound, culturally sensitive, research-based clinical practices.

The paper helps demonstrate that meeting the language and literacy needs of bilingual learners requires careful consideration and specialized instruction.

Dual language learners include limited English-proficient children, inclusive of all children who come from homes where a language other than English is spoken; children learning two or more languages simultaneously, including those learning a second language while continuing to develop their first language; and incipient bilingual children, described as those who have limited exposure and passive knowledge of the second language.

In 2018-19, approximately 28 percent of children from birth to 5 years in Head Start, Early Head Start and migrant Head Start programs were dual language learners, with the majority Spanish-speaking.

When developing early intervention plans, educators should consider parent-child interactions, parent teaching styles and daily routines. Such variables strongly influence families’ developmental goals for children, according to the study.

The purpose of Guiberson’s study -- which included 94 children as well as their parents or grandparents -- was to identify culturally consistent, early literacy support strategies specifically for parents of 2- to 3-year-old dual language learners. Guiberson applied a convergent parallel mixed-methods design, which was selected because it allowed him to collect multiple sources of data, analyze the data separately and then integrate relevant findings.

For the current study, this included describing parental behaviors and identifying potential strategies to support early literacy; conducting a review of the relevant extant research that has included parents of 2- to 4-year-old dual language learners; and then synthesizing the findings across these data sources.

The research identified 26 strategies, 15 of which were referenced as having “compelling strength,” Guiberson says. Some of the strategies that had a compelling level of evidence to support their use included:

-- Reading in the child’s home language.

-- Helping parents develop, with their children, homemade books that reflect personal experiences or narratives.

-- Using a variety of types of questions when looking at books together.

-- Teaching new vocabulary when looking at books together.

-- Using focused stimulation or multiple repetitions to teach children new words or language.

Early childhood educators and speech-language pathologists who are working with young dual language learners may be interested in this work, Guiberson says. 

“While less than 6 percent of speech-language pathologists are bilingual, they still have the responsibility of supporting families in teaching their children language and communication skills,” he says. “Using some of these naturalistic language stimulation strategies during shared-book interactions can be a really fantastic way to help families get their children ready for preschool and kindergarten.”

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