Supporting Early Literacy: Dual Language Learners

It is quite common for children to mix languages when they are learning two languages simultaneously.

Dual language learners have a lot in common with their peers. Just like non-dual language learners, they love to play and laugh, and they want to feel safe and supported. But as you’ve probably noticed, there are also some very important factors that set them apart. Even though all children have things in common, it is helpful to consider the feelings a child may experience that are different from other children.

Imagine that you are a three or four-year-old that has just arrived to the United States from a place where English is not the dominant language, and that today is the first day you are attending a preschool or pre-K program. What are some of the emotions you might experience?

Perhaps you would find yourself speaking the language your family speaks at home. Or maybe you’ve already learned some words in English, and you can use a combination of both languages to communicate your needs. How would your teachers and classmates react?

Many adults have the misconception that growing up with more than one language confuses children. But as you’ve probably guessed by now, it is quite common for children to mix languages when they are learning two languages simultaneously. That mixing is not confusion. In fact, it’s a pretty common part of the learning process. Because children don’t have a full vocabulary, dual language learners tend to use whichever words they know to express themselves.

Let’s look at the stages of second language acquisition in early childhood:

Use of first language stage.

The child:

  • Uses their first language to try to communicate
  • Discovers that others do not understand
  • Realizes the environment is new
Quiet or nonverbal stage.

The child:

  • May stay in this stage for a brief or a long time
  • Listens and observes, but is still learning
  • May use other communication skills such as crying, tugging on an adult
Telegraphic and formulaic speech stage.

The child:

  • May stay in this stage for a brief or a long time
  • Listens and observes, but is still learning
  • May use other communication skills such as crying, tugging on an adult
Productive speech stage.

The child:

  • Develops many more vocabulary words
  • Uses more whole phrases and short sentences
  • Produces original phrases
  • Will make errors which are very common as the command of the new language continues to develop


While children do not necessarily go through the stages at the same time or in exactly the same way, all dual language learners are likely to share some of these practices as their language skills grow.


Other misconceptions about dual language learners.

There is a common myth that a child has to be of a certain intelligence to learn a second language. While some adults may find it easier than others, children are born to learn languages. Just like learning to crawl and walk, learning a language becomes just another milestone. The younger the child learns a language, the easier it is for them to learn, because the “window of opportunity” for easiest language acquisition happens between birth and five years.

Additionally, many families raising bilingual children worry that learning two languages at once will put too much pressure on their children. They think that by waiting until they are fluent in one language, it will be much easier for them to learn another. However as children get older, they become aware of the languages. This means that they need to “learn” a language, rather than acquire it naturally.




As a child care professional, there are many things you can use to support dual language learners in your classroom. These tools can make a world of difference for a child who is not just learning about communication, but also about their place in the world and where they belong.

Try these strategies in your classroom:

Ask families to help you integrate familiar cultural items in your classroom so that children feel more included.

Speak their language.

Use tools like Google Translate to make dual language learners feel welcome by occasionally using their home language. The use of greetings (such as translations for “hello” and “good morning”) and familiar words and phrases (like food, kitchen, animal names and other common words) can provide some comfort to these children.

Use environmental print in the children’s home languages when appropriate.

Add labels in multiple languages when appropriate. Use different colors for different languages to help children distinguish them.

Support signs and labels that are in English with pictures and images.

Adding visuals on classroom schedules and routines, or visuals alongside key words like “crayon” provides visual cognitive support for understanding the print.

Bring materials in from children’s home cultures into the classroom.

Ask families to help gather familiar magazines, photos, menus, props, etc., and integrate those cultural materials into your centers. Having these items in your classroom demonstrates respect for the culture and traditions of children and families. It also helps children feel more included.

Children who are new English learners may need some additional support with classroom transitions, since they may not yet be able to understand enough English to follow your directions.
  • Follow a consistent and predictable classroom schedule and routine.
  • Post a schedule that uses pictures, photos or graphics, as well as words, to describe each activity.
  • Review the schedule with the children at the beginning of the day so they know what to expect.
  • Use simple, repetitive songs or chants that children can easily learn and sing as they are learning English.
  • Before or during transitions, use simple motions or actions that all children can do together.
  • Understand that your expectations will be new and unfamiliar to many children. For example, some of them may never have needed to stand in line, take turns, sit in a circle or be quiet.
  • Spend time modeling your expectations during transitions and supporting children in practicing how to do transitions.
  • Explain the schedule and transitions using the home language, if you speak that language.

You don’t have to be bilingual to include bilingual books to your classroom.

Repeat children’s statements, adding more advanced vocabulary.

You can also use self talk and parallel talk, or pair or group dual language learners with more linguistically advanced peers when working on hands-on activities.

Add bilingual books to your classroom library.

You do not have to be bilingual to use bilingual books!

Share this article with families.

Brighter Futures Indiana has a great family-facing article featuring Indiana families that are also learning more than one language.


Looking for additional supports and information? Watch this video! You can also reach out to your local child care resource & referral agency and find a training to support your classroom goals.




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