By Drs. Sandra Mercuri & Vivian Pratts
The prekindergarten years provide children with the necessary exposure to develop relationships and explore learning in a safe, playful and caring environment. While play is still at the core of the preschool years, teachers also need to consider the linguistic and literacy demands of todays’ literacy-rich prekindergarten classrooms. The language and literacy foundation or domain, includes reading, writing and oracy. Oracy is considered a foundational skill that supports the development of children’s ability to read and write in school. By communicating with others and across languages students develop a more extensive vocabulary and are able to demonstrate content knowledge gained through explorations of learning in different content areas.
Many of the students that attend prekindergarten are dual language learners or come from a home that speak a language other than English. Regardless of the linguistic background of the students who enter prekindergarten, research shows that all children are equipped to learn two languages from birth (Baker, 2011). In addition, by being exposed to two languages overtime, they develop high levels of cognitive flexibility, interpersonal skills, creativity and long-term memory (King & Fogle, 2006). However, and because dual language learners are developing language proficiency in two languages simultaneously during the preschool years, both languages need to be supported and fostered for all children continuously.
In order to create an effective pathway to biliteracy for prekindergarten students, districts should provide teachers and students with a series of dual language essentials such as integrated curriculum, a balanced literacy approach to support the development of emergent biliteracy, and strategies to teach language and literacy through content and across languages.
An integrated curriculum – In an integrated approach to curriculum, teachers plan learning activities and create classroom environments based on their understanding of each child’s interests, needs, funds of knowledge and experiences. For preschool teachers working with emergent dual language learners, is imperative to focus not only on the child’s experiences in acquiring English but also, and more importantly, in building on the child’s knowledge and skills in the dominant language.
Biliteracy in the early grades – In order for biliteracy to develop, teachers need to strategically design instruction that allows students to learn language, literacy skills and content simultaneously, and that includes read louts, shared and interactive reading and writing, word study, and guided and independent reading and writing opportunities appropriate for the grade level. In dual language classrooms, teachers should intentionally, connect the two contexts in which they are taught to read and write in the two languages, capitalizing on the bi-directional nature of transfer theory across both languages of instruction, and more efficiently aligned with the type of simultaneous bilingual students found in schools (Mercuri, Musanti & Rodríguez, in press). Students who receive quality instruction through age-appropriate methodologies and based on their language needs reach high levels of biliteracy and access to the academic content. Strategic instruction that fosters and builds upon that interdependence in the form of metalinguistic conversations should be part of instruction in dual language contexts.
Strategies that support biliteracy instruction – Based on current research, it is recommended that preschool teachers working with emergent dual language learners plan for and provide students with opportunities to use language with authentic purposes across content areas with the support of: 1) anchor charts as teachers and students make thinking visible by recording content, strategies, processes, and strategies during the learning process; 2) structured conversations through sentence stems, also called accountable talk, support students’ thinking and language ability as they share knowledge gained in the different content areas with teacher support; 3) bilingual pair structure facilitates students’ conversations during the day in order to facilitate exposure and practice to more advanced structure of language and vocabulary; 4) Preview/View/Review structure requires that teachers consider what students already know, understand about literacy in their home language and ensure that this knowledge is used to help them gain language and literacy skills in the target language; 5) finally, metalinguistic awareness is developed when teachers guide students in comparing and contrasting the two languages of instruction. For example, words that begin with the same sound /p/: potato and papa, or plants and pelota (Mercuri, Musanti and Rodríguez, in press).
When dual language teachers explicitly capitalize in using pedagogical structures and approaches that facilitate transfer across the two languages of instruction, the time and difficulties involved in learning to read and write the second language are reduced. In addition, interdisciplinary planning, through which students learn and demonstrate their knowledge in two languages using multiple paths towards the development of literacy, provides opportunities for students to use all their linguistic resources to achieve academic biliteracy. This curricular integration and teaching approach create a synergetic relationship that allows the development of academic biliteracy in multiple directions and in a particular non-linear way for each emergent bilingual child. In designing this type of planning, teachers should reflect not only on the content they need to teach but also how to teach, how to integrate oral language, and reading and writing skills throughout the interdisciplinary mini unit.