When serving English learners in preschools we often ask, “Do we introduce literacy in the primary language, in English, or in both?” There are several considerations in determining the language of instruction.
1. Language and literacy practices in the home
When children enter preschools, we assess their language skills. But there is also a need to consider the literacy practices of parents, caregivers, or older siblings. This helps to understand the level of support children will receive at home. If no one reads in Hmong at home, for example, should teachers introduce the alphabet and letter sounds in Hmong knowing that the children will not have the opportunity to practice letters or sounds at home? The reading practices of the home need to be taken into considerations when selecting the language for introducing preliteracy.
2. Preschool and kindergarten biliterate staff
Consider resources available and implementing Bilingual and Dual Language programs over several years. It takes years for one to become biliterate. Therefore, it is crucial that there be qualified staff at several grade levels to continue literacy instruction in the language selected during preschool. The success of the Seal of Biliteracy initiative has been its adoption across the country. Its challenge has been the shortages of biliterate teachers across grade levels and languages to sustain its growth.
3. The transfer of preliteracy
The first consideration is the notion of transfer of skills from one language to another. The second consideration is the language of literacy instruction in kindergarten and grades 1-3.
Listening and speaking skills can be taught in either language because they transfer. Examples of these skills would be print awareness, directionality (printed letters and words run from left to right and bottom to top), basic textbook features (author, illustrator, table of contents), making connections and matching skills. Labels of concrete objects can be taught in either language. Listening and speaking can also be enhanced with the use of videos, oral presentations, and exposure to stories in either language.
Sounds, letter names, and pronunciation are unique to each language. Phonological awareness and phonics do not transfer. And if reading and writing are to be learned and assessed in English by the middle of the primary grades (3rd grade or earlier), children need to be taught the alphabet and phonological awareness skills in English—rhyming of words, listening for syllables within words, learning to recognize beginning sounds in words, and matching words to letters.
We want children to become bilingual and perhaps biliterate, to honor their language and culture, to maximize parent participation, and to equip them with the readiness skills needed to start the process of learning to read and write upon entering kindergarten.
The promise of high-quality bilingual preschools is that children who attend have an opportunity to develop readiness skills in language and literacy. To attain these goals, biliterate teachers are needed across multiple grade levels, careful assessments of literacy practices in the home, and close articulation with kindergarten-3rd grade teachers.