Being a Bilingual Teacher in Early Childhood Education

December 11, 2015

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As the population of young children keeps getting more diverse in this country, many schools and programs are seeking teachers and assistants that speak the languages needed in their classrooms. However, it is not enough to be bilingual to know how to provide the most effective educational child care possible. Despite years of research on bilingual education, there are many open questions about how and when to use two languages when working with young children.

A recent review of the research about young dual language learners in early education concluded that it is not necessary or effective to rush young children into English. What they learn in their home language will transfer easily into English as they get older. What seems to be most important is to provide children with a solid foundation of knowledge in both of their languages. That makes it possible for them to build on prior knowledge to keep up with the learning they need to be ready for school. This foundation of knowledge is what supports the successful transition to English later on.

To meet that goal of supporting high quality early learning, bilingual teachers and assistants should have rich, engaging conversations with children in one language or the other. Some programs use the “one person-one language” approach, where the bilingual person would use only their non-English language in the classroom. This can help children gain solid, clear language experience in each language, but there are times when that plan has to be flexible. When a child that doesn’t speak that language needs help, it may be necessary to use English. Other programs use a dual language immersion program where one group of children will be composed half of English-speakers and half who speak another language. They have a schedule for teaching all in one language at one time and all in the other language at another time – such as every other day- and the goal is to help all of the children to become bilingual. Many programs, however, hire bilingual staff with very little guidance about how and when they should be using English or their additional language.

There are some research-based strategies that can be used in any curriculum. When reading stories to young children, it is also best to use one language at a time. Even if the book has both languages on the page, it is more clear for the children to hear the story all the way through in one language and then to hear it in the other language at a different time. A great way to start the story is to orient the children by explaining what the story will be about in both languages and helping them make the connection between one language and the other, then proceed in only one language. Include English speaking children in these story experiences, because making the connections and then hearing the story in a different language is great for English speakers, too.

Miss Monique told the children, “Today we are going to read the story of Boucle d’or et le Trois Ours. Ours is the French word for bears. Trois means 3 in French. What story do you think I’m about to read? That’s right – “The Three Bears.” And here we have the French word boucle – that means hair. Boucle d’Or – hair of gold. Who do you think that is? That’s right, Goldilocks! It’s Goldilocks and the Three Bears! Now I will read the whole story in French.”

Research shows that clear explanations about the connections between words in the home language and English is one of the most effective strategies for early literacy of dual language learners. That is another reason to recognize the incredible value of having well-prepared bilingual teachers and assistants for diverse programs.

Make sure there are plenty of books, music, games and labels around the classroom to support the languages of the children and the adults. The right supplies really help make the most of the language assets brought to the classroom by bilingual teachers and assistants. For less common languages, ask the local public library to help find the languages needed. Sometimes teachers and parents may create some of the classroom materials to make sure every home language is represented.

With their valuable language skills, bilingual educators should not serve just as translators or behavior monitors. They should be engaging in discovery, nurturing, play and learning with children using their own language. Fluency in an additional language becomes a vital and dynamic support for early learning in multilingual classrooms. Bilingual teachers and assistants also help build strong communication with families, and they help to elevate the attention to diversity for the entire school community. Being bilingual really is a wonderful thing for early childhood education.


1. Castro, D. C., Garcia, E. E., & Markos, A. M. (2013). Dual language learners: Research informing policy. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, Center for Early Care and Education Research-Dual Language Learners.

2. Mirza J. Lugo-Neris, Carla Wood Jackson, and Howard Goldstein
Lang Speech Hear Serv Sch 2010;41;314-327; originally published online Apr 26, 2010;
DOI: 10.1044/0161-1461(2009/07-0082)


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