«  View All Posts

4 Tips for Supporting Dual-Language Learners (DLLs)

October 6th, 2021 | 4 min. read

By Lisa Williford

Dual-Language Learners (DLLs) are an asset to your classroom! Their presence will help prepare all your students to become global citizens and take their places in the increasingly global workplace. So how can we better support these children whose brains are doing double duty to learn not only one language, but two? Lea Ann Christenson, PhD, author of Strength in Diversity: A Positive Approach to Teaching Young Dual-language Learners in Early Childhood, shares 4 useful strategies to support DLLs and ultimately ALL students in your classroom.


Hi, my name is Dr. Lea Ann Christenson and I'm an associate professor at Towson University in Maryland. I'm in the Department of Early Childhood Education, and perhaps more importantly, I am a former kindergarten teacher and a former English as a Second Language teacher. I am also the author of Strength in Diversity: A Positive Approach to Teaching Young Dual-language Learners in Early Childhood.

A dual-language learner is a person whose first language is a language other than English, and who is acquiring English when they come to school in the United States. In the United States, about 10% of the student population are students who are second language learners, who are dual-language learners, who are learning their first language plus acquiring English. So odds are in your career, you will probably work with children who are learning English. 

There are two levels of language, in our case English, that we're teaching these children. The first one is the basic communication skills. That's the English that you need in order to navigate wherever you are— a school, a store, etc. It's that basic language. You can have a chat with a person about the weather. When you go into a store, you can ask where the flour is. If you're a child in a school, you can ask your teacher where the bathroom is. It is simple, basic communication skills. 

The second level of language is the academic language. Jim Cummins coined that term as CALC— Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency. That's the language that we need to meet with success in school. That's the goal we have for all of our children— for them to have that academic language. It can take a person three to five years, depending on a lot of variables, to acquire Academic English. So we are going to have to think about ways that we can help support children as they are on that journey— that's not a quick one—as they are learning English.

Being bilingual is an asset. There's a lot of brain research coming out now that bilingual people, for example, are less likely to develop dementia when they're older. It's an emerging science. We need to pay attention to that in order to see what the other benefits are. But just know that, if a child comes in and does not speak English, it's not a deficit. It's an asset because they already speak one language, and you're going to be adding a second language to that.

1. Be Welcoming and  Empathetic

So how can we support these children? First of all, just like you would with all children, be welcoming and empathetic. Try to find out as much as you can ahead of time about where the child is from, the language they speak, and find ways to make your greeting to them more comprehensible by hands-on experiences. 

Perhaps you or the other students could demonstrate to them where the water fountain is, how to sharpen a pencil, and all those procedures that might be difficult to understand if you're just listening, but if you can see charts and graphs and people actually doing it, it makes it a lot more comprehensive.

2. Explicitly Teach School Procedures through Demonstration

Also, put yourself in the shoes of the children and think about all the procedures and all the school rules that you have. These might be second nature to you and children who have either been in the school for a while, or have siblings. Children that have older siblings, they know all the subtleties about your school.

Think about what those subtleties could be, and then explicitly teach those in the early days of school so that children understand what those procedures are. They might be so familiar to you, but they take deconstruction and explicit teaching with people who aren't familiar with that. 

3. Learn Phrases in the Children’s Languages

Make sure you take the time to learn a couple of phrases in the children's languages. I'm saying languages because most often you're not going to have just one language group in your class. Every language on earth is spoken in the United States, and we have people from almost every country across the world. So find out what the languages are, and then learn a couple of phrases in that language. That will just make the children feel more comfortable.

Also, the children are going to see you role-modeling what it's like to learn how to pronounce a language that you're not familiar with, and how to risk-take. That's part of what they're going to have to do is to feel comfortable enough to take risks in your classroom, to pronounce things incorrectly sometimes, and you support them to correct things. That’s how you’ll be role-modeling risk-taking for them. 

4. Find Ways to Communicate with Children’s Families 

Finally, you're going to need to find ways to communicate with children’s families. We are so lucky now with the apps we have on our phones and on our computers. We have many ways to translate written communication. Some aren't the best, but it's better than nothing if you don't have access to somebody at your school who can translate. You can use computer programs, and then just say, “Please forgive me if there's any mistakes. I did this with this app.”  There are also many apps to do oral translations. 

If you can avoid it, please don't have the children do the translating. That sets up a negative power dynamic in families if children are the ones translating. That does happen sometimes as they acquire more English, and perhaps the parents haven't. But try to avoid that at all costs. Hopefully, you have people at your school that can translate. If not, we have technology to support us. 

So good luck on your journey working with dual-language learners. They are a joy for everyone! Everyone in the classroom learns from them, and the strengths that they bring to your classroom. 

Check out my book—Strength in Diversity: A Positive Approach to Teaching Young Dual-language Learners in Early Childhood— for further tips on how to support children in your classroom. And a final word: a lot of the strategies in the book are actually very good supports to ALL children, not just children who are acquiring English, but all young children.  So it will help your practice across the board. 

Thank you for spending a couple minutes with me today. Good luck in your school year, and have a good rest of your day!

Author(s)Lea Ann Christenson, PhD

Lisa Williford

Lisa Williford, an experienced marketing event coordinator, served with Kaplan Early Learning Company and Gryphon House from 2020 - 2023.