About half of the children in the two largest public preschool programs in California – Head Start and the California State Preschool Program – speak a language other than English at home, but there is a good chance they will not be in classrooms with teachers and teacher assistants who are bilingual or trained specifically in instructing English learners.
This reality has broad implications for the ability of California’s public education system to promote successful outcomes for students who are learning English. Two-thirds of English learners did not meet the standards on the Smarter Balanced tests aligned with the Common Core standards, which were administered last spring for the first time. The results underscored the importance of early education programs in getting younger children who are not proficient in English better prepared before they get to kindergarten.
Early education experts say children who are English learners would be better prepared if they were taught in their native languages while also learning English – a goal included in the state’s preschool standards. But Head Start and the California State Preschool Program – which support tens of thousands of students across the state – don’t require teachers to be bilingual, making it more difficult to attain that goal. Combined, those two programs serve about a quarter of the state’s 4-year-olds.
Teachers’ qualifications, including the language skills they bring with them and the training they have received to help children learn English, are crucial for preparing English learners for kindergarten so they can keep pace with their English-only peers, said Lea Austin, a researcher with the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at UC Berkeley.
A September 2014 report by the UC Berkeley center, “Building a Skilled Teacher Workforce,” said that for English learners under age 5, bilingual teachers are “a critical asset in promoting their school readiness.”
But experts say that all teachers – regardless of their language skills – must be trained in ways to help children learn English.
“That ability (to speak another language) is important for lots of things. But it alone does not guarantee that (the teaching) is linguistically appropriate or pedagogically sound and strong,” said Linda Espinosa, a professor emeritus of early childhood education at the University of Missouri, Columbia, who has served as a consultant for the California Department of Education.
Languages of teachers
About half of California’s early childhood workers – including preschool teachers, assistants and home care workers – speak only English, according to an April 2015 Migration Policy Institute report. The other half speak more than one language, including about 37 percent of them who speak some Spanish.
“There are always gaps. We don’t have a qualified pool to pull from,” said Keesha Woods, the early education division director for the Los Angeles County Office of Education.
Still, the number of early education workers who speak other languages hasn’t kept pace with the large number of young children who are learning English.
“There is a mismatch between the growing diversity of languages spoken by immigrant children and families and the languages typically spoken by the early childhood education centers’ workforce,” the report concluded.
Adding to the problem is that many workers who do speak languages other than English were based in home and daycare center jobs, rather than serving as preschool teachers or directors.
No current numbers are available on the number of California preschool teachers who speak languages other than English. But a 2008 report from Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Child Care Employment provides some insight: About 49 percent of teachers’ assistants in preschools could speak languages other than English. But just 37 percent of preschool teachers and 25 percent of preschool directors could communicate with the students’ families in languages other than English.
“I think we want to point to the diversity (of languages spoken in) the teaching workforce (in early education) as a strength,” Austin said. But she added that it’s important that more teachers speak other languages, rather than just daycare workers or teachers’ assistants.
The Los Angeles County Office of Education’s preschool programs enroll children who speak 224 languages and dialects at home, said Keesha Woods, the division director who oversees the office’s California State Preschool Program, Head Start and other early education programs. About 61 percent of the 14,000 children and pregnant mothers in the programs run by the county office are English learners. Head Start gives health, education and other services starting with pregnant mothers.
Head Start makes it a goal to have an employee available to help children in their native languages – even if there is just one child in a classroom who needs that help – but Woods said that isn’t always possible.
“There are always gaps,” she said. “We don’t have a qualified pool to pull from.”
How well preschool teachers are prepared to educate English learners depends on where they get their training and the kind of early education program where they end up working.
Teachers working in a center funded by the California State Preschool Program must hold child development teacher permits, which requires them to complete 40 early education and other college units. In addition, Head Start requires half of its teachers in each program to have bachelor’s degrees.
Beyond that, the extent to which college preparation programs train early educators to work with children who speak languages other than English varies greatly. An October 2015 report by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, “Teaching the Teachers of Our Children,” found that over the past decade, early childhood teacher preparation programs in two- and four-year colleges have expanded their coursework focused on instructing English learners.
About 94 percent of the state’s associate degree programs enrolling early childhood educators include content on “teaching children who are dual language learners,” while 80 percent of bachelor’s degree and 75 percent of master’s degree programs included similar course content, according to the report.
Still, some faculty members and program directors reported that more could be done. About one-quarter of associate degree early education program leaders said their departments lacked faculty members with sufficient expertise in teaching young dual language learners, according to the report. In a survey of 359 faculty members regarding their professional development needs, respondents listed as a top concern receiving more training about how to instruct prospective teachers to work with English learners.
Austin, the lead author of the report, said the survey shows that the lack of training starts from the top: The faculty members often don’t have the expertise they need to teach preschool educators how to instruct English learners in the classroom.
While colleges are expanding their teacher training in how to educate English learners, other programs are helping preschool teachers learn how to work with English learners after they are on the job.
One such program is Guided Language Acquisition and Design, or GLAD.
GLAD was first developed two decades ago by the Orange County Department of Education for teachers in K-12 schools. It was expanded in 2004 to train preschool educators to help English learners with language skills and now serves programs in California and in other states, said Christie Baird, preschool GLAD program coordinator.
The training sessions are conducted in English so they can help teachers who only speak English with strategies to help preschoolers. However, many of the lessons can be used in other languages, as well, Baird said.
In a recent training session held at a Magnolia School District preschool in Anaheim, about 20 teachers and assistants from preschool and transitional kindergarten program observed from the back of the room, while Baird instructed a class of preschool children, almost all of whom speak languages other than English at home. While Baird taught a lesson about a farm to the 3- and 4-year-olds, trainer Jan Johnson pointed out to the visitors the methods that Baird was using.
Speaking in English, Baird told children to stand tall like grain – the word of the day.
She drew pictures of a pig and chicken, pointing out their body parts, such as snout and beak. She used full sentences, such as “The pig’s skin is rough,” and listed the “resources” that come from pigs and chickens while holding up props, such as toy food and stuffed animals, using all new vocabulary words to describe them. At the end of the lesson, she had the children do a chant of each body part, saying, “Yes, ma’am,” after each to reinforce it.
Some of the teachers and teacher assistants, who had come for a week of training from various Southern California schools, said the training would help them, especially with children who are still learning English.
Chelenne Slaven, a teacher’s assistant in a preschool class in the Magnolia School District in Anaheim, said because she only speaks English, she has trouble communicating with the parents of her students who don’t. However, the teacher in her class speaks Spanish, which helps compensate for her English-only competency.
Catherine Van Hooser, a preschool teacher in Fountain Valley, said she has students who speak Spanish, Korean and Vietnamese. Some also have speech delays and other difficulties. Most of the children speak English well enough to keep up, she said. But she said, in a previous preschool job in Norwalk, she found it challenging to instruct the mostly Spanish-speaking children.
“It’s very difficult to meet their needs. That could be something as simple as taking them to the bathroom,” said Van Hooser. “I’ve had to learn” how to help the children.
About 12 years ago, the San Mateo County Office of Education’s launched a training program, called the Early Childhood Language Development Institute.
Now, the institute serves roughly 75 educators in four sessions a year so teachers can practice new methods and then come back to discuss them at a later session, said Soodie Ansari, the office’s coordinator for early learning dual language support.
Strategies covered in the sessions include learning a few words in the students’ languages so they can communicate, using visuals so children can learn words or follow schedules and relying on assistants who speak other languages to help with instruction.
“We emphasize the point that, just because the teachers don’t speak the home language of the children and families doesn’t mean they can’t connect with them,” Ansari said.
This article is part of an occasional series of reports on the challenges facing preschools in preparing English learners for kindergarten and beyond.
Thanks for reading.
Can you help sustain our reporting?
Our team of journalists, editors, and fact-checkers do an estimated 440 hours of research every week to bring you the news on California education. That's a lot of work.