Experts widely agree that high-quality early childhood education yields long-term academic benefits.
But what happens when children miss out on this opportunity? The California Department of Education recently released data showing a 2.6% decline in K-12 enrollment, the largest drop in 20-plus years. More than a third was in kindergarten — a critical year for learning and child development, particularly literacy and oral language development.
Research indicates that kindergarten is a period of tremendous cognitive growth. Although kindergarten isn’t mandatory in California, many students, particularly English learners, greatly benefit from the additional time to listen, speak and cultivate language skills throughout the day.
The pandemic has only further exposed long-standing systemic inequities in education with resulting disparities in opportunity and academic achievement. Even prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, early learning gaps were especially prevalent with low-income families. Statistically, low-income families are less likely to enroll their children in kindergarten, putting many at a disadvantage compared with their peers when they begin the first grade.
This is largely a reflection of an education system that doesn’t adequately meet the needs of working-class families. Those English learners who did not connect, or connected minimally, during this year of distance learning need a renewed commitment that school will be a place full of rich language, wonderment and engagement in literacy and learning.
Equity challenges faced by English learners have made it imperative to double down on effective practices in the classroom, and not just focus on interventions and foundational skills. It is critical that we are mindful not to replicate approaches that are too narrow and have historically underserved our “high-priority” children.
Here are four essential elements of an equity-focused approach that will address the needs of California’s culturally and linguistically diverse children:
- Acceleration, not remediation — Educators can take many approaches to teach students content from their missed year of kindergarten. However, it remains evident that reverting to a focus on isolated skills that are not in concert with the rest of the literacy and language development is not the answer. The limited interaction with text and peers through distance learning also poses some challenges for more vulnerable student populations, such as English learners. The state English Language Arts/English Language Development framework is clear: When we isolate skills and teach them in decontextualized ways, we lose the power of learning.
- Have an asset-based approach. This means focusing on strengths and leveraging the experiences of students and their families. For English learners, the exposure to the home language they’ve had access to throughout the pandemic can and should be leveraged as a strength, not a deficit. Educators should take the opportunity to rethink the significant linguistic and cultural assets that are present in English learners’ home lives and reframe the additional home language exposure students have had through an asset-based lens.
- Cultivate meaningful and culturally responsive relationships with students and families, as well as nurturing these kinds of relationships between students. Kindergarten remains an essential year for childhood socialization, which can also lead to better long-term relationships and academic achievements. Strong relationships are critical to creating effective learning experiences. Now more than ever, educators have an opportunity to intentionally partner with families and keep them informed. Not only are English learners more likely to come from multigenerational homes, but out of necessity, often required to act as liaisons between themselves and their families and the monolingual world. Student-teacher relationships are just as important as the ones schools develop with parents and caretakers. Developing trust and open communication is foundational to creating a conducive learning environment.
- Create joy in learning. Learning should be engaging, interesting and relevant. Too much focus on foundational skills at the expense of these other aspects can result in ‘word calling’ (students who can read text without comprehending its meaning). This is not to negate the need for building foundational skills but to challenge educators to think outside of a singular approach. Educational disparity is not visible only in terms of the competencies but also in terms of engagement. The more joyful and enriching a classroom is for a child, filled with beautiful books, poetry, songs and hands-on learning, the more they will want to participate — and the more exposure English learners will have to oral language development.
With the new funds the governor is providing to districts, we can imagine our preschool and kindergarten through 12th grade classrooms full of books, resource materials for inquiry and time for teacher collaboration to develop the language and literacy-rich lessons that tap into the imagination and curiosity of our students.
Now is the time to make sure that last year’s lost time does not predict a widening of gaps but provides the opportunity for educators and English learners to reach greater levels of engagement and achievement.
Martha Hernandez is the executive director of Californians Together, a coalition of advocacy organizations focused on promoting equitable educational policy and practice for English learners. Anya Hurwitz is the executive director of SEAL (Sobrato Early Academic Language), an educational nonprofit focused on early learning and elementary education whose mission is that all dual language learners and English learners in California learn, thrive and lead.
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