The country's demographics are slowly changing such that ethnic "minorities"--Hispanics, blacks, Asians, etc.--will eventually make up a majority of United States residents. The shift is glaringly apparent in schools that are catering to more diverse populations, which poses challenges for teachers who must cope with language and cultural differences in their classrooms. But it also presents unique opportunities for young kids to grow, particularly as they hone their language skills.
National Council of La Raza released new research last week showcasing organizations that do a good job of preparing Hispanic children for school. NCLR's work echoes an array of education experts who say that investment in early childhood development (pre-school through kindergarten) offers the most bang for the buck. For minorities or disadvantaged students, early tutoring in reading and math basics can be a ticket out of poverty.
For Hispanic students, NCLR points out that early instruction in English is essential. Nearly one-fourth of Hispanic students (23 percent) live in households where only Spanish is spoken by adults. Most kids can learn English without difficulty, but NCLR says family engagement matters too; Spanish-speaking parents may have trouble figuring out how to help their kids in school. "Parents are afraid to speak to their children in Spanish because they think the kids should be learning in English," said NCLR senior policy analyst Erica Beltrán.
The truth is that a robust vocabulary in any language is good for a child. It's easy to focus on the English language learners as an isolated group in schools, but the distinction makes little sense when it comes to early learning. All young children are learning English; it just so happens that some of them are learning other languages as well. A toddler's language skills--be it in Spanish, English, or Chinese--can mean the difference between being ahead of the curve or behind it in the teen years. "Children who come from parents of lesser education enter kindergarten with a smaller vocabulary," said Rich Neimand, president of Neimand Collaborative, a public relations firm that advocates for education. "The achievement gap starts at that point and it's very hard to close."
How can educators and families focus on increasing vocabulary and literacy among all pre-school children? Can the techniques used for English language learners be employed among young native English speakers? What should non-English-speaking parents know about interacting with their bilingual children? What should English-speaking parents understand about improving their children's vocabulary? Does it make sense to teach other languages to English speakers at the pre-school level?