Teaching ESL Learners in an Inclusive Preschool Classroom

English as a Second Language

Many preschool classrooms in predominantly English-speaking areas will often have a mixture of students who are speakers of both English and other languages. There is also often a mixture of first languages among the non-English-speaking students. For example, the children in a preschool in Chicago may speak Polish, Spanish, Lithuanian, or Chinese in addition to any number of varieties of English. Therefore, preschool teachers must thoroughly understand language development in terms of both first language acquisition and second language learning for appropriate planning.

Language Acquisition versus Language Learning

Understanding the difference between language acquisition and language learning is essential for effectively working with preschoolers whose first language is not English. Language acquisition is defined as the process whereby children passively and unconsciously acquire their first languages. Contemporary acquisition theories posit that children must receive adequate linguistic input during the critical period, which is a window of time measured from birth up to about the age of twelve or puberty, in order to acquire a first language or languages.

In contrast to language acquisition, language learning is defined as the process whereby humans past the critical period actively and consciously learn second languages. Unlike acquisition, learning requires explicit instruction and education. While acquiring a first language comes innately and naturally to all young children, barring any exceptional physiological or psychological disabilities, learning a second language is usually difficult if not sometimes impossible for older children and adults.

Fortunately for early education teachers, preschoolers who are typically between the ages of three and five are still in the beginning half of the critical period of language acquisition. Even preschool children who have grown up in an English-speaking environment have not fully acquired English as their first language as evidenced by mistakes such as "I have two foots" and "The dog eated." Young children, therefore, can more easily learn a second language or even acquire a second first language. Since motivation is also a factor for learning a second language, teachers can harness the natural curiosity of preschoolers to enhance the language development of both native English speaking and ESL students.

Tips for Educators

Unlike adults who are many years – if not decades – past the critical period, preschool children for whom English is not their first language are only two to three years behind their English-speaking peers. Preschool teachers can, therefore, usually modify their existing curricula to meet the needs of their ESL students. The following tips can help early education teachers ensure the linguistic success of their ESL preschoolers.

  • Speak clearly and slowly with short, simple sentences that contain age-appropriate vocabulary.
  • Communicate with facial expressions and gestures so that children who do not understand the words can figure out the meaning of the utterance from the context. For example, look and point at a clock or watch when asking, "What time is it?"
  • Pay attention to the facial expressions and body language of the students for signs of understanding or confusion.
  • Use the same language (vocabulary and syntax) for repeated activities and tasks to reinforce memorization and learning.
  • Pause frequently to allow for time for students to process the meaning of the utterance.
  • Read to students daily. Research indicates that reading to young children greatly benefits their linguistic development. Reading aloud in English will also introduce and reinforce the sound and word patterns of the English language to ESL preschoolers.
  • Read books with pictures that clearly follow the textual story. Also read from books with highly controlled and focused vocabulary.
  • Incorporate games and activities into language lessons. Young children love to play games and will never suspect they are learning at the same time.
  • Include activities that use group responses to avoid individual performance anxiety. For example, use color flashcards and have the entire class name the color aloud instead of calling on individual students.
  • Encourage native English speakers to interact with ESL speakers. For example, organize the students into pairs or small groups. Even if the ESL preschoolers are shy about speaking at first, they can practice their listening skills and will eventually join in the conversation.
  • Provide explicit English language instruction. Although preschool aged children can acquire English as a second first language, some students will be learning English as a second language. Therefore, providing explicit language instruction is essential for the linguistic success of these children.

Although many students in a preschool classroom will have first languages other than English, preschoolers between the ages of three and five are still in the beginning half of the critical period. With an understanding of the difference between language acquisition and language learning, preschool teachers can follow these simple tips to make learning English easy for their students.