Like many states across the nation that serve a large number of English learners/dual language learners (EL/DLLs), California schools have faced a nested set of challenges stemming from the pandemic. EL/DLL children, their families, and their communities were more likely to live in crowded, insecure housing conditions and to have family members who are essential workers. Meanwhile, teachers struggled to keep their ELs and DLLs engaged and connected given language barriers and lack of access to technology and broadband. Despite these intersectional issues, the pandemic was also a time when many preschool-aged EL/DLLs experienced less language loss as a result of being in multilingual settings at home or with caretakers who speak their home languages. Children didn’t stop “learning” language while they were sheltering in place—on the contrary, the additional exposure allowed children to retain and develop their home languages, which can contribute to long-term life successes that are gained from bilingualism if our schools know how to leverage that important asset.
In order to unlock and accelerate the learning of EL/DLLs, it is critical that educators be knowledgeable about dual language acquisition. Educators who work with EL/DLLs need the depth of understanding and skills to bring asset-based practices to life in their classrooms and to understand how to partner with families in culturally and linguistically affirming and relevant ways. These are practices that Sobrato Early Academic Language (SEAL), a nonprofit organization dedicated to centralizing the needs of EL/DLLs and their families, has advocated for since the institution of the pilot program in 2008, continuing to do so after it was spun off from the Sobrato Family Foundation and achieved independent nonprofit status in 2019.1 A component of SEAL’s mission to combat education equity gaps is to provide teachers and school communities with effective research-based strategies,2 tools, and professional development resources.3 If education equity advocates are to deliver on the promise of quality early learning, they must make sure children’s language and culture assets are able to flourish in their early learning settings.
It is only in recent years—with Proposition 584 effectively repealing the English-only requirement of Proposition 227—that California’s policy context has truly shifted in favor of bilingualism. California lawmakers have since taken steps to invest in professional development training for early childhood educators as an extension of these efforts. In 2018, the California Department of Education’s Early Learning and Care Division awarded a Dual Language Learner Professional Development Grant to five professional learning providers, including SEAL, to address the growing desire and need for training and professional development of early childhood education teachers.5 SEAL’s learnings from participating in this grant program are documented in “Building an Effective Early Childhood Workforce: The Need for Professional Development for Educators of Dual Language Learners.”6 The COVID-19 pandemic makes these learnings ever more relevant.
In California, 60% of children age five and under are DLLs,7 which means many teachers lead diverse, multilingual classrooms, yet there is a lack of structural long-term support for multilingual professional learning in the early childhood sector.
The DLL grant program was offered with the purpose of addressing this concern. California allocated $5 million to high-quality professional development for early childhood educators to increase their knowledge about DLLs and their use of effective instructional practices for all students. The specific professional development series developed by SEAL was offered in partnership with four county offices of education, 20 school districts, and one community-based organization in California. Despite the coronavirus pandemic, more than 360 early childhood educators and administrators across California took part. These educators collectively served almost 4,000 children and continue these efforts to this day.
SEAL provided two types of professional development trainings: a Deep Dive professional development series and the Learning Community Networks (LCNs). Both experiences were designed to teach language-intentional strategies through thematic instruction to support DLLs’ language development and content learning. Training and resources emphasized the importance of home-language development alongside English. Participants learned how to support this via integrated curriculum units and a series of trainings on developing complex oral language, analytical language, and thought; connecting early literacy to learning about the world; and cultivating joy in learning.
Educators praised the results of the trainings. “I’ve seen a tremendous difference in the teachers who are participating in SEAL. It’s almost like they had the training and the next time they were back in their classrooms, everything changed,” said one San Bernardino early childhood administrator whose teachers participated. “The parents were involved, the teachers were overly excited, which I loved, and the students were really learning. I heard from one of the teachers that [students] were going home and explaining insects to their parents.”
What was discovered throughout these training sessions was that investing money into long-term professional development for educators did three things:
1. Deepened their understanding of and increased their use of effective instructional practices for DLLs. SEAL fostered regional capacity and infrastructure to support DLLs. Not only did educators report having learned useful instructional strategies for supporting DLLs’ development, including their oral language development, but they also felt more confident in their ability to teach DLLs. Similarly, the training proved to have a positive impact on the children served as well. The policy brief noted that children in the participating classrooms, including DLLs, became more engaged in active learning and expressed themselves more comfortably in their home languages.
2. The demand for professional learning is high, but there are structural barriers to providing effective professional development for early childhood educators. SEAL regularly encounters institutional barriers such as difficulties finding substitute teachers, difficulty traveling to other sites for training, and admin being stretched too thin in duties. Across California, there are logistical challenges stemming from the fact that early learning education is under-resourced. This makes it difficult to develop infrastructure around supporting professional learning. According to the policy brief, SEAL regularly encountered logistical difficulties in providing professional learning to educators in the K–12 system, but especially to early childhood educators. Issues that frequently came up included finding substitute teachers, identifying a common day for training within a given region, difficulty traveling to other sites for training, and administrators being too overstretched to coordinate grant activities.
3. There is a great need for professional learning that is multilingual and that frames biliteracy as an asset. Unlike K–12 teachers, who tend to be considerably less ethnically and linguistically diverse than the students they teach, California’s early childhood workforce is predominantly non-White and more closely resembles the population of children it serves. Due to outdated sentiments regarding multilingual classrooms, many early childhood educators were misled to see bilingualism as a deficit when they first began working with children. Many were raised during California’s English-only education era and received powerful and inaccurate messages about the dangers of teaching or even speaking Spanish in educational settings. Now we know better: bilingualism and biliteracy as an asset should be nurtured and celebrated.
This SEAL policy brief exposes the gaps in necessary professional development in our school systems and showcases the importance of investing in training and resources for early childhood educators, especially those working with EL/DLLs. With proper coaching, training, and equity-based policies enacted, teachers are able to strengthen their capacity to support their students.
The success of California’s school systems is dependent on the state’s ability to develop strong structural support for teachers, children, and their families. Only through these measures will we be able to strengthen the capacity of early childhood educators to support EL/DLLs and ensure the long-term success of California’s youth. The COVID-19 pandemic has only raised the stakes on the importance of getting this right.
Dr. Anya Hurwitz is the executive director of SEAL, an educational nonprofit dedicated to centralizing the needs of dual language learners. In the early part of her career, she worked as a teacher, school leader, and district administrator in NYC. She joined SEAL in 2014 and became executive director in 2017.