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Modifications for Emergent Bilingual Students

Establish a safe and familiar environment for the child

English language learners (ELLs) come to the classroom with many lived experiences, family relationships, home language(s), and practices that may or may not carry over to the early childhood setting. It is important to build upon these experiences in the classroom so they may have an easier transition.

The term “emergent bilingual” helps to describe a child that continues to develop his/her home language in addition to the English language. We prefer this term, as it allows us to see the child’s language practices more fully.

Developing a culturally responsive curriculum and setting help establish a safe and familiar environment for the child. Moreover, parents also need to feel valued and comfortable in what may be an unfamiliar setting. Inviting parents into the classroom to participate in meaningful ways with their child not only encourages the use of their home language(s), but also provides opportunities for both parents & teachers to learn about diverse practices, beliefs, and expectations. Parents who are not fluent English speakers may feel very intimidated participating in classroom events, conversations, and play. Therefore, it is important for these parents to have access to teachers, assistants, and/or students that speak their language and have some understanding of their cultural practices.

Video #1 (in sidebar): This video demonstrates a mother speaking French to her child during play. It is vital to establish an environment where a parent can feel comfortable speaking her/his home language in the classroom.

The setting should include reading materials in the represented languages so that parents may read to their children. If you cannot find books in a given language, display online resources on a tablet or iPad.

Photographs help diverse families learn about each other’s similarities and differences. Family photo albums can depict cultural values and artifacts that may be unfamiliar to the classroom teachers, other parents, and students. These are powerful artifacts that educate, inform curriculum, develop community, and help promote a more comfortable environment for new students and parents.

Video #2: Counting in Our Many Languages. In this video, students are learning from each other!

It is important to incorporate books, cultural artifacts, and other personal materials in which the children see themselves reflected. They provide the ingredients for culturally relevant play. It allows them to rehearse events from their own life during dramatic play as well.

Meaningful, language-rich contexts allow emergent bilinguals to learn language related to classroom routines, rules, and curriculum. Furthermore, highly contextualized conversations help promote communication practices such as sharing needs, learning content/vocabulary, managing conflict, and building relationships with friends and teachers.

Video 3: Garage/Vehicle. Labeling actions for children help them develop new vocabulary and phrases specific to their play. Notice how this teacher describe the child’s play: “I hear your vehicle coming out of the garage”.

Video #4: Playdough Noodles. This teacher encourages production of language through a scaffolded conversation involving play with playdough.

In Video #4, the teacher speaks clearly while describing her actions. She says: “Mine is still pushing through” to describe how the playdough noodles are being made. She asks questions and patiently waits for answers. “Tell me again how I do that. What do I do first?”

The child is given multiple opportunities to participate; not only in producing language, but in demonstrating the steps needed to make playdough noodles.

Often teachers talk or do too much for the child. They end up doing all the work! Be patient, have high expectations, and provide the child with many opportunities to show you what they know. Before you know it, your students will be speaking more fluently and teaching others how to make playdough noodles.

All classroom activities serve as opportunities to not only engage in meaningful play, but to label materials and actions for an emergent bilingual. In the picture below, Carmen describes sensory details related to color and texture.

This teacher above models conflict resolution to students through a scaffolded interaction describing feelings and emotions. She provides key phrases such as: “Say: ‘I am using the blocks right now.’”

Visuals provide valuable information for emergent bilinguals. Photographs that explicitly depict an action or a routine provide information that is comprehensible to a language learner. Visuals that are abstract and do not specifically match a given text may confuse a child. It is important to analyze visuals carefully from the perspective of a language learner. Would you understand the significance of the visual if you lacked the background knowledge and language used? How can you make the visual more explicit without overwhelming it with more language? How can it be linked to classroom life and its people in order to make it concrete and contextualized?

The above photograph can be used to discuss classroom life. You can ask your emergent bilingual student questions and help her/him describe the picture using specific verbs, phrases, and nouns. Who is in this picture? Describe what you see. What are these? Would you like to make a structure using blocks too?

Combined with consistent use throughout the day within the given activities, these visuals below help students understand the classroom schedule and routines.

These visuals help students understand where people have gone, where they will be going, and to become familiar with different floors in the building.

Other visuals can depict steps to a recipe, and directions for a fire drill.


Notice, however, that the fire drill visuals may be somewhat abstract to a newly arrived language learner. What else can be added to make the visuals more explicit? Perhaps, one might add a picture of a child holding a teacher’s hand and a line of students walking outside during a fire drill. The more explicit and concrete the better! Moreover, these pictures as series provide important background information and schema that a student may not have before coming into the classroom.

Class books are a wonderful way to include students. Reading these often with emergent bilinguals help develop the language related to classroom activities, materials, and practices in a highly contextualized way.

Classroom books modeled after familiar read-alouds help develop rhyme, vocabulary, phrases, and literacy skills! This one is modeled after Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? By Eric Carle.

Video #5: Polygon song. Songs are a powerful way to learn language. Listen to the vocabulary this student is using!