Understanding Families’ Diverse Social Contexts
Early childhood educators must recognize the uniqueness of all cultures, languages, and communities by embracing the increasing cultural and linguistic diversity of our society. All classrooms should be seen as multicultural and inclusive, and promote equity by valuing and celebrating each family represented. This includes understanding the influence of multiple languages and dialects. These culturally responsive practices engage children and families through authentic home-school connections. As educators recognize and understand diverse social contexts, they are strengthening the effectiveness of instructional delivery. Academic progress takes place within the context of a child’s ecosystems and their development is maximized when these ecosystems are considered and respected. Diversity of social contexts is an asset to educators, rather than a barrier to appropriate development, when culturally responsive practices are implemented in the classroom.
Language development is influenced by exposure and influence within a broader regional and social environment. When considering our nest model, this means not only the bird itself, and the nest, but also the tree and even the forest. This illustration illuminates the continual theme that language development is complex and influenced by many factors. Language experiences build a foundation of thinking and understanding upon which knowledge can grow. Educators strategically craft language experiences which draw upon the life experiences of students and add to their understanding of the world. Language experiences that connect to the broader regional and social environment bring life into the classroom and make what is learned at school relevant and real.
Support of the family context may also mean challenging our assumptions about what it means to support a child’s literacy. This is particularly true when it comes to working with multilingual learners. Multilingual learners are young children who are learning to speak their home language as well as at least one other language during early childhood (Castro, Espinosa, & Paez, 2011) or before the age of five (McManis, 2012). This can happen simultaneously, such as having parents or other primary figures use two languages. It can also happen successively, such as when children are exposed to and speak only one language at home in the first one or two years and then are exposed to another language in an early learning program (Genesee, 2010). English language learners (ELLs) are children whose native language is not English and who become immersed in an English-speaking environment (Halle et al., 2012). This text uses the more inclusive term multilingual learners, as it acknowledges that children may speak more than just two languages.
As infants, multilingual learners may appear to be delayed in their language development. They may produce language later and exhibit smaller vocabularies in either language (Hammer et al., 2014). Children who are exposed to more than one language may enter early learning programs exhibiting lower English literacy skills than their monolingual peers, but they catch up and reach the same skills level as those same peers by the early grades (Hammer et al., 2014). If educators focus on these deficits, they might miss the significant advantages that multilingual learners experience. Ultimately, children who are multilingual learners will acquire proficiency in multiple languages through ongoing and intentional language experiences in their home, school, and community environments (Castro, 2013). In other words, there is a long-term gain for language development.
Aside from language development, the acquisition of multiple languages has other benefits that support cognitive development overall. Children who are multilingual may have advantages in their capacity for attention control while working on linguistic tasks and nonverbal tasks (Barac et al., 2014). Access to working memory seems to also be enhanced, as well as a subsequent gain in executive function tasks such as planning, rule acquisition, and cognitive flexibility (Castro, 2013). It has also been suggested that bilingual children demonstrate heightened creativity and divergent thinking, probably because they are compelled to switch between two languages (Castro, 2013). Overall, there is evidence that exposure to multiple languages yields benefits for cognitive development that can be translated to other areas besides literacy.
Additionally, understanding multilingual learners requires understanding their home context. Blank (1998) suggests that children who speak more than one language might be more likely to live in homes with multiple relatives. Castro (2013) points out that while some may perceive living with multiple family members to be detrimental because of perceived crowded living situations, it is actually beneficial as children gain greater exposure to enriched language opportunities and cultural experiences. These rich opportunities to observe and participate in family language help to preserve and cement the dialogical skills that maintain it. Children who move away from using their home language to using English exclusively, tend to lose their ability to communicate in the first language and start to prefer English (Espinoza, 2013). This may depress academic achievement in English (Espinoza, 2013) and also may result in cultural loss as children lose the ability to communicate with extended family members who speak the home language.
Teachers can support families, even if they do not speak the home language, by encouraging families to continue to support the home language. A simple example of supporting multilingual learners and their home language would include making sure to pronounce a child’s name correctly (Fenner & Snyder, 2021). Research suggests that there are multiple long-term benefits to promoting literacy skills in the child’s home language, as well as English (Espinoza, 2013). Below is a chart with suggestions for ways that teachers can support English Language Development and the home language.
Strategies for Supporting Literacy Development and Home Language
- Meet with families and gather important information about the child and family
- Add items to the classroom environment that represent the cultures, languages, and practices of the children
- Include books and materials that represent each family and culture in an authentic way
- Give the parents’ opportunities to introduce key vocabulary words in the home language
- Read stories in the classroom that represent each family
- Use pictures, objects, and experiences to demonstrate the meaning of words and concepts
- Use visual cues, physical gestures, and signals
Adapted from: Espinoza, L. (2013). PreK-3rd: Challenging Common Myths about Dual Language Learners. An update to the Seminal 2008 Report. Foundation for Child Development Policy to Action Brief. No. 10.
Pause and Consider: Home Language and Educator Perspectives
Read the two vignettes provided below and consider the different stances the two early childhood educators illustrate.
Anika’s brother regularly picks her up from school in the afternoon. On this particular day, Anika is eager to tell her brother all about the happenings of the day. She turns to him and speaking in Hindi says, “aaj hamane beej lagae aur yah bade phoolon mein vikasit hoga.” (Today we planted seeds and they will grow into big flowers.) Ms. Osborne overhears the conversation and says to Anika’s brother, “Anika really needs to be working on her English.”
Hugo’s dad requested to have a parent conference with Ms. Miller concerning Hugo’s language development. Mr. Lopez is concerned that Hugo is not picking up English as quickly as he had hoped and he wants to know what to do. Ms. Miller explains that it is common to have a silent period while learning a new language and the child is learning to receive the language before producing it. Mr. Lopez suggests he will start speaking only English at home. Ms. Miller quickly responds and assures Mr. Lopez that he should continue to use the home language.
Imagine the strong impact the early childhood educators had on the way each family provides support and encourages language and literacy development. Which provider is knowledgeable about multi-language learners and is appropriately supporting the family unit?
Standard English includes the language patterns and usage of academic settings and published text. It has been codified in dictionaries, grammar and usage handbooks, and adapted by published English texts around the world (Biber et al, 1999). The usage of Standard English for written materials is relatively uniform. Spoken English, however, is less straightforward. Speech does not always exactly match what one would write on a page, particularly spontaneous speech used in informal settings. Additionally, there are important speech patterns that should be noted, including the use of dialects, which are rules-governed linguistic systems derived from another parent language, without achieving the socio-linguistic category of a language (Maldonado Garcia & Sandhu, 2015). Dialects are more complex than regional speech patterns or accents, yet are sometimes undervalued as significant, culturally bound practices. Persistent racial and classist biases work to marginalize and devalue the use of some dialectic speech patterns. Assumptions about dialects that are not considered to be mainstream or prestigious can be harmful (Luu, 2020). This text intentionally highlights African American English and Appalachian Englishes as examples of culturally significant dialects. It is important for educators to understand and affirm dialectical speech patterns as they serve an important function for group membership and culture.
African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is a complex dialect of English that is used across the United States ( Green, 2002). AAVE is sometimes also referred to as Black English, African American English, Black Vernacular English, Ebonics, African American Language or African American Regional Language. All of these terms refer to a variety of language patterns that include complex systems for phonology (sounds), morphology (word structure and relationship), syntax (sentence structure), and semantics (meaning). Some examples of AAVE speech patterns include (a) leaving out an auxiliary verb (copula absence), (b) third-person singular -s absence, and (c) invariant habitual use of the word “be” (Cukor-Avila & Balcazar, 2019). Leaving out an auxiliary verb would include statements such as, “He a football fan” or “She over there.” Third-person singular absence denotes a missing “s” where it would be expected in standard English, such as in “I run. He run too.” The usage of the “be” might include statements like “It be snowing!” or “I be playing.” There is substantial variation in the usage and occurrence of these features, including generational and regional differences; and for some speakers of AAVE, they do not occur at all (Cukor-Avila & Balcazar, 2019).
The origins of AAVE are rooted in the fusion of Standard English and African linguistic forms (Easter, 2013) and hold important cultural meaning within groups where spoken (Labov, 2010). AAVE has complex rules and language features (Green, 2002). According to Laneheart, et. al, 2015), “When speakers use African American Languages, they know a system of sounds, word and sentence structure, meaning and structural organization of vocabulary items, and other linguistic and metalinguistic information about their language, such as pragmatic rules and the social function of African American Languages” (p. 3). AAVE is used by its speakers to communicate,for social purposes, and even as a form of cultural capital (Spears, 2015). Moreover, AAVE phrases, features, and rules have been adopted into widely used, mainstream patterns of language. Luu (2020) suggests, “perhaps no other variety of speech has been quite so significant and influential to the development of standard American English” (para.11).
The term Appalachian Englishes is plural because there are different dialects, that evolved based on regions and migration patterns. Appalachian Englishes are dialects spoken in southern and mountain areas that include not only the Appalachian mountain range, but surrounding areas as well (Cramer, 2018). The histories of Appalachian Englishes are traced back to diverse groups of settlers to the mountains whose speech blended together over several centuries. Due to the relative isolation of mountainous areas, a distinct regional speech pattern, or dialect form, developed (Montgomery, 1989). These speech patterns are sometimes referred to as Mountain Talk, Southern Appalachian English, or Appalachian English. Like all dialects, Appalachian Englishes have complex grammatical features and linguistics, making them unique to other dialects. For example, the word allow is expanded to mean think, say, or suppose instead of the traditional meaning of allow. In context it might be used in this way, “He allowed he would get it done tomorrow.” Another common feature of the language is to add the sound “a” before a verb. For example, “I’ve been a-studying for that lesson.” Appalachian Englishes contain many other grammatical features and linguistics that make them unique; these are only a few. Like all languages and dialects, they have changed and evolved throughout generations. Unfortunately, there are negative stereotypes that surround the Appalachian Englishes. Dialects and vernaculars have complex grammatical features. The usage of Appalachian Englishes and other dialects is not an indicator of a lack of education, but rather demonstrates the usage of language in a way that denotes group membership, cultural identity, and the innovation of the people of the Appalachian region (Montgomery, 2004). As educators, we are charged with providing the optimal experience to foster growth and development. We certainly must use instructional and assessment practices that are linguistically and culturally responsive (Castro, 2011). Multilingual learners are acquiring linguistic and cultural gains. By maintaining a strengths-based perspective as we interact with families who speak languages other than English, we will best support the child and family.
Speakers of AAVE and Appalachian Englishes are often able to code-switch, meaning that they use AAVE or Appalachian Englishes in some settings and Standard American English in other contexts (Easter, 2013). Code-switching is common among speakers of English that also use dialects or vernaculars. Children are able to modify their language use as the circumstances require, and they learn to code-switch or style-switch by the age of nine (Snell, 2015). It is profoundly important for educators to be supportive of children’s use of languages and dialects as they serve as important cultural markers and signify group membership for users.
Pause and Consider: I Saw a Bear!
Jack entered his preschool classroom ready to tell his teacher, Mrs. Mullins, all about his weekend adventures. He entered the classroom and approached Mrs. Mullins, while shouting, “Mrs. Mullins, Mrs. Mullins, you will never believe where my granddad took me yesterday….we went way up our ‘holler’ into the woods and I saw a real live bear!” Mrs. Mullins could not help but notice his sheer joy and excitement. The class had studied bears the previous week and determined which kind of bears lived in their mountains. A teacher from outside of the region might have corrected Jack’s pronunciation of the word ‘hollow’ as ‘holler,’ but Mrs. Mullins focused on the meaning of Jack’s communication. She asked questions about the color and size of the bear, and what his grandmom had to say about this excursion. She made a mental note to talk with the children about the pronunciation of the word hollow when they learn their home addresses later on in the year. Mrs. Mullins knows this is a common word usage in the southern Appalachian region and she values the strong culture and accompanying vernacular structure of the language. She knows that children will be exposed to other language models through media, instructional materials, and her own language modeling. Mrs. Mullins knows that she will expose her students to more widely used word pronunciations, but in a way that does not detract from the contextual value by making a child feel ashamed or embarrassed. She knows it is important to preserve terms, usages, and pronunciations that are part of shared vernacular structures, as these serve important cultural functions.
Can you think of a time when you encountered a situation that allowed you to supportively affirm a child’s home language or dialect?