Language Acquisition in Early Childhood Learning - SHIM

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Language Acquisition in Early Childhood Learning

ECP Graduation teachers with studentsDiana Hunsberger, Lead Early Childhood Program Teacher

Early childhood education is essential in supporting children’s growth. According to the National Institute of Health, early learning can lead to higher test scores, better grades, and a better chance of graduating from high school and pursuing post-secondary education. Early learning also reduces teen pregnancies and is linked to better mental health, a lower risk of heart disease, and even a longer lifespan. Early Childhood Program girl in garden

In SHIM’s Early Childhood Program (ECP), English language proficiency is an additional goal in helping children enter kindergarten ready to succeed academically and socially. As I’ve worked with these young non-native English speakers I’ve gained insight as to their learning process. You may be surprised to know that it takes 5-7 years for children to learn a second language proficiently enough to fully participate in academic learning. This chart shows the five stages of learning a second language. While some of my 3 and 4-year-old students enter the classroom with a little conversational English, they are unable to recognize English letters. Other students enter my classroom with no previous knowledge of English. As you can see on the chart, it takes up to three years to have enough language to answer “how” and “why” questions and to use short sentences to describe and question things in their world. Understanding the disconnect between academic ability and language skills is important in helping English language students, as they may seem fluent in English but struggle to understand a textbook. ECP is laying a foundation for children’s language learning. Most of my students graduate from ECP in stage 2 with the top few students achieving stage 3 before heading to kindergarten.

I am honored to help these students learn English alongside other preschool skills such as identifying letters, numbers, shapes, and colors. I have noticed that the children learn most from hands-on activities and toys. They also learn from each other, for instance when one child says “I don’t like it” at snack time, others repeat the phrase even if they previously enjoyed the food provided. I encourage this peer learning as they feel empowered in helping one another.

ECP teacher Diana with family in Mongolia later years

One of my students, Ausmita, entered ECP at age 3 with no English. When I realized she was using the Nepali word to say “finished”, I started saying it in English to give her context. By the time she graduated from her second year at ECP in May, she was using full sentences and asking questions.

ECP teacher Diana with family in MongoliaMy students are courageous speaking in a new language, and I try to make them feel heard. I relate to their experience of learning a new language from my time as a missionary in Mongolia. The patience and kindness of the people I met helped me feel encouraged to keep trying. Building confidence is an important part of the process.

My goal is to help the children achieve proficiency before kindergarten, but I understand that retaining their native language is important to their parents. Sometimes the only practice they have with English is in my classroom. To help kids continue learning at home, I provide kindergarten kits to families. They include letters, math activities, self-regulation games, scissor activities, tweezers with pompoms to promote dexterity, an emotional dice to help kids name their feelings, and a story about going to school. During the school year, I share a monthly newsletter with parents that includes pictures of books read in the classroom (so they can show them to librarians if they don’t know how to say the titles) and QR codes to videos of songs sung in the classroom. These resources help parents reinforce classroom lessons. I also make sure parents know how to find the school district’s website and ensure that they are registering their children for kindergarten on time.

ECP teacher Diana in garden with studentsI love my job. It’s special helping children acquire a language. Opportunities open to them when they can speak English well, and I’m so happy to be a part of their journey.

Read blog posts from other SHIM staff members to learn more about the people we serve.

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