Early Learning Standards for English Language Learners

Getting It Right for Young Children from Diverse Backgrounds

In this excerpt from Getting It Right for Young Children from Diverse Backgrounds, Dr. Linda Espinosa offers guidelines for how to effectively address the needs of young English language learners (ELLs) through standards-based curriculum.

Early Education Standards Movement and Diversity

Across the country, state departments of education are designing early learning standards that identify the expectations for what a young child should know and be able to do prior to kindergarten entry. Many of these learning expectations are based on current research focused on the early skills learned in preschool that predict later literacy, mathematical knowledge, and academic achievement.

With the current emphasis on educational accountability, outcomes for children, and research-based classroom practices, these standards help to provide a focus to the curriculum and guidance to teachers about what to teach and when to teach it (Kagan, Kauerz, and Tarrant, 2007). They also identify the important teaching and learning objectives that need to be included in an assessment system.

For example, most states have identified a set of language standards that include vocabulary, syntax (grammar), speaking, and specific early reading skills that relate to later reading fluency such as alphabet knowledge, phonological awareness, and print awareness. All of these skills, which are typically learned during the preschool years, have been found to be important for later reading ability and achievement, the cornerstone of academic achievement (Dickinson & Tabors, 2001; National Early Literacy Panel, 2008).

Examples of language standards include the following:

  • The child follows two- and three-step directions (Florida).
  • The child listens and speaks effectively in a variety of situations (Illinois).
  • The child will develop an understanding of words and word meanings through the use of appropriate vocabulary (Virginia).
  • The child uses age-appropriate grammar in conversations and increasingly complex phrase and sentences (Florida).
  • The child develops age-appropriate phonological awareness (California).

These standards or expectations are based on the extensive research that has been conducted on English-speaking monolingual children. This research addresses both what typically developing children can learn during the preschool years and specifically which of these skills are most important to later, more complex literacy abilities (National Early Literacy Panel, 2008).

Although the development of learning standards for very young children has many critics (Meisels, 2007; Parini, 2005) and carries with it the dangers of inappropriate testing and narrowing of the curriculum to reflect only measurable outcomes (Pianta et al., 2007), it is an undeniable aspect of the early childhood movement in this country. Whether we like it or not, educational policy makers, legislators, and the public want to know if our early interventions are teaching our youngest students what they need to know to successfully master the rigors of formal education.

It is now a question of getting it right. To best serve the needs of the children and families who enter our programs with so much hope and potential, we must design curriculum, assessment, and accountability systems that accurately and fairly represent the capabilities and educational needs of all our children (Espinosa & Lopez, 2007).

What the Research Says About ELLs

A pressing question for early childhood policy makers, program administrators, and teachers is how to apply these standards to children who learning English as a second language and are being raised in homes where the cultural norms and practices are quite diverse. To what extent do the learning expectations for monolingual, U.S.-born, English-speaking children reflect the developmental progression of ELL children?

Unfortunately, the comparable research for young ELL children is meager at best (August & Shanahan, 2006). We have a sizable amount of information about the process and states of first- and second language acquisition that extends back to the early 20th century (Genessee, Paradis, and Crago, 2004). However, we have only a handful of rigorous studies that have empirically documented the impact of preschool on ELL children, the relative effectiveness of different curricular approaches, the rates of English acquisition for children from low-income non-English-speaking homes, or how to best capitalize on the native language strengths of young ELL children (August & Shanahan, 2006; Para Nuestros Niños, 2007).

Fortunately, much of the emerging information is consistent and overwhelmingly leads to similar conclusions. Although the amount of research information is not as extensive as we would like, the findings from small, descriptive studies as all as larger national studies are remarkably similar. The same themes run throughout the preschool, kindergarten through Grade 3 (K-3), and K-12 literature on how to best education ELL students to high achievement levels in English:

  1. High-quality instruction with adaptations seems to have the most impact on ELL children. These adaptations include special attention to English vocabulary and English oral language development, lots of opportunities for practice, and organized peer interactions with English-speaking children (August & Shanahan, 2006; Espinosa, Castro, Crawford, & Gillanders, 2007; Para nuestros niños, 2007).
  2. Schools need to build systematic connections to families in order to design curricular approaches that are culturally consistent and to build on the strengths of ELL children and families.
  3. Support for the home language is critical. These include language interactions, literacy activities, and to the maximum extent possible, some instruction in the child's dominant language.
  4. Qualified teachers and support staff who are fluent in the child's home language as well as knowledgeable about the cultural practices of the families should be recruited and hired.
  5. Special attention needs to be given to the maintenance of the child's home language, which often means working with families so that children do not lose their home languages.


Espinosa, L. (2010). Getting It Right for Young Children from Diverse Backgrounds. (pp. 23-25). New York: Pearson. Reprinted with permission.


August, D., & Shanahan, T. (2006). Developing literacy in second-language learners. Report of the National Literacy Panel on Language Minority Children and Youth. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers.

Dickinson, D. & Tabors, P. (Eds.). (2001). Beginning Literacy With Language: Young Children Learning at Home and School. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Espinosa, L., Castro, D.C., Crawford, G. & Gillanders, C.. (2007, May 15). Early school success for English language learners: A review of evidence-based instructional practices for PreK to Grade three. Paper presented at the First School Symposium, Early School Success: Equity and Access for Diverse Learners. Chapel Hill, NC.

Espinosa, L., & Lopez, M. (2007). Assessment considerations for young English language learners across different levels of accountability. Paper written for the National Early Childhood Accountability Task Force. Available online at http://www.pewtrusts.org/our_work.aspx?category=102

Genessee, F., Paradis, J., and Crago, M.B. (2004). Dual language development and disorders: A handbook on bilingualism and second language learning. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Kagan, S.L., Kauerz, K., and Tarrant, K.. (2007). The early care and education teaching workforce at the Folcrum: An agenda for reform. New York: Teachers College Press.

Meisels, S. (2007). No easy answers: Accountability in early childhood. In R.C. Pianta, M.J. Cox & K. Snow (Eds.), School readiness, early learning and the transition to kindergarten (pp.31-48). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

National Early Literacy Panel. (2008). National Early Literacy Panel research and dissemination to support early literacy development in young children. Retrieved April 2008 from http://www.nifl.gov/nifl/NELP/NELPreport.html

National Task Force on Early Education for Hispanics. (2007). Para nuestros niños: Expanding and improving early education for Hispanics. Tempe, AZ. Author. Available online at http://www.ecehispanic.org/index.html.

Parini, J. (2005). The Art of Teaching. New York: Oxford.

Pianta, R.C., Cox, M.J. & Snow, K. (Eds.). (2007). School readiness, early learning and the transition to kindergarten (pp.31-48). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.


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