State Policies on Dual Language Learners in Early Childhood

In this article written for Colorín Colorado, early childhood expert Karen Nemeth discusses the policies at the state level that impact English language learners (also known as dual language learners), as well as policy considerations for educators who want to become more familiar with their own state's policies.


Every state has a policy regarding dual or English language learners in early childhood education. The variety, scope and strength of those policies is mind-boggling. In the past two years, early childhood dual language learner (DLL) policies have gained media attention because of their connection to political issues such as immigration laws and funding debates.

In some states, those policies take the form of law, regulation, or administrative code to describe a legal requirement about what educators must or must not do to teach children from different language backgrounds. In other cases, policy appears in a softer form via guidelines, frameworks or guidance offering suggested or recommended practices.

Traditionally, state regulations about educational supports for children who speak languages other than English have covered only K-12 education. They generally describe:

  • bilingual education provided by qualified teachers who also qualify as bilingual
  • English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction that would be provided by an appropriately certified teacher who teaches in English, using ESL supports to help children from a variety of languages to learn English and to learn content
  • and/or a third, very basic level of support when there are just a few students or insufficient resources.

Illinois appeared in many news reports and policy blogs in 2010 and 2011 when the state revised its bilingual education regulations to require preschool programs with 20 or more children speaking the same non-English language to provide bilingual education with a qualified teacher. It has been widely claimed that Illinois was the first state in the nation to enact such a regulation, when in fact other states like Texas and New Jersey already had requirements for bilingual preschool education on the books. Here are key passages from the regulations of those states, followed by discussion of policy implications below.

Statewide Regulations: Bilingual Preschool Education


Variation Across States

While the laws in these states are similar, there are subtle differences in wording that lead to different interpretations and different implementations. One key component of these regulations is the option for districts and programs to seek waivers. In most states, including Illinois, programs can apply for a waiver of some aspect of the regulation if they can prove that it is not reasonable for them to comply. For example, a district may show that they have had a sudden influx of families from Norway in the past two years, and they have not been able to find a fully qualified Norwegian bilingual preschool teacher. Even with the strongest regulations, it is unlikely that there will be 100% compliance.

So, what appears on the books and what happens in the field may not always match up. It is important for everyone involved in early childhood education from politicians and commissioners, to administrators and teachers, to parents and advocates to become acquainted with the rules and suggestions their state has regarding young DLLs. It is also important to understand how those rules and suggestions are translated into actual practice.

Some states such as California, Massachusetts and Kentucky provide extremely detailed guidance about supporting different cultures, about how and when to use the child's home language and English, the qualifications of teachers, the materials that should be available in the classroom, the assessments needed and the teaching practices that are expected. In other states, however, preschool is not mentioned or receives just a sentence or two in state guidance or regulation. Of course, there are many variations between these two extremes. Since early childhood education included the early elementary grades, every state will have some regulations about services provided for DLLs in first through third grade.

Policy Considerations

Here are some considerations to guide you in your quest to fully understand the policies of your state.

Government agency involvement

  • In most states, early childhood DLL policies come from the Department of Education — but where? There may be mention of DLLs in the general education code, or guidance from the bilingual education office or the early childhood office or the special education office. In some states there is overlap across these offices but in others they function independently.
  • Check to see if the government agency that licenses child care is connected to the department of education or to human services. If these agencies deal with early childhood services separately, they may have separate and different policies about DLLs.
  • Some states have combined functions. Massachusetts has a Department of Early Education and Care housed in its Executive Office of Education. Pennsylvania's Office of Child Development and Early Learning was formed to unite the work of the state Department of Education and the Department of Public Welfare.
  • You might want to consider whether your questions extend to other types of early childhood settings such as family child care, group home care, home schooling, kinship care or home visiting supports.

Age matters

  • In some states, the department of education only handles early childhood from K — third grade while other state education departments handle preschool — 3 and still others cover all the years of education from birth though higher education.
  • Some states leave ages 0 — 3 or 0-5 to the department of human services under child care licensing.
  • Some departments of education control early intervention services from birth through kindergarten, but in other states, services for ages 0-3 are handled elsewhere such as the department of health.

Funding streams

  • Within any one state, the rules a program follows in planning for DLLS in early childhood might be different depending on which agency funds the program. Depending on the source of funding, some programs may be subject to national as well as state and local rules. For example, Head Start preschool programs and Early Head Start programs for infants, toddlers and their families have to follow national Head Start regulations, but they also have to follow the applicable rules for early care and education within their state.
  • States may fund some programs from one department and other from a different department, each with its own expectations. Even within the same department, different expectations may be held for different kinds of funding. In New Jersey, for example, where some districts receive state funding from the Department of Education to offer universal pre-K, there are requirements attached to that funding that are used only as guidance for non-funded programs. That state's Preschool Implementation Guidelines contain an entire section on teaching DLLs that serves as a set of expectations for some districts and mere suggestions to others.
  • In many states, failure to comply with administrative code may result in nothing more than a sharply worded letter from the commissioner. Failure to comply with regulations tied to funding takes on the potential for significant financial consequences. Levels of compliance may vary depending on the state's procedures for monitoring and responding to compliance issues.

How DLLs are identified

  • Screening, assessment and identification for placement are three critical components of any state's early childhood DLL policy. The first step in determining services for young children from different language backgrounds is deciding on how they will be identified.
  • Some states recommend national assessments. Others have designed their own language proficiency measures. In many states, multiple measures are recommended, which may include home language survey, standardized language proficiency assessment, parent interviews, or classroom observations.
  • The potential for over-identification or under-identification is always an issue because it is difficult to get a truly accurate measure of a young child's English and home language abilities at any given time. Even when children are identified as needing bilingual educational services, programs often face a shortage of qualified bilingual early childhood teachers. This is an element of planning for young DLLs that requires a great deal more research.

Closing Thoughts

Understanding state policy on serving DLLs in early childhood education is by no means a simple task. As the linguistic and cultural diversity of our youngest students continues to grow, getting to know your state's policies will become increasingly important to your work. To guide you in comparing your state's policies with national positions, you may want to read the national position statements from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the Council for Exceptional Children-Division for Early Childhood (DEC). Continue to tune in to for resources and reports as well.

About the Author

Karen Nemeth is an author, advocate and consultant on supporting dual language learners in early childhood. She writes regularly for NAEYC as well as numerous blog sites. She hosts a website providing resources and supports for working with young DLLs at She is the author of Many Languages, One Classroom: Teaching Dual and English Language Learners (2009), Many Languages, Building Connections: Supporting Infants and Toddlers who are Dual Language Learners (2012), Basics of Teaching Dual Language Learners: An Introduction for Teachers of Children Ages Birth Through 8 (2012). She has worked for many years in early childhood advocacy agencies in New Jersey and for the New Jersey Department of Education.


Our policy section is made possible by a generous grant from the Carnegie Corporation. The statements and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.


You are welcome to print copies or republish materials for non-commercial use as long as credit is given to Colorín Colorado and the author(s). For commercial use, please contact [email protected].

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