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Supporting bilingual children in the Early Years

Nursery teacher.jpg

Young 3-5 year old children who are learning English as an Additional Language (EAL) and their language learning needs are sometimes overlooked in educational texts, as well as in schools and settings, because it is assumed that young children will ‘pick up’ English naturally and very quickly. These materials provide an introduction for teachers and teacher educators to the needs of young bilingual children in the early years and present an overview of the complexities involved, examines play as a vehicle for learning in general and especially for learning a new language, and highlights the critical role of monolingual and bilingual practitioners. The term ‘bilingual children’ is used throughout to refer to those children who in their daily lives operate in more than one language; the term does not suggest equal competence or fluency in these languages.

Priscilla Clarke talks early years

The social basis for learning: considerations for the bilingual child

For young bilingual children entering an English medium setting in which they have yet to learn the language, the processes of language learning, social interaction and enculturation are closely linked. As Ochs states: ‘It is evident that acquisition of linguistic knowledge and acquisition of socio-cultural knowledge are interdependent…Children develop concepts of a socio-culturally structured universe through their participation in language activities’ (Ochs, 1988:14)

The need to engage in social interaction with peers can be a particular difficulty for young developing bilingual children in the early years. The ability to interact with others, and the understanding of the shared cultural framework essential for learning are closely related to the acquisition of English. At the same time, the learning of English depends on being able to interpret the cultural rules and expectations of the setting, and on being able to successfully engage in activities and interact with peers. This interdependence of language acquisition and social interaction is referred to by Tabors (1997) as a ‘double bind’ which many children who are new to English may experience for a period of time.

In the example below we see how young bilingual children starting school face the challenges of learning both the language and culture they find in early years settings.

Amadur and Mohiuddin start Reception

The outer door opened and Amadur and Mohiuddin were shepherded in by their mothers. As it closed behind them, all four stood stiffly just inside the room, staring ahead. Mrs Goode approached them with a welcoming smile: ‘Hi there, come in, lovely to see you! Mums, you can go, these two will be fine. Come on boys.’ She took the hands of the 4 year-olds and led them cheerfully towards the sandbox, leaving their mothers to exchange glances and then exit, backwards through the door. Amadur and Mohiuddin stood beside the sandbox looking blank and bewildered. Mrs Goode collected shovels, gave one to each of them, and dug industriously herself. After a few moments both boys dutifully squatted on the floor and begun to dig, in imitation. They continued this way for some time, and Mrs Goode, after praising their efforts, moved off to another activity. The two boys, who were cousins, slowed their shovelling, stopped, and stared at each other.

(Brooker, 2005, p.115)

As Amadur and Mohiuddin enter Reception, they encounter the rules and expectations of their new social world. Haste states that ‘in acquiring these rules, the child learns the basis for interactions with others, and the shared cultural framework for making sense of the world’ (Haste, 1987, p.163). The acquisition of these rules represents a significant challenge, including the ability to interact with others and to engage in activities and the understanding of the shared cultural assumptions. The norms of the reception class culture are not necessarily made explicit and may only be understood through patterns of behaviour and through the subtle and indirect forms of language used to express approval and disapproval. These may be difficult for a developing bilingual child to interpret. One example of the rules which children are expected to understand and follow is that children should choose an activity and participate in play, independently and with others.

In addition, developing bilingual children have to start the process of learning English, and this involves not only language learning itself, but also understanding how to socially interact and what is valued in the new social context. They also need to discover what is acceptable from their existing knowledge which includes the use of their home language. The use of mother tongue, which has so far been a central aspect of their conceptual development at home, is likely to be increasingly unavailable in most early years settings. As a consequence, the linguistic basis of much of the learning of new concepts may not be accessible to young bilingual children.

Tabors highlights the importance of the social context of the early years setting for young bilingual children’s learning and suggests that without careful consideration of this ‘they may spend their time playing alone silently, or humming, singing, or talking to themselves…’ (1997, p38). Drury’s study of three four year old bilingual children learning at home and at school reveals how the child herself may play a critical role in enabling a move beyond this double bind by rehearsing and practising classroom learning in the home (Drury, 2007).

The importance of play for cultural and language learning

Play and its various multifaceted and multifunctional forms are widely understood as the most effective vehicle for young children’s learning. Vygotsky’s famous statement emphasises this aptly: “Play creates a zone of proximal development of the child. In play a child always behaves beyond his average age, above his daily behaviour; in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself. As in the focus of a magnifying glass, play contains all developmental tendencies in a condensed form and is itself a major source of development.” (Vygotsky, 1978:102) But ‘play’ in a new cultural context can be a bewildering experience and not all play activities in early years settings are conducive to language and cultural learning.

The role of the teacher in play

The teacher’s role is critical in ensuring that when all children engage in play experiences they continue to learn. However kind, energetic and welcoming the teacher is, it cannot be assumed that any intended learning will take place because of these qualities. The organisation of sandboxes, home corners and imaginative learning experiences, familiar from many early years settings, are important, and yet, not sufficient on their own. What remains significant is the teacher’s engagement with children and their play.

It must be emphasised here that the focus of this section is on examining how teachers can support young bilingual children in learning through play rather than on guiding them on how to play. In order to be conducive to learning – and especially conducive to language learning - bilingual children’s play experiences need to be supported by teacher-child interaction. This in return requires constant movement and interchange between observation, participation, analysis and reflection. A successful teacher will play with the children, observe their interests, and aim to see the world from children’s perspectives. They will aim to enter children’s own imaginary and exploratory play worlds as a respectful and sensitive participant, and guide them further in trying out new ideas, approaches or resources.

Play situations tend to create meaningful and interesting contexts for children, in which children new to English can become motivated to communicate both non-verbally and verbally, and to practise and rehearse familiar words and short phrases, and to begin the process of combining new words together. A teacher who joins in and provides a running commentary and talks through everyone’s actions and ideas - i.e. models the use of language – when children are not yet able or ready to talk for themselves, provides language teaching in a meaningful context. Within such a child-sensitive approach it is anticipated that the teacher will build on, paraphrase and extend children’s responses, from their very minimal non-verbal actions or gestures to more linguistically complex and longer sentences. This is often supported by a sensitive use of questions.

Teacher interaction

It is the quality and timing of teacher interaction that has the potential to make a real difference for all children. Sylva et al (2004) have identified ‘shared, sustained thinking’ as an important aspect of practitioner-child interaction. In their influential, large-scale EPPE project Sylva et al noted that the quality of adult-child interactions varied between different types of settings. High quality interaction - which they termed as ‘shared, sustained thinking’ - was the defining characteristic that singled out successful teachers from others. This is a particularly important finding for bilingual children who may have fewer opportunities to engage with others, both peers and adults in the setting, and who may initially find the overall context of learning baffling.

Research suggests that too often teachers remain distant from their bilingual children, their emotional state, their previous learning or starting points, regardless of their age or ethnicity (see, for example, Drury's (2007) work with young bilingual children and Chen’s (2007) research with older Chinese children). From the children’s first school day onwards, the emotional and conceptual distance, and, for example, the teacher’s praise for their efforts, needs to reinforce high expectations.

The moment of interaction is critical. Children’s play is often characterised by sudden changes of direction, both conceptual and physical, and the appropriate moment is easily missed. But catching the moment has the potential for moving children on, and for learning. The teacher will balance on a knife edge here. On the one hand children need space to be on their own, and with their peers, in order to remain in control of their play so that they can initiate and follow their own interests; on the other hand the teacher will need to be close, listening and tuning into their play, and joining in as appropriate in order to influence their learning. Leaning a new language will depend on social interaction with others, and opportunities for conceptual development need to be accompanied by the use of language.

Playing with others

Play between peers has the potential to capture and sustain children’s interest. In play activities children are likely to engage in personally meaningful communication with one another and thereby they create optimal conditions for language learning. In joint episodes of play, children are often more equal participants (as compared to adult-child play) and their levels of engagement tend to remain high. They create a purpose for their interaction and this often provides a context for practising and rehearsing language heard elsewhere in the setting. Daily routines are a good example. What the teacher says at different times of the day (for example ‘It’s tidy up time’ and ‘Who’s ready for their snack?’) is often repeated by the children in their play.Such daily rituals and routines and related language are an important source of language learning for young bilingual children and benefit from being 'recycled' through their own spontaneous play.

The following transcript reveals how young children practise and rehearse their language repertoires within their play. In the transcript, Samia, of British-Pakistani background, is at home playing with her younger brother Sadaqat, who is 2 years old. Samia decides to play school. She has already started attending a local nursery and now in her play she takes on the role of a teacher and uses both English and Pahari, her home language. Samia is, according to her nursery practitioners, ‘new to English’, and the extract shows clearly how the early years setting’s daily rituals and routines are a powerful source of language for Samia. It also reveals how play provides a meaningful context for using a number of English phrases appropriately. Roman text is used for English and italicised text denotes Pahari:

Samia playing school at home

Samia: Sadaqat, stand up
We’re not having
group time now
Group time
You can play, Sadaqat
Shall we play something?
You want to do painting?
(noise from Sadaqat]
OK get your water
Let’s get a water
Let’s get a water
Let’s get a paper
Baby didn’t cry
Hurry up (whispering)
You want paper
And put in the painting
Do that and what are you choose colour
Sadaqat: Back
Samia: No, there’s a black
Did you finish it?
You make it
Sadaqat, do it with this finger
Do it like this, do it like that
Which colour are you going to choose
Next thing
Don’t do it, Sadaqat
Orange satsuma
I’m doing it satsuma colour

(Drury, 2007, p.27-28)

Samia appears to have a strong need to demonstrate to herself that she has understood both the setting’s routines and the related language. In her play she is in control of school learning. For Samia this is an empowering experience which illustrates the importance of play. But what is also notable here is the ease of with which Samia uses the two languages and generally her interest in trying out English phrases. In this context she is confident and self-assured, and, therefore, she is able to use appropriate English words and various syntactical structures, from asking questions, to giving instructions and making statements. Some of these are formulaic chunks, everyday phrases of the setting such as ‘group time’ and ‘hurry up’ which she has no doubt heard frequently. In addition ‘group time’ may be a term that is not used at home at all – why would it be? – and Samia may not yet know its equivalent in Pahari, and here (line 2) she mixes the two languages in one sentence, or code-switches, with competence. It is also clear that Samia is using her own increasing knowledge of English grammar when she says ‘let’s get a water’. Samia knows that in English articles - here ‘a’ - are often placed in front of nouns, and her miscue - ‘a water’ - reveals that she is doing more than simply repeating common phases. She is experimenting, rehearsing and making sense of grammar. Samia is well on the way of to becoming bilingual

Socio-cultural perspectives on the learning of young bilingual children emphasise the inter-relatedness of the social, cultural and linguistic aspects of children’s learning. A socio-cultural perspective also supports our understanding of young bilingual children’s learning in a new social environment with different cultural rules and expectations. And it can take account of the individual child’s experience from the home.

Stages of early bilingual learning

When children who are in the early stages of learning English, enter a setting, it is important for teachers to understand what progression may be expected in their development of English. Second language acquisition studies have established recognisable early stages for second/additional language development and have drawn particular attention to the silent period. The value of recognising the stages of learning English as an additional language is that they provide a framework against which student teachers' can exercise their judgement about an individual child’s progress, and provide appropriate learning opportunities. Although there are individual differences in the way children acquire an additional or second language, some researchers suggest that there is a consistent developmental sequence. An overview of this process is described by American researcher Patton Tabors;

There may be a period of time when children continue to use their home languages in the second-language situation.
When they discover that their home language does not work in this situation, children enter a non-verbal period as they collect information about the new language and perhaps spend some time in sound experimentation.
Children begin to go public, using individual words and phrases in the new language.
Children begin to develop productive use of the second language.
(Tabors, 1997 p.39)

These stages of early language learning are set out in greater detail below

1. Continued use of the home language

When children enter an environment where the language they use to communicate at home is not understood, they may continue to use their home language in the expectation that they will be understood. Depending on the messages the children receive about the use of languages other than English in the setting, this stage is likely to be relatively brief.

2. The Silent or Non Verbal Period

Many children when they enter an unfamiliar early years setting go through a period which has been observed by a number of researchers as the ‘silent’ or ‘mute’ period. Some researchers refer to this as the ‘non-verbal period’ to emphasise that children may continue to interact non-verbally. During the Silent or Non-verbal period, children need time to acclimatise to the new context and to begin to tune in to the sounds of English in the setting and to begin to know what is expected. During this time children may begin to ‘rehearse’ the language silently to themselves and in time begin to practise the utterances in ‘private speech’ until they have the confidence to try out the language for communicative purposes or 'go public'. They require reassurance and encouragement at this time so that they feel they are accepted members of the group.

The following is a snapshot of one bilingual child’s early experience of an afternoon at nursery.

Nazma enters nursery

Nazma enters nursery holding her sister's hand. Her sister, Yasmin (aged four and a half), moves over to the large carpet where the children sit with the nursery teacher at the beginning of every session. Nazma follows her, chewing her dress, staying close to her sister and watching everything. She had stopped crying during the fifth week at nursery and she now comes every afternoon. The children listen to the teacher talking about caterpillars and many join in the discussion in English. Nazma is silent. Mussarat, the Bilingual Classroom Assistant, enters the nursery. She gathers a small group of Pahari speaking children together to share a book. This activity had been planned with the nursery teacher and linked to the current topic. The children switch into Pahari (their mother tongue) for this activity. Nazma listens and points to a picture of a dog (kutha) and cat (billee) in an Urdu alphabet picture book, but does not speak. They go outside to play. Nazma stands on the outside watching the other children and holds Mussarat's hand. She has learnt the climbing frame routine and repeats the climbing and sliding activity several times. The children go inside and choose from a range of play activities. Nazma watches. She stays at an activity for one minute and moves on. This is repeated several times. Then she wanders around the room sucking her fingers. It is now story time on the carpet. The children sit and listen to the story of 'The Very Hungry Caterpillar'. Nazma sits close to her sister and watches. Their mother appears at the door and they go home.

(Drury, 2007 p.31)

When Nazma first entered nursery she met an abrupt change of both language and cultural expectations. In an English only environment, she was in effect dispossessed of her ability to communicate and the impact of this on a three or four year old can be profoundly disturbing. During her early days in the nursery, none of the monolingual nursery staff engaged with Nazma except for classroom management purposes, and there was little verbal interaction between her and other children in the nursery. Nazma is experiencing the non-verbal or silent period.

Strategies for the Non-verbal or Silent Period

Priscilla Clarke (1992) suggests ten strategies to support children’s language development during this stage:

  • Continued talking even when children do not respond.
  • Persistent inclusion in small groups with other children;
  • Use of varied questions;
  • Inclusion of other children as the focus in the conversation;
  • Use of the first language;
  • Acceptance of non-verbal responses;
  • Praising of minimal effort;
  • Expectations to respond with repeated words and/or counting;
  • Structuring of programme to encourage child to child interaction;
  • Provide activities which reinforce language practice through role play.
    (Clarke, 1992 p.17-18)

3. Repetition and language play, use of formulae, routines and single words

Children begin to use single words or formulaic phrases and repetition during the early stages of learning English. They use formulae and chunks of language as ready made phrases in routine situations. This enables the learners to interact with others. These chunks of language may include memorised sequences in singing rhymes and stories, routine language used at specific times in the setting, for example ‘happy birthday’, answering the register, asking to go to the toilet.

The following is a snapshot of four year old Samia during one session in her first term at nursery.

Samia enters nursery

Samia enters Lucca Harris nursery holding her mother’s hand. She finds her ‘giraffe’ picture and places it on the ‘planning board’. She has planned her worktime in the art and craft area and she stands watching a nursery nurse organising a hand painting activity at the painting table. The children are each making hand printed cards for mother’s day. She takes a turn at the activity in silence, except for the correct one word response to questions about the colour of the paint and the card-‘What’s that colour?’ ‘Yellow’. Samia then moves onto the carpet where children are playing with a wooden train set, solid shapes and small construction materials. She is silent while she plays on her own. After a few minutes, another child takes one of her shapes and she protests ‘No, mine, not yours. Look.’ There is no response and she continues playing. Talk is going on around her, but it is not addressed to Samia. The nursery teacher walks past the carpet and Samia attracts her attention, ‘Mrs Ashley, look.’ The teacher walks away and it is tidy up time. Samia sits with the teacher in a group of seven children for small group time. The focus is the song ‘Heads, shoulders, knees and toes’ and playing a game to teach the parts of the body. She joins in the refrain of the song ‘Knees and toes’, listens, watches attentively and participates mainly non-verbally during the game. Then the teacher directs the children: ‘It’s time to go out in the garden’. She finds Samia sitting on her own singing to herself ‘knees and toes, knees and toes’, before she goes out to play.

(Drury, 2007 p. 37)

This observation of Samia during a nursery session provides one view of her learning; in the nursery context during her first term of formal schooling. There are approximately 30 children in the morning session of the nursery which Samia attends for two and a half hours a day. Nearly half of the children are bilingual and the majority of these are Pahari speakers. The monolingual nursery teacher works with two monolingual nursery nurses and a part-time bilingual classroom assistant. The structure and routines of the nursery are particularly significant as it follows a High/Scope approach to the curriculum. This encourages the children to ‘plan’ their activities using a planning board when they first arrive in the morning, to ‘do’ the activity during ‘work time’ and then to ‘review’ or ‘recall’ their learning with their key adult in a small group. We have seen elements of this in Samia’s ‘school game’ at home when she refers to ‘group time’ in her play.

During her first term at nursery, Samia had to learn a wide range of rules and routines to do with how time and space was organised in the nursery and with the behaviour that was expected. And at the end of her first term she had gone beyond the initial stage of insecurity in a new environment. She had the confidence to attract the teacher’s attention when necessary and to object when shapes she was playing with were taken by other children - ‘No, mine. Not yours’. Nevertheless, her still limited understanding of English meant that her acculturation in the setting precipitated times of stress and difficulty. The process of adaptation involved a new shaping of her identity as Samia discovered and internalised what was acceptable in the socio-cultural environment. Willett (1995) pointed out that learners acquire more than linguistic rules through interactional routines: ‘they also appropriate identities, social relations and ideologies’ (Willett, 1995: 477).

4. More complex English or productive language use

Children begin to develop productive use of the additional language which means they can build on and extend the use of single words and chunks of English to produce more complex language. They may combine some of the chunks they have acquired and begin to produce longer and more complex sentences which approximate more closely to the intended meaning.

In reality, these stages may well overlap, depending on the context and expectations. For example, Samia’s ‘school game' reveals how she was confidently producing more complex English in the home/play setting than in the nursery. In her ‘school game’, her use of English, her facility for code-switching, her ability to engage, sustain and direct her younger brother’s involvement, her manipulation of school knowledge (for example, colours) demonstrate her developing bilingualism. It is interesting to note that the private, very safe, play context at home provided her opportunities to rehearse thse skills before she ‘went public’ in the nursery setting. Similarly, young children's language use may well vary within the context of the setting. Teachers should therefore be alert to these differences.


Brooker, L. (2005) Learning to be a child: Cultural diversity and early years ideology. In Yelland, N. (ed) Critical Issues in Early Childhood Education. Maidenhead: Open University Press
Clarke, P. (1992) English as a 2nd Language in Early Childhood. FKA Multicultural Resources Centre. Richmond: Victoria, Australia
Drury, R. (2007) Young Bilingual Learners at Home and School. Stoke-on-Trent: Trentham
Haste, H. (1987) Growing into rules in Bruner, J. and Haste, H. (eds.) Making sense: The child’s construction of the world. London: Methuen
Ochs, E. (1988) Introduction. In B. Schiefflin, & E. Ochs (eds) Language Socialisation across cultures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Tabors, P. (1997) One Child, Two Languages: a guide for Preschool Educators of Children Learning English as a Second Language. Baltimore: Paul Brookes Publishing
Willett, J. (1995) Becoming first graders in an L2 classroom: An ethnographic study of L2 socialisation. TESOL Quarterly, 29, 473-503

Watch these videos of early years practice and read our briefing notes

Teachers' TV (2005) Early Years in Action – ICT NALDIC Briefing notes

Teachers' TV (2005) Early Years Workshop - Nursery 1 NALDIC Briefing notes