Early literacy support in the home language for emergent bilingual children and their families

Mural about literacy

Photo by Urban Aquarium Video and Light

We have limited research and understanding regarding the needs of preschool children from bilingual backgrounds. Our knowledge is even more limited when we consider preschool children with language impairment and communication disorders from Non-English-speaking homes. Most of the services available to these children are in English, and there is limited support for the home language. In fact, there is a prevailing notion among parents and educators that children with language impairments cannot learn two languages and should only be exposed to one language. This notion should come as no surprise, given that even among the parents of typically developing bilingual children, there is confusion regarding bilingual language acquisition. The Head Start Dual-Language Report (2008) revealed that Non-English-speaking parents of children in Head Start described thinking that learning the home language could interfere with their children’s ability to learn English. These parents also reported making an effort to only use English at home, even though their English proficiency was limited and communication with their children had suffered.

Reading this report reminded me of meeting a Portuguese-speaking mother of an 18-year old girl with language impairment. This meeting took place many years ago. At the time, I gave a parent workshop and reassured parents that it was fine to use their home language with their children. My message was to love and to nurture their children in the language that could best facilitate a constant flow of communication—the family language in most cases. When my talk was over, the Portuguese mother came over and through tears described how she had stopped talking to her daughter around the age of 5 years, when advised to not use their native language at home. This mother described how their communication had suffered and the distancing that took place over time between her daughter and the rest of the family. It is difficult for me to understand what it must feel like for parents to not be able to talk to their children for fear of hurting them. The idea that using language can hurt is certainly alien to me as a speech-language pathologist.

However, whenever I pose the question of whether children with language impairment should learn more than one language, the responses I get are invariably mixed. In a recent poll among speech-language pathology students, I found nearly 50% thinking that exposure to two languages was not a good idea for children with language impairments. When I ask preschool teachers, responses can be even more biased toward English. And parents are the most confused—they often say English, but then confess to not being able to speak English fluently. It is indeed sad. I should also mention the countless number of times I have heard teaching staff say “speak English” to a child who comes from a Non-English-speaking home. This is clearly not a welcoming message to a young developing mind.

As speech-language pathologists, we must reassure parents that communication in the home language is an important aspect of social-emotional and language development for their children. Promoting early literacy in the home language and supporting parents in their efforts are best practices when working with emergent bilingual children.

Elizabeth Ijalba, Ph.D., CCC-SLP is Assistant Professor in Linguistics and Communication Disorders at Queens College, CUNY. She formed the Bilingual/Biliteracy Lab and conducts research in early-literacy and home-language stimulation with Non-English-speaking parents of children with language impairment.


  1. Angela Giraldo says

    I come from a bilingual family and when I first came to this country my mother believe that we should stop reading in spanish and watching TV in spanish because this would hurt my progress learning english. I believe today that this is not true but instead can help the child.

    Thank you so much for your article and for forming the Bilingual/Biliteracy lab.

  2. Rachel says

    The “developmental interdependence” hypothesis proposes that the development of competence in a second language (L2) is partially a function of the type of competence already developed in L1 at the time when intensive exposure to L2 begins. The hypothesis proposes that there may be levels of linguistic competence that bilingual children must attain both in order to avoid cognitive disadvantages and to allow the potentially beneficial aspects of bilingualism to influence their cognitive and academic functioning. This model of bilingual education explains educational outcomes as a function of the interaction between background, child input, and educational treatment factors. Attention is also directed to problems with bilingual education program evaluations that fail to consider these potential interactions.

  3. Rachel says

    From my experience of working with young children of Spanish backgrounds, I have met many parents who have admitted of not being active readers. Unfortunately their children lag behind and in the future will encounter academic difficulties, and deepen their language impairments. On the other hand, I have also met parents who are very involved and take their children to the library very often, these are the children that noticeably participate in class and have that sort of pre-knowledge that comes from the home and are able to stay on topic, get less distracted and excel into main stream. The home environment does play a role in the child’s development. Although, in the case of children with Dyslexia, who won’t be able to excel even if they come from a rich home environment. That, is because their reading disability results from the inability to process graphic symbols, and because they have difficulty determining the meaning, idea or content of a sentence. In this case dyslexia will impair the child’s fluency or accuracy in being able to read, speak and spell, which can manifest itself as a difficulty with phonological awareness, phonological decoding, orthographic coding etc. Children who are born with a disability or disorder, usually begin to show signs or red flags as they get older. Little research is available to advocate for the importance of parents reading to their children as early as possible in their home language. ( and most parents are not aware of this). Based on my readings, I strongly believe that if parents are actively involved and expose their children to early literacy in their native home language, the child’s brain will have as solid foundation, and will be able to transfer easily to the second language taught in school. I’m not saying that parent involvement will cure and prevent any disabilities from ever occurring, all am saying is that, early intervention and prevention should begin at home as early as possible from a holistic angle. Not to make anyone paranoid but the child’s environment should have a rich literacy input available, as part of the child’s daily schedule rather than waiting until the child goes to school and then worrying about their academic performance, because at that point it may be a little too late.

  4. Amy Lu says

    Although the field of speech-language pathology has grown more enlightened about the importance of using and fully developing one’s home language – especially if it is a child’s L1 – bilingual education in the U.S. seems to be regressing on the other hand. I still remember a classmate back in middle school who suffered precisely because of the poor state of bilingual education. She had been forced into mainstream classes despite having inadequate BICS – she could barely carry a basic conversation in English – and whenever lessons went on, she would sit and stare uncomprehendingly at the teacher or talk to her friends in hushed Chinese. Although she also received Bilingual classes on the side, they were primarily conducted in English anyway, which resulted in school being just a waste of time for her because she was getting none of the support she really needed in the language she could actually understand. The last I saw of her, she had dropped out of high school and was working at the local Chinese bakery.

    Although cases like my classmate edge toward the extreme end, the reality is still such that with our current bilingual education policy, all too many children born to Non-English-speaking families face the real risk of academic failure – and if not that, the near-total loss of their home language as educators spread the pernicious attitude that English is the only language that matters at school. SLPs, however, could help stem that phenomenon through vigorous advocacy of bilingual education reform as well as through educating teachers and parents (as was demonstrated through the workshops mentioned in the article) about what bilingualism truly does for the growing mind.

  5. Michal Halbertal says

    I agree! I feel that bilingual children should be able to keep their native language as well as learn english. We need more Speech-Language-Pathologists who are bilingual, and to do that preschools as well as grade schools need to accept the child’s native language, and then it is ok. to try to add the English language. We need more addive bilingual programs as this is called. There are just so many subtractive biligual programs . Can you really blaime the child for not talking, or not wanting to participate when the child clearly doesn’t understand the language, and when things are to tedious for a child the child might zone out. That doesn’t mean the child is learning disabled, which teachers may classify the child as. Moreover, parents might stop talking to their children if they only know their native language, and English is hard for them., because they want their children to learn English, beacuse that is what the schools require of them. It is our job as Speech-langauge-Pathologists to give these children a voice to display their feelings of not being able to speak their native language, and therefore, having a hard time in school. We must all work together to petition for more additive bilingual programs, so that these children are not left behind.

  6. Nicole Castro says

    I agree, I think child with literacy development issues should be able to use both their languages. We live in such a diverse society and being in the United States, we are full of different cultures and languages. Having a child give up a native language to learn the English language makes them lose part of their roots, especially when it is the only way that they can communicate with family members. I think more programs should be created where they use the additive approach integrating both languages into learning because a child fluent in two languages is a great thing. Although there may be issues of word order and etc…as they learn English, they can correct their mistakes. Children are learning and as they try new things, the correct way will somehow fall into place. Keeping a child from even talking their native language can restrict them from future opportunities if left with a mentality that they should not learn another language or have dropped a language in the process to better their English and learn the concepts of the English language.

  7. Christina Montalbano says

    This is true. Many bilingual children are feeling the harsh affects of growing up in a non-English speaking home while attending an English speaking school. There is not enough Spanish speaking teachers or speech pathologists to work with this diverse population. I am also aware that schools in the Elmhurst, NY area have ELI teachers who are monolingual, trying to communicate with Spanish speaking children and are finding it extremely difficult.

    Not having enough Spanish speaking professionals dampens the communication with parents of these children because of the language barrier. In turn, the children will suffer by not getting the adequate support from school and at home. We must inform parents and teachers on the importance of early literacy in the home language. This way, the children can successfully interact with the parents and guardians at home, for those are the people they spend the most time with at this young age.

    Thank you for sharing this great article.

  8. Alyssa Knoerzer says

    I agree with this article. Bilingual children and their parents should be encourged to keep their native language. Its sad to see that many teachers and professionals tell parents to stop speaking their native language and only speak english. Many people today are bilingual and never had a problem learning their second language. Bilingual children’s native language helps give them a connection to their home life. I agree that making a child stop learning their native language can effect their home life and put distance between them and their family members. I have also personally come across teachers that tell their bilingual students to speak english. I was surprised when I first heard it. A bilingual childs native language is a part of them. It makes up who they are. It shouldn’t be discouraged. I really enjoyed reading this article.

  9. Jennifer Florez says

    As a student in the speech pathology undergraduate program, this article truly inspires me to learn more about helping multilingual families. Living in one of the most diverse nations in the world, it is crucial to implement speech and language therapy this is both sensitive and accommodating to the cultural and communicative needs of each family. As Dr. Ijalba mentions, trying to encourage an “English-only” attitude not only hinders the communication between mother and child, but also disables the child from taking advantage of the opportunities brought upon from being multilingual. Training parents to create a stimulating home environment can increase the child’s abilities to communicate, and at the same time, increase the child’s abilities to perform well in school. Together we can help close the achievement gap that exists in our country and help each child acquire the skills they need to succeed in college. This training starts in early childhood and it begins in the home.

  10. Daniela Velez says

    I absolutely agree with this article. It is extremely sad to hear that people are discouraging parents from using their native language with their children in favor of English. As an English-Spanish bilingual myself, I am so grateful to have a strong grasp of both languages and believe it has been nothing but beneficial. Most of my family does not speak English, so I can understand the immense social-emotional effect of speaking (or not speaking) the family language. As speech-language pathologists, we should work towards informing non-English speaking parents about the importance of using their native language with their children. Language is not just a way of expressing a need or request, but love and affection. No one should take this away from a family.

  11. Matthew Fisher says

    I must admit that when asked the question regarding my thoughts on the subject of using the native language at home as opposed to English, I thought it was a no brainer. Of course English should be encouraged at home! At least that is what I thought before learning the facts. I’m sorry to say that unless more is done to raise awareness on the subject, the xenophobic attitudes will prevail. Maybe we, as the next generation of SLPs can be instrumental in changing this misconception through better educational programs for current and future teachers.

  12. says

    I have found the same confusion that you mention amongst both parents and professionals. When we communicate to families the “urgency” to speak English rather than their home language, we are in fact asking our families to dismiss what is likely most important to them, their culture, their home-language, the essence of who they are. For a parent to be able to share his/her culture and language with his/her child is sacred, a gift — that which will help the parent bond with his/her child. This is exceedingly important when the child is language delayed or disordered. The necessity for the parent to develop a bond is much easier if the importance of the home language/culture is not minimized. At times, our work includes teaching our families to simply love their child. Isn’t it easier to love in ones own language ie to not introduce a further barrier?
    The impact of “speak English” has the same effect on me as the directive, “use your words.” I suppose when children don’t walk as quickly as they should we should say, “use your feet??”

  13. Holly Wright says

    I agree that knowing and speaking more than one language at home is an extremely valuable gift that parents can give their children. Knowing more than one language can open up many doors for their children later in life. It is sad to see a mother stop communicating with her child because someone told her not to speak English to her child at home. For mothers of children with language and communication difficulties, it is even more important to communicate with your child, to build on that relationship, in any language that facilitates it.

    Thank you for writing this article and forming the Bilingual/Biliteracy Lab!

  14. Evangelia Tsirnikas says

    I totally agree with the article. It is rediculous that parents are getting mixed signals as to if bilingualism is a good idea for their child trying to acquire a second language. Bilingualism is a great way to build on language skills and cognitive abilities. I think that when children are told to stop talking one language to acquire another, not only do they get confused but they are unable to express themselves as clearly if the L1 was present. I work with a woman whose child speaks two languages and when he was receiving services from a SLP he used some Polish words instead of English. The SLP said that the child was responding incorrectly and did not understand what she was saying to him. However, the SLP didn’t speak Polish and when the mother was present and able to translate the child was actually answering the questions correctly, but since it was in a different language the SLP assumed it was incorrect. The mother told me that the SLP had recommended not speaking the L1 to the child so he can acquire the L2. I was amazed! It just makes no sense to me and I think people like that are hindering bilingualism and confusing both the child and the parents.

    The article was very insigthful and shows the unfortunate truth of how bilingualism is looked down upon for no reason. There are so many benefits to bilingualism and as the article states children need support when learning a new language.

  15. says

    I applaude Dr. Ijalba’s article.

    As a bilingual speech-language pathologist and researcher I am constantly amazed about how ignorant the general populous is regarding bilingualism.

    I am, more often than not, horrified at the bad advice well intended professionals give to parents of bilingual children or children learning English as an L2 in the US.

    In the case of children with language delays or impairments, the consequences may be quite large.

    The science overwhelmingly supports the benefits of bilingualism.

    The language the parent can model best is, more often than not, best for children with language and learning concerns.

    They need a good L1 to learn that L2!

    Too many people do not understand the boundaries of their expertise and second language learning children are suffering the consequences.

    Teresa M. Signorelli, PhD, CCC-SLP
    Clinic Director
    Marymount Manhattan College

  16. Lourdes Salinas says

    Your article hit the nail on the head. There is a false notion among many educators and parents that exposing a child with language impairment to two language is detrimental to their overall language development. Working several years in various preschool special education settings I too have witnessed many educators misguide parents into believing that two language systems is demanding for their child’s cognitive abilities and therefore they should only speak English and not their native language.
    The limited English proficiency of these parents along with the wrong information from the professionals is a continuous problem that is not being addressed. There is a great need for more research in the area of bilingual children with language impairments. Likewise there is a great need for the speech community (speech-language pathologists) to take initiative in supporting parents both by encouraging them to speak their native language to their children and by educating them on the importance of literacy in their home in their native language. Only by raising awareness on this subject will misconceptions be clarified and a change come about.

  17. Laura Ben says

    Even if a bilingual child has a language impairment and cannot communicate perfectly in either language he or she is exposed to it is still so important for them to communicate. Limiting their social interaction by telling their parents that the child should only be spoken to in English certainly will not help their relationships, social skills or language development. Parents need to be encouraged to communicate with their children in the language they feel most comfortable using so the child can receive the full benefit of understanding that language receiving slight exposure to two languages.

  18. Daniel Gil says

    Great article!! It is amazing how many experts continue to tell parents that they should speak English at home. As a result many parents are abandoning their native language, exposing their children to a poor language model, and showing their children that their language and culture are inferior. I agree with the author 100%. We need to keep telling parents and professionals who work with children how important it is to keep nurturing the home language.

  19. Justina Parmiter says

    I also agree with this article. I think that sometimes teachers forget or are ignorant of the fact that learning more than one languages is valuable and beneficial. I also think that it should be mandatory for all teachers to learn about bilingualism and how to make the students who are learning English feel more comfortable.

    On another note I can not imagine how the daughter of the Portugese-speaking mother felt. Aside from having a communication disorder I imagine that she felt like an outsider in her own home and excluded from the rest of the family. It is sad because she may have benefitted much more from speaking and bonding with her family.

    This idea of not using the native language seems to start in the home and should stop in the classrooms. We first need to educate teachers who can then spread the word to parents.

  20. Rachel Namdar says

    I agree totally with this point of view! I think there is an upsettingly large amount of misguided parents and teachers who don’t wholly understand what a Language Disability is. Many times this diminishes the value of the native language, creating a communication barrier at home. Like you said, this is not only a linguistic loss but a emotional loss as well. In my opinion there’s nothing more important that a parent-child connection. Thank you for your article.

  21. Cecilia Navarra says

    Interestingly enough, I have heard many bilingual parents tell me that their children stop speaking the home language shortly after entering school, despite continued use by the parents of L1 at home. I believe this speaks to an attitude (whether conscious or not) of educators and administrators alike that children quickly intuit: “English (and only English)is the language of learning.” This is very disconcerting from a number of perspectives. First, these children lose proficiency in the native language of their family, “dis-abling” future opportunities. If the primary language of the family is one other than English, the communicative distance between parent/grandparent and child grows, impacting their relationship as well as the ability to help their children learn (especially if caregivers have limited English proficiency). In the case of children with language impairment, this becomes magnified, as these children struggle to learn language, period. When professionals tell parents to stop speaking to their children in the native language, the child’s primary avenue for language learning is lost, compounding the problem for both child and family, who no longer feel empowered to help. With the growing number of bilingual families in the United States, particularly in urban areas, it is imperative that teachers, clinicians, and administrators become educated regarding these issues. Practices that in essence dismiss the importance of the home language are simply unacceptable.

  22. Nicole Hoefferle says

    I can’t imagine how it must have felt for that girl when she was only 5 years old her mother stopped speaking to her. She must have felt as if she did something wrong. Something like this can cause such issues in the family and it terrible that people are recommending that people give their children the silent treatment. A mother child relationship interconnects with many other avenues in life I wonder if it affected the girl more than just with her language but also with her trust skills. From learning things for my psychology classes the trusting bond you receive from your mother when you are first born tends to dictate how you view relationships for the rest of your life. No one person should have think that they have the authority to take that type of relationship away from any human being, especially when they do not know all of the facts. I hope that someday soon people we start to become more educated in areas such as this which can be so important to a child.

  23. Hia Datta says

    This is an issue dear to my heart and intellect, the language or languages for therapy for clients (children or adults) who are bilingual – is a subject that needs to be addressed by clinicians and researchers – so that recommendations aren’t made in the basis of hearsay or instinct. As clinicians, we need to understand potential benefits and barriers that get created from making sweeping statements to parents. We need to assess progress in both languages as and when it gets incorporated in the child’s language through therapy and home environments so that children can benefit from multilingual environments as much as possible – and get parents involved in establishing communication with their children.
    As for typically developing children, it still shocks me to hear stories of holding back home language for any reason. Reading in home language can have many positive aspects, including reinforcing L1 and building sustained interest in communicating in it. Thanks Elizabeth for addressing this issue!

  24. says

    I loved the blog. It was a great read and I think many will find it useful.
    I am a second generation Italian American who never learned the language because my family was embarrassed for us to speak Italian – they thought it was not respectful for us to not speak English – now, the only thing I can read in Italian is a menu. It makes me sad. It would be great if we could spread the word that bilingualism (in any language) is a good thing.

  25. icRoxmaHart says

    i want to know the roles of the teacher,family or society towards the child with language disorder..:)

  26. says

    Dr. Elizabeth Ijalba’s work is really exciting. She is developing such important resources and research that we can implement in our work immediately. In fact, just yesterday I heard of a monolingual SLP who told a group of graduate students that she would “just ignore” the Portuguese part of the child’s bilingual background in the evaluation and in therapy. It amazes me that someone could be so ignorant of the research in place since the early 1990s. Dr. Ijalba has been on the Teachers College Columbia University Bilingual Extension Institute faculty for the past 10 years. Her students at Queens College in New York have a unique opportunity to work on this truly awe-inspiring work.