Linguistic Diversity and Early Literacy

Linguistic Diversity and Early Literacy in Early Childhood Education (K-2)

Written by Morgan Danison, Elizabeth Forquer, Lily Gabriel, and Kam McCluer


The concepts children learn in their early childhood education are extremely vital and unique in that pre-K and/or kindergarten is a child’s first experience with schooling and education. One of the most important stepping stones a child will undergo throughout this period in their life is literacy. Literacy is more than learning how to read a book. It is comprehension, confidence, and never-ending growth. “Acquiring literacy is an individual responsibility as well as a collective responsibility of the whole community; that is, ensure that every person develops meaning-making with all human modes of communication” (Copeland & Keefe, 2018). This emphasizes that all individuals have the right to literacy, regardless of their background. However, there is one aspect of literacy that teachers can often overlook- linguistic diversity. When a child who speaks one language is being solely instructed in another, this has the ability to stunt their literacy and hide their true potential. It is important that we, as educators, see linguistic diversity along with differing abilities as an asset in our classrooms, rather than something detrimental to our general instruction. Through learning about linguistic diversity and methods of being more culturally responsive in our classrooms, an opportunity will arise to take new perspectives on teaching and to rethink our methods when teaching literacy. After learning ways to introduce literacy to our K-2 students, teachers can more effectively navigate through language barriers, integrate literacy with disability, and create a more inclusive learning environment for students experiencing poverty.


When it comes to the topic of early literacy and linguistic diversity in America, there are several legislations, policies, and standards that a majority of teachers must take into consideration. For our purposes, we focused on the Ohio standards. The most important guideline highlighted in Ohio is the third grade reading guarantee. When it comes to early literacy standards, all Ohio students are expected to be able to read by third grade. Several standardized tests (KRA, DIBELS, Star Early Literacy) are in place at every K-3 grade level to determine if students are on track. It is important to highlight that fluency and literacy is not always determined accurately by a standardized test. Standards catered toward students who are English Learners are a more accurate depiction of a student’s literacy improvement and skills. The Ohio Department of Education provides standards of proficiency for students throughout their years of school. For our age group, teachers can look at the ELP standards for kindergarten, grade 1, and grades 2-3. Another standard in Ohio is the Universal Screener (Reading Diagnostic). Screenings are also in place at every grade level K-3 and are conducted to identify at-risk students who are behind. After looking at standards and legislations, we can start to integrate these into our classroom and create our own ways of interpreting them into our curriculum to ensure student success in our schools.

Introducing Early Literacy to K-2 Students and Linguistically Diverse Classrooms

Oftentimes, we hear about notions that sound great in theory- but they are just that- theory, and sometimes too abstract to make sense of. Teachers often find themselves longing for something more concrete they can implement into their day-to-day classrooms to start introducing literacy to students, and how to introduce literacy to American classrooms that are growing more and more linguistically diverse.

The first method of introducing literacy central and relevant to research is the art of storytelling. “Storytelling supports literacy development because it allows children to also hear models about how language can be used. Storytelling can also promote writing skills by encouraging children to create their own stories, modify stories that they have heard, and even write plays based on familiar tales.” (Maureen et. al 373). Telling stories to children and modeling fluent reading in a classroom is critical to a child becoming fluent themselves. 

This is a TED Talk by Keisha Siriboe that explains the value in seeing literacy as not only literacy having an effect on test scores, but a child’s creativity and innovation skills. 

Simply reading aloud is the first step. Introducing literacy as a concept becomes more multi-faceted when we think intersectionally. In this instance, we are addressing linguistically diverse classrooms. For that reason, culturally responsive pedagogy and ways to integrate culturally and linguistically diverse students into the curriculum at hand is critical if we are aiming to be culturally responsive educators. A concrete example of this are identity texts. Identity texts are a research based method that have proven “particularly significant for students from EL or marginalized communities.” When using identity texts, students “create creative writing pieces in either their home language or in English that is shared with multiple audiences”. This is a culturally responsive method of teaching early literacy that is proven not only to “improve[ing] marginalized and EL students’ academic performance, but their confidence and self-image in their classroom environments.” (Cummins 145-146). 

How to Avoid Stunting Early Literacy

A barrier that can often arise when encouraging early literacy among students is the parental relationship. Many classrooms encourage literacy while incorporating and inviting childrens’ parents and/or guardians into their classroom for a period of time (i.e. “Breakfast & Books”). Since parental involvement is proven to be critical towards a child’s literacy, especially when a parent often speaks their child’s language (and after all, a parent is a child’s first teacher), these ideas can be beneficial to begin implementing and organizing. However, we can first analyze different perspectives and accommodate the parent/guardian’s opinions about how they think something like this could work best. “Parents’ perceptions of how they or their children would be involved, affected enrollment and ongoing participation,” therefore proving the importance and highlighting the impact parental involvement has on the beginnings of early literacy by “affect[ing] enrollment and ongoing participation [of students learning to read].” (Doyle & Zhang 232-233). A way to implement parental involvement today in your classroom is to ask students’ parents how they feel encouraging literacy with their children would work best. 

Image of a teacher sitting with a student and their parent

Classroom Implications

This leads into the classroom implications. Classrooms are quickly becoming more diverse, linguistically and culturally, as our country progresses. Research has shown that the “predictive nature of language and early literacy skills” (e.g., attending to stories, alphabet knowledge, and print awareness) once students start school makes intervention, notably with EL students, “imperative to be able to support language and literacy development in early childhood education” (Sheridan et. al 364). Some implications research has for modern American classrooms dealing with introducing literacy to linguistically diverse classrooms include:

  1. Study the curriculum before teaching it. Curriculum is often implicit and can express certain behaviors and attitudes that are “conveyed without aware intent.” To address this issue, Western Michigan University researcher Alsubaie writes, “we should understand that the hidden curriculum plays positive or negative role in education system in school; therefore, teachers have to be aware of it and how it appears in the school.” (125). 
  2. Apply culturally responsive thinking to legislature. Look up legislature and standards for your grade level. (Some are stated above). When reading about what students must know to meet a standard, it is most culturally responsive to think first about how different students- in this case EL students- may more easily achieve the standard through a different method.
  3. See diversity as an asset to literacy, not a deficit. Linguistic diversity can be challenging to accommodate in a classroom, but EL students can achieve to the same level as English-speaking students if they are given proper intervention which can be an asset to any classroom and can increase your adaptability as a teacher. Often, ELL are thought of as a deficit, and given coursework to match, lowering their ability to academically integrate along with inhibiting their English acquisition overall (Callahan et. al 11-12). 

Image of many drawn people saying "hello" in different languages

Classroom Resources

The following section includes classroom resources that may be helpful to teachers looking to introduce literacy to a linguistically diverse classroom. 

Lingro: ( This website is great for teachers who utilize technology in their classrooms. For students who may not speak English and need to do research online or follow along with a class, this website allows any other webpage on the Internet to be a dictionary translating text into 12 different languages!

Linguistically diverse book selection: If your classroom is linguistically diverse, it is beneficial to have a selection of books in different languages and representing different cultures (even better, foreign language counterparts to English books) to begin integrating ESL students in everyday storytelling. This website offers several packs for ESL students to better learn English while also learn literacy skills.

Use an ESL student’s language as much as you (or a specialist) can: In a perfect world, the help of a parent who speaks their child’s language would be ideal. However, this isn’t always the case. “Culturally and linguistically diverse families remain alienated from the school system due to a variety of circumstances, including: a lack of English language skills, lack of understanding of the home-school partnership, lack of understanding of the school system,  lack of confidence, work interference, and insensitivity and hostility on the part of school personnel” (Bermudéz and Márquez 2). If this is the case when working with parents of ESL programs, it is beneficial to instead work on finding someone outside of the family who speaks the child’s language and can work with them to build fluency and literacy. In a study by Ashdown and Simic of New York University, there were strong differences in academic performance between children in a bilingual intervention program and students in a structured, English immersion program. The difference was notably children in the late-exit bilingual program making faster progress in both English reading and math than children in the early-exit and structured immersion cohorts (2001).

Image of text bubbles saying "hello" in different languages

Teacher resources

There are also several online resources teachers can take advantage of  to encourage literacy growth in linguistically diverse classrooms. A few include:

Ten Quick Ways to Analyze Children’s Books for Sexism and Racism:­content/uploads/2012/08/ec_tenquickways_english.pdf

This is a useful resource highlighting ways teachers can scan books in their library for problematic themes.

Enhancing Learning of Children From Diverse Language Backgrounds

This resource talks more about mother-tongue based education in early childhood literacy and how to incorporate it into a modern classroom.

Hidden Curriculum

This resource dissects the importance of uncovering hidden curriculum, and how we as teachers can best integrate and include all languages and cultures in the way we teach students of all languages and cultures. 

Literacy Centers: Getting Started:

This resource is a detailed lesson plan for introducing literacy centers, a small group setting for engaging early literacy learners.

Early Literacy in Relation to Children from Low-Income Backgrounds 

There have been many studies done on the effects of low-income households on children and their emergent literacy. These studies supported the idea that students who come from poor backgrounds have less access to the materials they need to excel in their reading and writing skills. One of the most prominent issues was the lack of parent-child reading done at home. Several resources reinforce the idea that parents reading at home with their children significantly impacted their progression in literacy. A particular study done by Stacey Storch Bracken & Janet E. Fischel in 2008, showed that of the 233 students examined, all of the students from low-income homes experienced almost no time doing family reading. Other than the absence of parent-child reading, there were also many different factors that played into a student’s lack of success in early literacy when coming from a low-income background. This included access to reading materials outside of school, lack of parent involvement, education being lack of priority when focusing on getting basic needs met, and inefficient supplemental attention from educators.

Some important key terms when investigating early literacy in relation to low-income students:

  • Low-income and poverty: Low-income is considered 200 percent of the federal poverty level, and poor is defined as 100 percent of the poverty level. For 2013, a family of four making less than $23,624 is considered at the federal poverty level, and $47,248 is considered low income
  • Emergent literacy: a child’s knowledge of reading and writing skills before they learn how to read and write words. It signals a belief that, in a literate society, young children—even one- and two-year-olds—are in the process of becoming literate.
  • Parent-child reading: Parents reading and interacting with books with their children
  • Early childhood: Considered to be children in preschool to 3rd grade

  “Children may go from a home with limited physical and psychological resources for learning and language to a school with similar constraints, resulting in a double dose of disadvantage.” 

Susan B. Neuman, professor of childhood and literacy education at NYU Steinhardt

This video is a news report talking about the rising amount of students in poverty (51%) and some of the ways that affects teachers and students. It also talks about some of the programs put in place to help with students in poverty, including free lunches. 

An infographic showing a map of the United States. The title reads "Percent of low income students in US public schools." Areas of the map are highlighted different colors depending on the percentage. States with 50% or above include most of the Southern states, such as California, Nevada, Texas, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky. States with under 40% include Wyoming, Montana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and Vermont.

“According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, students must have their physical needs met before they can learn. If a child is hungry, that is all they will be able to focus on and they won’t have the ability to focus on school or homework.”  – Jasmine Morrow, CE Online

Some resources that can provide help to students from low-income backgrounds:

  • Title 1 is the largest federally funded educational program. The program provides supplemental funds to school districts to assist schools with the highest student concentrations of poverty to meet school educational goals.
  • The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is a federally assisted meal program operating in public and nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions. It provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children each school day.
  • Also, an article that would be helpful for teachers to read is Helping Low Income Students Succeed, by Jasmine Morrow, it outlines several different helpful ways to approach students from low-income backgrounds. Describing the importance of considering a student’s physiological state and their feeling of safety, as well as outlining the Comer Process (The Comer Process targets connected paths that lead to healthy development and academic success), the importance of staying positive and focused, celebrating small victories, considering traumas, building relationships, and encouraging students to ask questions and ask for help.

Strategies for Assisting Children with a Language Barrier

Having a language barrier in school can give a child various challenges to overcome during stages of early literacy. Many times, having a language barrier is not the only obstacle that these young students face–cultural differences can come along with having a language barrier. If teachers, parents, and administration are unwilling to teach or react in a way that will provide the student with the most success, the transition can become that much more difficult (Ozturk, 2013). In addition, English Language Learners (ELL) are often identified as having learning disabilities (LD), when their struggles may be the result of language acquisition rather than LD (Klingner & Eppollito, 2014). Some strategies when assisting a child with a language barrier include understanding a student’s culture, utilizing available resources, and being up to date on the latest research on linguistic development. 

Some students with a language barrier may come from a culture with different practices and norms than the typical Western education system, and may need extra support or a different learning environment as an aid in their educational journey. Making sure not only the student, but parents, are comfortable with the classroom environment and open to sharing about cultural differences is key, especially in early childhood due to the higher level of parent dependency.  A way to ensure parents and students are comfortable is to utilize the resources available for English Learners. Resources and strategies include other native speakers, often other students, professional practitioners, scaffolding lessons by including the native language, and more. (Helfrich et. al 2011).  

Along with tangible resources in the classroom, sites, such as the Ohio Department of Education, provide many resources for teachers with English Learners. Education is a continuously changing field, with a constant flow of new research, strategies, and curriculum. As the population of English Learners grow, so does the research surrounding it. Choosing to be knowledgeable on the latest strategies for the success of English Learners can be beneficial for those students (English Learners, n.d.).  

A graphic of a yellow speech bubble that reads: "The number of ELLs reported in Ohio for school year 2010-2011 represents an increase of 38 percent over the number reported five years previously and an increase of 199 percent over the number reported 10 years ago."

There are many other avenues to take when assisting a child with a language barrier, as these are not only three ways to promote student success. A language barrier can be different for every child, and getting to know your student(s) is a key way to recognize what is the best path to take to give each child the best opportunity to learn and succeed. 

As mentioned before, it is also crucial for educators to understand whether a student with a language barrier is struggling due to language acquisition or due to a learning disability (LD). English language learners (ELL) may not respond to literacy learning approaches in the way we would expect as educators–they may need additional language support or a different instructional method (Klingner & Eppollito, 2014). General education teachers make a majority of referrals for special education placement. It is important to improve our understanding of ELLs struggles so they are not identified as having an LD when they do not (Klingner & Eppollito, 2014).

Classroom changes and resources:

When a child has a language barrier, teachers must be willing to restructure how they do things in the classroom. A language barrier does not mean that the child is less able than other students, or a detriment to the classroom. Rather, the child should be held to high expectations, and with the right supports and resources available they can succeed in the classroom.

Implications include: 

Know your student and their culture. One of the first things teachers can implement into their work is to get to know the student. Making sure the student is comfortable in the classroom, and willing to share about their cultural norms, home life, and family can be extremely beneficial when there is a language barrier present. Along with getting to know the student, getting to know parents is another part of knowing your student, especially when working with a younger age group (Ozturk, 2013). 

Classroom peers/other students. Studies have shown that ELL students benefit from interactions with other students in the classroom; often if paired with another ELL student with their native language, students show growth in language development (Helfrich et. al 2011). Consider this especially for pre-K or kindergarten students; going to school for the first time ever can be very scary for many young students, and going to school not speaking the same language as everyone else can be even more frightening. Allowing students to speak in their native language with peers can bring them comfort when everything else is unfamiliar. 

Scaffolding. Students with a language barrier can achieve at a high level just as other students, but may need some extra support, or scaffolding, along the way. For example, a kindergarten teacher may have several Spanish-speaking students, and have all students say the months of the year in English, and then repeat them in Spanish. This is an example of scaffolding a lesson; the students are still learning the months of the year, but being able to use their native language gave them more understanding of the content. 

Reading specialist/other qualified practitioners. Sometimes it may be in the student’s best interest for the teacher to contact another teacher or specialist in an effort to provide the necessary resources for the student (Helfrich et. al 2011).  

ResourcA graphic with two weekly calendars. The calendars are identical but the top one is in Spanish and the bottom is in English. The text reads "Days of the Week" and lists the days on the include:

Native language within the classroom – An example could be including a calendar with the weeks written in English and in Spanish

Ohio English Language Proficiency (ELP) StandardsThe Ohio Department of Education provides standards of proficiency for students throughout their years of school. For our age group, teachers can look at the ELP standards for kindergarten, grade 1, and grades 2-3.

Guidelines for Identifying English Language Learners –  At our targeted age group (preK – 2nd grade), it may be more difficult to identify an English learner in the classroom than in a high school setting, for example. The Ohio Department of Education provides a Language Usage Survey to give to students that may be English Learners, to give both teacher and student a baseline of where their language proficiency is at.

Effective literacy instruction for learners with complex support needs by Copeland and Keefe (textbook): This book is a resource for teachers who are trying to adapt curriculum for students with disabilities; the authors talk about bridging the gap between the experiences of students and what they could experience in the future when teachers create accommodations for them.

Literacy video with Karen Erickson and David Koppenhaver In the video, a professor and a director of learning and disability studies discuss different strategies for literacy learning, highlighting that one on one time with the teacher isn’t the only way to differentiate literacy instruction.

Model Curriculum for English Learners (universal design)The Ohio Department of Education provides strategies to incorporate into curriculum for English Learners in the classroom. (website): This website provides a plethora of teaching strategies for literacy, ranging from how to adapt for students with disabilities to scholarly articles about current events such as the state of national reading scores. Many of the articles and videos on this website provide methods that can be implemented directly into the classroom. (webpage): This specific article details how important literacy rich environments are in helping students develop their literacy, and teachers can use the examples listed here to create a literacy rich environment in their classrooms.

Stages of Second Language AcquisitionThis video goes through the stages of second-language acquisition, which describes the process in how a student develops their second-language skills. When teachers can identify these stages, it can be beneficial for both the student and teacher. 

Final Thoughts

There are many resources that can be utilized by educators to make the literacy learning experience accessible for students from many different backgrounds. Using these resources can enable teachers to be more effective in their methodology when working with students who have limited access to materials, are experiencing poverty, have a language barrier, or have differing needs to their other students. Teaching students as individuals rather than generalizing concepts for the entire class will assist them in meeting their own individual success level.

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