Update: Helping children whose first language is not English

We all know that for children entering a preschool/ childcare setting for the first time it can be daunting enough. Add to this the introduction of a completely new language, and often a new cultural situation and you can see why settling in is more difficult for these children.

As parents from other cultures understandably value their child speaking their own language and aim for them to become bilingual it is often in preschool that children encounter English for the first time. It is important that we understand the value of bilingualism for the child, while supporting them to eventually use English on a daily basis in our services.

You will see below that there are some great practical resources available which you can use with children in your services.

For children who are encountering a new language there seems to be agreement that language learning goes through a number of phases:

– speaking the home language (the child realises it doesn’t work)

- the silent stage (listening to the new language and learning routines)

- repetition and language play, use of formulae, routines and single words

– more complex English or productive language use eventually follows

(from https://www.naldic.org.uk/eal-teaching-and-learning/outline-guidance/early-years/)

The NCCA stress that the silent phase is not something to be overly concerned about, it is normal for children to take time to observe and listen in a completely new environment/ with a new language. It is vital at this time to provide reassurance and encouragement. If possible some use of the child’s first language is helpful at this stage. Including the child in activities with small groups of children and giving as many opportunities for child to child interaction is helpful. It is through these interactions and those with the teacher that the child will eventually learn language. At first this is seen with the use of single words and phrases, singing rhymes are also among the first use of English to be seen. It may take longer for the child to gain in confidence to use more complex English but with good support we eventually see this happening.

In the Aistear guide Supporting Children to Become Bilingual. Birth to 6 years. There are the following suggestions for the early stages:

Speak slowly and clearly. • Use pictures such as a picture-timetable to explain what is going to happen next. • Use gesture, pointing and objects to help the child understand. Encourage the children to do the same. • Identify words you use often and repeat them, for example, toilet, lunch, book and home. Have pictures of these items displayed low down so children can point to them. • Make short comments and name things that the child is interested in or is doing. • Give children extra time to respond as they will take longer to think of what to say.

Finally, patience is required, it can take children up to two years to be able to have a conversation in English, and up to five until they are fully fluent (NCCA).

Practical Resources


Does your child speak more than one language at home? Some guides below to support the second language acquisition process. 

 Bilingual Leaflet - English

 Bilingual Leaflet - Gaeilge/ Bileog Dátheangach

 Bilingual Leaflet - Russian/ Двуязычный листок 

 Bilingual Leaflet - Portuguese/ Folheto Bilingue

 Bilingual Leaflet - Polish / Dwujęzyczna ulotka

 Bilingual Leaflet - Malay / Risalah Bilingual

 Bilingual Leaflet - Czech / Dvojjazyčný leták

 Bilingual Leaflet - Arabic / نشرة ثنائية اللغ

Integrate Ireland. English as a Second Language: Activities for very young Learners. http://www.ncca.ie/uploadedfiles/curriculum/inclusion/activities.pdf

This activity sheet has some useful ideas for the early years’ practitioner to use with children learning English as a second language, which include:

Suggestions of play activities to learn basic language, including learning to answer ‘what is your name’, describing family, body parts, food, days of the week. Using puppets, playing games to help interact & express themselves.

Also, from the UK based Early Learning HQ, there are ideas for practical activities: http://www.earlylearninghq.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Julie-Cigman-Strategies.pdf

and here http://www.earlylearninghq.org.uk/lesson-plans-activity-ideas/eal-esl/


Referenced in the blog:

NCCA Aistear guide. Supporting Children to Become Bilingual. Birth to 6 years. http://www.ncca.ie/en/Practice-Guide/Planning-and-Assessing-using-Aistears-Themes/Resources-for-Sharing/Supporting-children-to-become-bilingual-Birth-6-years-.pdf

NALDIC. Supporting bilingual children in the Early Years.