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Multilingualism and Multiculturalism in Preschool: Why We Teach


This article shares the story of a partnership between a university campus preschool and an elementary education professor concentrating on multilingual family-based, funds of knowledge in schools. The preschool teacher integrated the theme, “Growing up Bilingual in Sunshine Room” throughout the classroom and home-learning activities. This project helped us as teachers understand the ongoing, active efforts we must make as advocates and activists to reframe the role of language and culture in our lives, and in the lives of our preschool-aged children. We learned the importance of reframing the value for language and culture in school spaces, and the ripple effect that such active, ongoing cultural recognition would have on families as learning partners in preschool.

Why We Teach
Building the connection between home and school is a very important component of the Sunshine Room preschool classroom. One way we learned about the many languages we spoke was through our family language board. We created simple boards for the vestibule and posted them above the children’s cubbies, posing questions like, “Do you know how to say friend in any other language” and  “Do you know how to say hello in any other language?” As families entered Sunshine Room, they conversed about the question and recorded their responses. They asked questions, reflected on home life and taught their children about others in the classroom. One parent observed, “ Look someone knows how to say friend in Spanish just like us, just like grandma.”

As part of an ongoing partnership, Sonia as teacher and Sharon as researcher connected ‘new words’ to literature during circle time. One day, Sharon read portions of Saturdays y Domingos by Alma Flor Ada to the four year olds. We reminded the children about the “Ways to Say” word maps from the vestibule (See Image One). As the children looked at the word map and listed to the book, they exclaimed, “I know lots of ways to say Hello! and Friend! I know lots of languages!”

The book shares the story of a child’s daily family life in two languages and cultures. After each page, the preschoolers talked about families speaking with and loving each other in multiple languages. They excitedly shared where they heard and spoke languages in addition to English: with mom or dad, grandma and grandpa at home; in Hebrew school, church, and karate class; during Dora and NiHao Kai Lan; with different teachers and staff at the preschool.

The excitement was a significant shift for some friends*, who at the beginning of the semester did not identify as bilingual or multilingual and were hesitant to talk about their linguistic experiences in the cultural contexts of their homes and neighborhood communities. Of the thirty children in the ethnically and linguistically diverse class, a few were simultaneously bilingual (consistently speaking another language in addition to English at home as well as developing bicultural identities). While most of our students did not identify as simultaneous bilinguals in a traditional sense, almost all of our students identified regular encounters with multiple languages in their lives. Some children were very willing to share their personal stories of being bilingual at home, while a few were hesitant or shy about their bilingualism—insisting they did not speak a language other than English (even though they did). In our post-class reflections as teachers, we wondered why the children had responded to the topic of being and becoming bilingual with such different, even contradictory emotions.


Throughout the Spring 2013 semester, Sonia integrated the theme, “Growing up Bilingual in Sunshine Room” throughout the classroom and home-learning activities (See the Table of Curriculum Activities at the end of this article). This project was in partnership with Sharon’s ongoing research about bilingual families conducted as part of the bilingual, bicultural concentration in elementary education at California State University Fullerton. The Sunshine Room projects were featured at a “Bilingual Families in US Schools” event on the university campus organized and facilitated by Sharon in conjunction with the Student Council for Exceptional Children and the Special Education Department. This event aimed to support future and current educators in understanding family perspectives about the multiple journeys of being/becoming bilingual at home and school.

Our Sunshine Room family flyer about the project stated, “We embrace the rich linguistic and cultural diversity in our room, and all of your ongoing efforts as families to share your lives with us in many languages. We strongly believe that language is a part of culture, and that growing up with a strong sense of self and belonging includes embracing our own languages and cultures, as well as learning about those of others.” This flyer emphasized that cultural pride, and honoring family cultural practices, would be integral to our understandings of language during the semester.

Yet, it would take a semester of enacting these values through various class and home activities to build the trust and respect needed for sharing about family lives. Being and becoming bilingual and bicultural is not neutral—we live in a politically charged society structured through English Only K-12 school policies and restrictive immigration laws. Children see racism and language discrimination on a regular basis, its implicit and explicit impacts on their lives. Although we did not address these political contexts directly, we became readily aware of the care we should take when talking with our students about being and becoming bilingual in their lives.

This project helped us understand the ongoing, active efforts we must make as teacher advocates and activists to reframe the role of language and culture in our lives, and in the lives of our preschool-aged children. We learned the importance of reframing the value for language and culture in school spaces, and the ripple effect that such active, ongoing cultural recognition would have on families as learning partners in our California preschool on a multilingual, multicultural university campus.

We began to see how our assumptions being and becoming bilingual did not easily parallel the experiences of our students. We imagined that a few students would feel at home in our project because they had parents who were bilingual as we had initially defined it (speaking two languages at home).  Yet, as the project progressed, the conversation about languages spread throughout the classroom. More students began to see themselves as speakers of languages in addition to English, and they conceptualized language through the cultural experiences they had everyday, both in and outside the classroom.

We began to deeply reflect as teachers about how our actions in the classroom require an examination of assumptions about language and culture, that through classroom conversations we can help students become more aware about the global question of who we are, and how we see ourselves in relation to the languages we speak and encounter every day.  We began to think about multilingualism and multiculturalism in terms of broader ways in which we teach about differences and similarities with our students in relation to language and culture. Sonia recounts:

During circle time one morning, I shared with my friends a new T-chart we would be putting up in our Sunshine classroom (See Image Two). I opened the discussion by asking, “What do you think this is?” The students responded: “It’s a teacher thing”,  “It’s a game” and “It’s kindergarten stuff” (we had been talking a lot about kindergarten).

“Well let me tell you,” I replied, “This is a special chart with a very special question: Do you speak another language?” Do any of our Sunshine friends, any of you, speak another language?”

Hands flew in the air, and four-year-old voices started pouring out their language experiences: “Hola” “Uno, dos, tres”, “Ciao”… I recorded their words on a piece of paper. Then I replied, “It sounds like some of us do speak another language. See how this chart helped us find out.” The students put their names on the Yes/No chart, deciding if they personally spoke another language.

We found a special spot for our chart in the classroom so that the children could re-visit their responses and add new words. We incorporated literacy by reviewing the letters in our name and the sounds they make. The children became very excited. One child in particular became the organizer of the group; and, as parents dropped their children off in the days to come, she would rush over, pass them a name card, and ask, “Do you speak another language?”

This sparked discussions with the parents who recalled family members speaking another language and words the child may know. One child was adamant that he did not speak “languages.” Another child brought up words in Spanish from the TV show Dora. At that moment, the child—previously hesitant—said, “Hey I watch Dora… Adios! Salta!” He began to jump with excitement.  At that moment our “Sunshine Organizer” said, “Hey, you do speak another language.” The child then moved his name from the “NO” area of our chart to the “YES.”

After the child moved his name to the “YES” column, I immediately acknowledged what he had done: “I noticed you moved your name on our chart. Do you know another language?” The child began to tell me some words he had heard on TV and talked about his grandma, who sometimes “says those words too.” I told him how my grandmother speaks Spanish and how I like hearing how words sound in other languages. I gave him a simple example, “Hello” and “Hola.” I pointed out that even though they sound different they mean the same thing. I wrote the words down. Right away, he noticed another similarity, “H” and “H.”  We continued the conversation, sharing “Spanish Words” our grandmothers had taught us. Then we began to talk about how we can teach others, just like our grandmas taught us.

Another realization we made is that understanding and embracing diversity in preschool means opening invitations for children and families to communicate and learn in multiple languages, to shift the expectations that learning occurs in English only or that the school only values one language for communicating with families. These invitations to communicate and learn multilingually became an invaluable way for us to learn about our children as complex people, and to build relationships with their families as contributing school members through the languages they speak. Sonia remembers:

One special assignment in Sunshine Room was our Name Homework**. I introduced the homework after reading the story, Chrysanthemum, by Kevin Henkes (See Chart). We wrote our names on a large piece of butcher paper, and talked about what it means to have a name and that we all have a name. Then I explained that, for homework, they could ask their family “their name story:” how they got their name. The very next day many stories flooded in (See Image Three). Stories of religious connections, meanings of names, family name connections and versions of names in other languages filled our room. For those who didn’t bring in homework that day, these circle times motivated them to tell their parents about sharing their name stories, and that they wanted to do tell their name story for homework soon. Together we learned that names make us special.

We talked about how we all look different and we may speak different languages, yet we all have names and a “Name Story.” The children were fascinated that First Author was named after a pink rose that is “First Author’s Special Name Story.” It is special because it is all about First Author and is different from everyone else. I also would bring up that even if two friends have the ‘SAME Name”, their “NAME STORY” would always be different.

During our circle time we put out our special sharing chair. The students came up with me and I read their stories. Alonzo told his name story, and his mother wrote it down: “It was a little tricky to find a name because it had to sound good in English and Spanish, and it had to start with an A. My mom liked Alvaro until she remembered the name of her childhood friend Lorezo. She always liked that name and it sparked a connection to Alonzo. Finally my parents decided that Alonzo was the name for me, and everybody loved it. My middle name also starts with an A, Adrian, like my dad.”

Emergent Curriculum
Family funds of knowledge are essential to our Sunshine Room program, an approach that embraces the celebration of self. Funds of knowledge are the rich assets, resources and skills that families engage in their everyday lives—funds that are often ignored or marginalized in traditional school curriculum. This project helped us envision how language/culture is central to family funds of knowledge through the development of flexible, emergent curriculum. For instance, we did not know who might share information about the languages they spoke, or what kinds of words and stories that sharing would entail. Student and family texts—their stories, drawings, paintings, and interactions—became classroom tools for dialog, play and literacy building.

We also did not know when parents would become involved, and opened invitations throughout the semester for family participation and sharing. The Name Homework was one such invitation. Another was the Bilingual Family Night that Sharon organized for students in education at Cal State Fullerton. Some of our parents were also students at the university, and one parent attend the Bilingual Family Night to learn more about the options for her daughter’s dual language schooling. Sonia reflects:

Following the Bilingual Family Night, one of my parents shared that she connected deeply to the Ballet Folklorico performance at the event. She told me how much time and effort the performances take, and revealed that she had been a dancer since she was a young preschooler herself. She described her elaborate dress and the makeup she used. I asked if she would bring in pictures of her in folklorico dress for the children to see.

One day, her daughter ran in to Sunshine Room and cried, ‘Teacher Sonia, Look!” She smiled and proudly held out a photograph of her mom in her traditional folklorico dress.

“Wow, how fancy and beautiful!” I replied.

I called other children over to see the picture. “Tell us about the picture,” I prompted. The daughter pointed out the colors and movement. She said, “This is my mom, she is a dancer, soon I will be a dancer just like my mom.”

Intentional Actions
During the semester, we learned that teaching toward diversity means including a celebration of language, ethnicity and bodily self in regular classroom play. As teachers, we learned to teach about social justice in terms of recognizing people’s value in the words we speak, the cultural traditions in which we participate, and our physical appearances. We had explicitly targeted the inclusion of multiple languages and cultural celebrations throughout the semester, but we had not realized the importance of rethinking the relationship between colors the children played with and the way we see our own skin. This too is a component of being and becoming bilingual in preschool. Sharon reflects:

One morning as I refilled our easel paint colors, I realized that I had become used to putting out bright primary colors on a daily basis. "Why not use brown or neutral tones?" I thought. I put out several natural tones, skin color based paints.

After breakfast, two girls came over to the easel. They noticed the change immediately, exclaiming, "Hey, what happened? Eww! Why do we only have brown to paint with?" From their negative response, I knew I had to step in. I explained to the girls, “ Brown is beautiful. Can you help me think of beautiful things that are brown?" One child answered, “Chocolate!” Then the other child said, “Oh, I like chocolate.” Then many ideas poured out: her mothers eyes, the branches in the cage of our pet walking sticks.

Then, I said, “I know another beautiful brown thing. My skin is a shade of brown.” I then showed them an easel color that most resembled my skin tone. Then magic happened. The girls both began matching their skin shades with the colors, even mixing colors to make new shades. I suggested they paint self-portraits. I found a few mirrors in our closet and taped them on the easel. Together they painted themselves and even painted each other.

A few days later I extended the exploration with another skin tone activity. I created a new chart, using free paint sample strips from the home improvement store. I titled the chart, “What Shade are You?” (See Image Five). The children, parents and teachers all matched up their skin tone to the paint samples. We posted it in our classroom. I related the chart to their self-portraits, talking about how “Brown is beautiful.” I suggested that we need to use words and pictures to celebrate ourselves in all the ways we look and all the languages we use.

A recent California law has created mandatory two-year kindergarten (Transitional Kindergarten for 4-5 year olds and Kindergarten for 5-6 year olds). In the flurry to create curriculum for this new additional year of early childhood schooling, we are poised to re-examine the ways we educate our youngest students. Our experiences suggest that pushing four and five year olds into a fast preparation for English literacy (and testing in grade two) denies them the opportunity to see themselves as dynamic contributors to a multilingual, multicultural world.

Through classroom invitations and actions We watched the Sunshine Room children view language and culture differently, rethinking what they knew and how they saw themselves and each other. Although we are not teaching in a bilingual classroom, we embraced the multilingualism of everyday life in the United States. In this environment, our children did not view the use of other languages as a pathway to English literacy, or as a series of borrowed words incorporated into the English language or assimilated into mainstream American culture. An initial cursory identification with multilingualism in popular media grew into a deeper realization that language and culture are dynamic, vibrant life experiences to be celebrated at school, as in Image Six. Through an engaged, celebratory and critical engagement with diversity, so much learning happened for the classroom community. And this is why we teach.

*Friends: In the Children’s Center at CSUF, we use the term “friends” rather than “boys and girls” to denote the relationships we want to cultivate among our children. We also prefer “friends” because it is gender neutral and does not privilege either sex/gender.

** Homework: In Sunshine Room, we have a different definition of “homework” than the traditional, school-based requirement of completing independent, skill-based, test-driven worksheets in English. Instead, homework in Sunshine Room is a time for families to work together while enriching early skills, all while building a foundation of love for learning. We encouraged the use of any/all languages the family would like in these optional activities.

Table of Curriculum activities



What is the Story of your Name?

Home-based family learning activity. Families tell the story of the child’s name. The child writes his/her name and counts the letters in the name. Use of different languages encouraged.

How Did You Play this Weekend?

Home-based family learning activity. Child draws a way that s/he played over the weekend. Child then narrates the drawing for the adult family member, who writes down the narration. Child adds any writing to label the drawing. Use of different languages encouraged.

Ways to Say… “Hello” and “Friend”

Word Charts: Children brainstormed ways to say “hello” and “friend” while the teacher charted their responses.

Canvas Painting: Children created two collaborative paintings with the words they brainstormed from the charts.  (Image Six)

Do You Speak Another Language?

Children placed their name card in a T-Chart labeled “Do You Speak Another Language? Yes/No.” Children discussed their responses with their peers, teachers and families.

What Shade Are You?

Children selected viewed a spectrum of skin tone paint swatches and compared the tones with their own skin. They charted their names next to the ones they thought looked like theirs.

Self-Portrait Painting

Children mixed paints to match their skin tones and painted self portraits using mirrors.  They also painted at the open easels only with white, browns and blacks, rather than rainbow colors.

Reading Books about Languages and Cultures

During circle time and as part of the classroom book center, we read books about languages and culture. Here is a short list:

Abdulla, R. (2010). The sandwich swap. Hyperion Books.
Ada, A. F. (2004). I love Saturdays y domingos. New York:
Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
Cheltenham Elementary Kindergarten & Dwight, L. (1991).  
We are all alike. We are all different. New York: Scholastic.
Garza, C. L. (2005). Family pictures: Cuadras de familia.
San Francisco: Children’s Book Press.
Henkes, K. (2008). Chrysanthemum. Mulberry Books.
Kindersley, A. & Kindersley, B. (1995). Children just like me: A
unique celebration of children around the world. London: DK.
Martin, R. (1998). The rough-face girl. London: Puffin Books.
Recorvitz, H. (2004). My name is Yoon. New York: Farrar, Straus
& Giroux.
Soto, G. (1996). Too many tamales. London: Puffin Books.
Steptoe, J. (2008) Mufaro’s beautiful daughters: An African tale.
London: Puffin Books.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS: Sonia Nunez is the assistant director of the Children’s Center at CSUF and a preschool teacher of 14 years. Her experience includes working with diverse families through campus childcare. Sonia is committed to teaching “Self Celebration,” allowing children and families to be proud of who they are and what they stand for.

Sharon Verner Chappell is Assistant Professor in the elementary and bilingual education department at California State University Fullerton. She taught bilingual children in early childhood in public schools in Texas and California for many years, has volunteered as both a parent and teacher in preK to 1st grade in conjunction with her research at Cal State Fullerton. She recently co-authored The Arts and Emergent Bilingual Youth (2013), which features vignettes from early childhood educators teaching bilingually through play and creative arts. She participates in the Orange County Office of Education's TK Educators Network, and is committed to just, equitable, and inclusive pedagogies in early childhood.


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