Policy: The Bilingual Method

In this article we review our procedures regarding bilingual practice - what words we teach and why and how we can track them and communicate progress to parents

It’s worth talking through bilingualism as a concept. It is defined as an “ability to use two languages in everyday life” (Li Wei 2000) and there are many myths that need busting and evidence that needs to be put forward to reinforce why we do what we do.

Some myths

Can bilingual immersion create language delay? - There is no evidence to suggest that raising a child bilingually causes any more language delay than monolingual children (see Paradis, Genesee, & Crago, 2010; Petitto & Holowka, 2002) even though parent’s perceptions often run contrary to empirical data on this point. Bilingual children tend to know the same volume of words but they understand them across two languages (“conceptual vocabulary”). So whereas a monolingual might know 50 words, a bilingual might know 25, but in two languages. (Marchman et al., 2010)

Is it better to start earlier? Simply put, yes. People familiar with the concept of the “critical period” for language acquisition (that being a specific window of opportunity for a learner of a language to develop any real fluency being achieved by age 5-7) is a widely accepted point. Meta linguistic capabilities degrade with age ((Birdsong & Molis, 2001; Hakuta, Bialystok, & Wiley, 2003).

Does bilingual immersion make your child smarter? There’s been much hype about the “bilingual edge” (King & Mackey; Callahan) and it appears to be meted out in evidence. Outside of the obvious benefits of multilingual capabilities, there is evidence of social adaptability and empathy (Biyalstok & Senman 2004) as well as cognitive advantages (Biyalstok, Craik & Luk 2012) in analytical reasoning,  problem solving skills and memory retention (Brito & Barr 2012).

Our Approach

What is key is consistency: the more you commit to the programme the better the linguistic outcome. Families who start earlier and commit more time, will have greater chances of second language fluency arising. And our own observations points to the need for children from monolingual families to commit full time for oral fluency to emerge, even if listening and understanding (comprehension) is achieved.

And to give children an equitable chance of exposure to both languages, we ensure that each key group benefits from a lead practitioner in each language: one Chinese and one English, who will only speak their native tongue with their key children through day to day activities, save in the instance of behaviour management wherein primary language may be required to affect instructive change in behaviour. And as the children mature, the curricula structures that we employ for their learning in preschool adopt a rotating responsibility between these practitioners in taking lead linguistic responsibility for the running of adult led / focussed activities, which is supported by the routine and the structure that preschool employs in our Google Calendars. See our model for more information of implementation in our Practice Procedures

The Importance of Music

Hatching Dragons employs the basic pedagogical principle of “Talk & Sing” to nurture phonological awareness, language and communicative abilities through something enjoyable and, principally, memorable. We all remember the nursery rhymes of our childhood, after all, and that is because of the cadence, harmony and musicality that embeds the words in long-term memory. 

Music interweaves through all areas of learning and development which can be seen throughout our programmes and age groups and we look to identify the four aspects in our practice and how children respond to it to know that we’re achieving the impact we want. Music can be a way of exploring, communicating and responding to experience. Making music with others can be a social experience whether this be parent-baby/carer-baby exchanging coos, or two or more children making music with pots, pans or traditional instruments. This interaction with others, whether this be with one other person or a group, is personal to each individual and is often an expression of feelings. All vocal communication is comprised of musical elements such as pitch, rhythm and timbre, demonstrating that musicality is an intrinsic part of being human. Music should be seen as a core component of children’s learning and should be shared with young children to ensure they have broad, balanced and rounded experiences in early childhood and beyond. For more guidance, see Musical Development Matters and the Hatching Dragons Bilingual Song Book for resources.

The Importance of Human Interaction

Children develop their ability to talk through listening, mimicking and engaging with their adult carers. You think of mums and dads who (should) spend their days (not on their phones) walking around with their baby cooing and gesticulating, describing the world for them and pointing at the places, people, plants, animals and objects that can be found in their immediate vicinity. It is critical for children’s development that such human interaction is maximised in the early years for them to develop their understanding of their world with adults facilitating that understanding by pointing, referencing and helping children develop semantic categories of information regarding their understanding of the world. 

Ours is a pedagogy of “Talk & Sing” - maximising the opportunities for our bilingual educators to engage and interact with our children in their play. To learn our bilingual songs, and to structure their language through regular, consistent and constant interaction, pointing and articulating on the child’s behalf the items and objects within their environment to help them build their understanding of our world. We never replace teachers with media - stories are read, not played; songs are sung, not played. For children to learn, they need to see your mouths move, so enjoy, engage, sing and story-tell. As much as possible, as regularly as possible. 

Day to Day Practice: General Principles

For Guidance on Bilingual Schools Implementation, read the E.L.I.A.S guidelines

Consistency of Exposure
  • Hatching Dragons employs a 50:50 immersion model to assist in primary and second language acquisition and is based on extant bilingual programmes in the US/Australia/ Singapore and in China.
  • The intention is for children to benefit from equal exposure to both languages throughout the day
Key Worker Deployment & Language Use
  • We assign two key workers to each child: a primary and a secondary: native speakers in either English or Mandarin to act as primary carers for that child - they are mainly responsible for tracking the child’s development through the system. It is important to note that in our nurseries, the whole team has a collective responsibility for the safeguarding, welfare and education of the children within the setting and in the room in particular. Not one staff cares for their key child - it is a team effort. The key worker is responsible for the administrative controls on learning and development, planning and reporting primarily. 
  • The primary key worker should be the native speaker to the child’s primary home language and the secondary will be a native speaker of the second language the family is aiming to acquire (be it Mandarin or English)
  • Each should only speak their native tongue to the child wherever possible, maximising his / her exposure to both languages as consistently as possible.
Caveats / Exclusions to the Rule
  • Should the child’s welfare only be met with communication in their native tongue, be it English or Chinese, or in emergencies / serious contexts (behaviour management) that require intervention and quick explanation, the secondary key worker may use the child’s mother tongue 
Talk & Sing: Maximise Interaction
  • Practitioners should remember that interaction with children happens at all ages (preverbal babies through to preschoolers). In fact it is as important to converse / communicate with babies so they can learn to mimic the sounds of your voice. See the pedagogical statement for more information
  • Room Leaders are required to ensure that their room teams regularly and consistently interact with children of all ages in their primary language - use of music and rhyme is also critical
Rotating Weekly Routine:
  • As children graduate through the setting and get closer to school age - from Blue Dragons through to Dragon Flight - we start to introduce more structured, adult led activities or “focussed activities”. Prior to this age, the children are focussed on “continuous provision” - freely accessible learning materials for the bilingual team to help them navigate to foster their individual interests in self-exploration and learning. Chinese staff will still only speak, sing and communicate in Chinese with the children in continuous provision
  • The weekly timetable of focussed activities rotates responsibility from English speaking Key Worker to Chinese speaking Key worker throughout the week to allow equal ownership between practitioners of key parts to the curriculum.
  • What this means in practice is that on Monday, the English practitioner may deliver the Maths class in English, but on Tuesday, it will be the Mandarin practitioner who delivers the programme in Mandarin. 
  • Rotating the learning programmes in such a fashion ensures that children will benchmark and associate their learning in one language and tie it to the second, ensuring continuity of learning and language acquisition.

Thematically Aligned Learning

As per guidance, in infancy, children are expected to acquire language in line with the McArthur Bates Communicative Developmental Inventories in both English and Chinese (8-30 months old) and our own Master List in vocabulary (see here and our emerging framework here). These words represent our frameworks and targets for children to acquire in the context of our annual plan

Each month, school leaders are to determine the monthly thematic focus of learning, along with the language list of words, by age group, that will be taught by the team. By “taught” we mean, that activities will feature the concepts consistently and practitioners will be tasked with repetition of these anchoring words as much as possible to ensure that children first listen/understand and then repeat and say the words delivered in both English and Chinese / second language. Visual Aids are very useful as a tool to convey the image of the concept / thing, and then the pronunciation in either language for children to master (and then be tested throughout the course of the month).

Primary & Second Language Tracking:

As per the EYFS, , Communication & Language (any language) can be broken into:

  • Listening, Attention & Understanding
  • Speaking (Oral Fluency)

As bilingual educators we need effective systems to both outline: 

  • what thematically aligned language we are teaching the children each month (see parent communication policy RE Newsletters and language lists RE our annual plan, which should be put up on the rooms boards each month for parents to be able to review, along with resource lists and books relevant to help with home based learning) - this is our statement of intent for parents to measure us against in terms of their child’s developing language capability 
  • What systems we have in place to track, record and assess a child’s primary and secondary language acquisition rates against his / her age and stage (and in line with our thematically aligned language

The "Second Language observation" in EY Log - Mandarin / Spanish

EY Log has the ability to customise the types of observations you're making and one of our categories is second language observation -  "Mandarin" or "Spanish". These can be delivered as group observation, in that the English speaking practitioner may record a video of the second language-led practice that is delivering the language programme, upload the video as a group observation for multiple children in the key group and save it in draft form for the second language teacher /  practitioner to update with content and the specific words taught in the course of the activity, with links to the language list on the knowledge base for those interested in downloading / accessing the resource

Clearly this is not as good as individual observations that track the individual linguistic progress of the key person's key child, so second language practitioners should focus on:

A) Understanding the language list for the month - the thematically linked language that should be taught / scaffolded and used in day to day interactions as much as possible over the course of the month

B) Implementing those words in meaningful, engaging activities - song, story time, writing and memory games that are contextually relevant to the child's learning (and fun!)

C) tracking and recording their progress towards knowledge and utilisation of these new words in their spoken interactions and listening comprehension BOTH in group and individual formats over the course of the month. 

Our Service Level Agreement is to provide parents with

1. Group observation of Second Language each week - video showcasing the best of our second language-led activities

2. One individual observation each month / week specific to the linguistic development of the child

What Goes in the Observation?

The second language teachers need to be mindful of the intended words for the month that are published in the language lists and ensure that the observation marks off each of those words as emerging / developing and secure in both speaking and listening comprehension. It is advisable for practitioners to have these lists printed on their room boards for child knowledge / assessment on an ongoing basis


Room leaders need to ensure that their second language teams are delivering on the above KPIs and managers need to generate monthly observational trackers from EY Log to evaluate the outputs of the second language observations, along with quality assurance of the content to ensure that it is of sufficient standard to prove that we're delivering.


Baby Word Tracker App ™ (Apple App Store link)

Managers can use the Baby Word Tracker app from Oxford Brookes at their discretion and if they think it would speed up and add value to their teams:
  •  Can be downloaded to the class tablets (ipads only) with user profiles set up for each child
  • Allows for English and Chinese to be inputted and tracked - teachers just have to change the language input function on their ipad to Chinese to type in words acquired and what form of speech (noun, verb etc) has been evidenced (listening / understanding or Speaking or Both)
  • Graphical data is represented on acquisition rates


  • Managers should install the app on each room’s tablet and create profiles for each child in each room
  • Room leaders are then instructed to keep it open and add in words between the team as and when evidenced
  • Administrator accounts are not supported at this time, so Managers will have to login and check each different user account manually to review progress
  • Room Leaders need to submit monthly updates of a child’s progress by taking a screenshot of the graphical data and word lists / export for submission to parents

Chinese Resources