Date of Graduation


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Education (Ed.D.)


International and Multicultural Education


International & Multicultural Education EdD

First Advisor

Stephen Cary

Second Advisor

Sedique Popal

Third Advisor

Sarah Capitelli


The population of English Language Learners (ELLs) in the United States has been growing at an increasingly rapid rate (U. S. Census Bureau, 2010), and nowhere is this growth more evident than in U.S. public schools. As of school year 2010-11, nearly 25% of all students in the California public schools were English Language Learners (California Department of Education, 2013).

The focus of this study was to explore to what extent this growing number of ELLs was developing English language in different types of preschool activities. The study investigated whether bilingual preschool children would engage more and use more of their second language (English) during teacher-structured (academic) or free play (non-academic) activities. In addition, the researcher investigated the perceptions of preschool teachers and parents of bilingual preschool children regarding the effects of academic and non-academic instructional approaches on student engagement and English language development.

Study participants consisted of eight bilingual preschool children, twelve preschool teachers, and eight parents of the children participants. The children were between the ages of three and five. The ethnic background of the children varied and included Japanese, Portuguese, Mexican and Indonesian.

The researcher utilized both quantitative and qualitative research approaches in this study. Data sources included 285 preschool observations made at one preschool in Northern California, teacher and parent surveys, and teacher and parent interviews. Data analysis consisted of descriptive statistics that included frequencies/percentages, means, and standard deviations. In addition, children's observed scores were also analyzed by normative scales using standardized z-scores.

The findings of this study indicated that bilingual children engaged and interacted dramatically more during free play (non-academic) preschool classroom activities than during teacher-structured (academic) activities. The free play activities during which children were the most engaged and used their second language, English, the most were: pretend play, free play, and monkey bars. Results demonstrated that unstructured free-play activities served as an affordance for building language, academic skills, and cultural capital. The teacher and parent survey and interview findings indicated that preschool teachers and parents perceive free play (non-academic) preschool activities as being more beneficial toward children's engagement and English language development than academic (teacher-structured) activities.

The study's major implication is that free play (non-academic) activities may be much more helpful in developing preschool ELL students' English language skills compared to teacher-structured (academic) activities. Greater English language development in the early preschool years may help students become more successful as they enter Kindergarten. Moreover, the importance of free-play activities may extend beyond preschool classrooms, and the researcher recommends that more unstructured social-based activities for ELLs be implemented in K-12 classrooms.

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