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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

English Learners Opinion

ELL Students’ Home Language Is an Asset, Not a ‘Barrier’

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 28, 2017 19 min read
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Over ten percent of the student population in the United States is comprised of English Language Learners. Given that reality, the role of a student’s home language merits discussion.

Today, Melissa Eddington, Wendi Pillars, Tracey Flores, Sandy Ruvalcaba Carrillo and Mary Ann Zehr offer their thoughts. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Melissa, Wendi and Tracey on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Use of students’ primary language (called L1, native language, home language or heritage language) in the ESL classroom has been a controversial topic. Some claim that its use can hinder learning English and can result in students getting accustomed to using it as a crutch. However, recent research has also found that careful and strategic use of a student’s primary language—whether through a translation by a teacher, peer tutor, bilingual aide, or assistance from students themselves—can in fact help English language learning, particularly in understanding grammar concepts, vocabulary, instructions, and in developing teacher-student and student-student relationships.

There will be times, however, when limiting primary language use could be important. For example, during certain classroom activities, I might say that the next ten minutes is an English-only time. The chances of this request being generally respected is high in my classroom because students know that I do not typically restrict their own use of L1 at any point (and in fact often use it in the strategic ways I’ve previously mentioned).

Acknowledging, celebrating, and encouraging the use of our students’ home languages is just one of the many ways we can look at them through the lens of assets—and not deficits—that they bring to the learning process.

You might also be interested in previous columns here about Teaching English Language Learners.

Response From Melissa Eddington

Melissa Eddington is an ELL educator from Central Ohio. She has been teaching ELLs for 14 years—and16 overall. She’s an advocate for her students everyday in the classroom:

Imagine you have a student who entered your classroom where the only language spoken is one unfamiliar to them...what do you do? As an educator, a student’s home language plays an important role in the classroom. According to Frank Genesee, a professor in the Psychology Department at McGill University, Montreal, in his book The Home Language: An English Language Learners Most Valuable Resource, “With respect to ELLs, there is undeniable and growing evidence that the home language of ELLs is of considerable benefit to their overall academic success.” We need to nurture our students by using their home language as we assist them in acquiring their new language.

Some Instances where using the student’s home language in the classroom may be necessary are as follows:

  1. Understanding Directions: Students may need the directions spoken to them in their home language for full understanding and for success. It is crucial for the teacher to model as well for the new student. With translation and modeling, the student has a higher chance of being successful, which is our goal.
  2. Connecting Vocabulary: Students who have a solid understanding of their home language can connect new English words to the known words for success in the classroom. It is found that “knowledge, skills, concepts, and ideas that a student learns in their first language can transfer into their learning of the second language...” (Russell, J. and Wariua-Nyalwal, P. (2015) “Research-Proven Strategies for Improving Content Vocabulary for Middle School English Language Learners.” International Journal of Business and Social Science). Consider having the student write the vocabulary words in both their home and new language for deeper understanding.
  3. Classroom Routines and School Tour: Students who do not understand the language spoken in the classroom need to have the classroom routines (including rules and expectations) translated into their home language and be given a tour of the school because they are held to the same standard as the English speaking students. According to the Ohio Department of Education, in Teaching English Language Learners: What Classroom and Content Teachers Need to Know About English Language Learners, “allow students with the same first language to discuss the learning materials. Often higher proficiency students can help new arrivals.” Set the new student up with a buddy, preferably one who speaks their home language, so they are comfortable and feel safe.

Of course there are additional reasons why a student’s home language would need to be utilized in an English speaking classroom, these are just a few. I would encourage you to explore more. A student’s home language is something we should never try to take away from a student.

Response From Wendi Pillars

Wendi Pillars, NBCT, has been teaching students with English as a second/foreign language needs in grades K-12, both stateside and overseas, for 21 years. She has also taught Algebra, History, vocational classes, and Health and PE. She is the author of Visual Notetaking for Educators: A Teacher’s Guide to Student Creativity, as well as several articles on best practices for ELLs, educational neuroscience, and teacher leadership. A lifelong learner, she loves using creativity to empower her learners. She can be reached on Twitter @wendi322:

ESL teachers know that optimizing students’ linguistic resources can be a game-changer, but it’s tricky business. We don’t realize the advantage we have as English speakers until we are outside of our language bubble, become part of a minority language scenario, and are unable to use it as the tool it has always been for us. You juggle constant active listening, observing facial cues and body language, translating and interpreting everything you can because you’re not sure when and what to filter, plus the anxiety of responding to teacher questions—whew! Our language learners have a LOT on their mental plates.

We must acknowledge L1 as a valuable resource and judicious tool for learning to help ease their mental loads. But ultimately, language is power, and in American schools that power is based in English. It is the language of testing, and of most instruction and student-teacher interaction.

The goal is for students to use their L1 intentionally to access English. Our role is to teach students to value their language as a tool for comparing, accessing, and contextualizing information. Encourage students to think deeply by showing that language learning is both a perspective and a process. Value your students’ knowledge and skills as incredible resources upon which to build new learning, and do so explicitly.

From my experience in multilingual classrooms, I see the transformative power of “students as experts” when teaching others about their native cultures and languages. Watching various language learners craft English into their common tool for communication is fascinating. The knowledge of their own language(s) serves as a foundation for patterns, concepts, and usage in other languages. Much evidence has shown that the stronger a student is in his/ her L1, the more readily they can learn another language. Encouraging students to talk about, and family members to continue communicating in, the L1 are critical for this reason.

This semester my English learners are uniquely monolingual. All of my students are Spanish speakers, and we’ve optimized that in a number of ways. We combine ESL I, II, and III classes frequently, which makes for fabulous grouping scenarios, partnering, and opportunities for student leadership. We’ve had the pleasure of several bilingual guests, who have been gracious enough to speak in both languages during their presentations. Doing so allows students to hear complex language used naturally, helping concepts stick for all students and facilitating subsequent conversations about the content and speakers.

We also use bilingual textbooks, so that even our newest learners can pull concepts directly from the text. They learn to analyze cognates, make educated inferences based on phrases and words they already know, access nuanced ideas, and navigate complex grammar and vocabulary from the start. These textual experiences further increase motivation since they are typically culturally relevant. When written texts are unavailable, we use podcasts, TED talks, video clips, live broadcasts, and even former students to supplement student learning through a broad array of multimodal inputs.

Considering language as a tool rather than a barrier is a mighty fine place to begin, no matter how you say it.

Response From Tracey Flores

Tracey Flores is a PhD candidate in English Education at Arizona State University (ASU). She is a former English Language Development (ELD) and Language Arts teacher who worked in elementary classrooms for eight years. Her research focuses on adolescent Latina girls and mothers’ language and literacy practices and on using family literacy as a springboard for advocacy, empowerment, and transformation for students, families, and teachers:

“So, if you really want to hurt me, talk badly about my language. Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity—I am my language. Until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself.” ~Gloria Anzaldúa

It is 1962, a young Latina girl, in 4th grade, with long black hair and curious dark brown eyes is in her classroom after the school day has come to an end. She is alone. In her right hand is a small piece of white chalk, which she raises to the chalkboard and writes, “I will not speak Spanish on the playground.” This sentence, she has been told by her teacher, must be written 100 hundred times on the blackboard, punishment for speaking Spanish on the playground.

This is my mother’s story. I cannot write this blog post without sharing this very personal story that my mother shared with me.

Each time she shares it with me, she becomes that young girl again. As she relives the torment of this moment, I can hear the deep pain in her voice. This moment of filled with shame, ridicule and guilt was not one isolated experience. It was a series of experiences that she endured as a child and young adult growing up bilingual and biliterate.

As a former English Language Development (ELD) teacher working within a state with English Only policies, this narrative of shame, ridicule and guilt continues to be part of the lived experiences of many children learning English as an additional language. In Arizona, students are tracked into classrooms based on language proficiency and receive 4-hours of skills-based language and literacy instruction. This mandate is based on the assumption that the acquisition of language will happen within one school year and does not take into account the rich linguistic and literacy practices that children and youth bring to our classrooms from their homes and communities.

Under restrictive policies and mandates like the one in my home state, many of our students learning English as an additional language enter the classroom already viewed as “lacking” or as “blank slates” in need of remediation. Rather than stigmatize the language and literacy practices that our students bring from their homes and communities, we should work toward recognizing the value of these resources and their place within our learning communities and schools.

From my own experiences, I open my classroom door to you, and provide a glimpse into the ways that I created space for my students’ home language in my own learning community, even under very restrictive English-only policies.

  1. Support Parents’ in Sustaining Home Language: There are some misconceptions made by teachers and families about language policies in schools. Our job is not to discourage families from sustaining home language, but rather to support families in their commitment to teaching their child their home language. This is a gift!
  2. Home Language/Literacy Dig: Invite students to enter their homes as ethnographers and record all the different ways language and literacy is used in their homes and communities. This can uncover practices and “funds of knowledge” that can be included in the curriculum throughout the school year.
  3. Dialogue Journals: Provide each student with a personal journal that is a shared writing space between the two of you. Give daily prompts or free writing time. Allow students the freedom to practice writing in any language without fear of judgement.
  4. Classroom Newsletter: Create a classroom newsletter with students and their families as reporters. Invite families to contribute stories, recipes, how-to-guides, etc. in the language of their choice. Print and distribute to all families.
  5. Family Writing Workshops: Create an after-school multilingual space for students and their families to draw, write and share stories in a variety of genres.

Even under restrictive policies and mandates, our classrooms must provide space for our students’ home languages. A student’s home language is a powerful tool for mediating learning. Through their home languages, the language of the heart, students first learned as children—how to love, to hope, to dream and to wonder. This in itself is a powerful resource to use in our classrooms to build learning communities where students and teachers can learn, thrive and live--together.

Response From Sandy Ruvalcaba Carrillo

Sandy Ruvalcaba Carrillo is a resource teacher for dual language learners and co-author of More Mirrors in the Classroom: Using Urban Children’s Literature to Increase Literacy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016) [Editor’s Note: You can read an interview I did with Sandy and her co-authors here):

Across the nation, districts vary in the language service delivery models that are implemented and often use a combination of programs. Decisions on which model to use are left in the hands of the local education agency and determining factors are state laws, population, resources, and the preference of the community. Language programs fall under one of two overarching goals, English development or bilingualism and biliteracy (Faulkner-Bond, et al., 2012; Garcia & Baker, 2007). These goals will drive how the home language is viewed and used: whether it is the means to acquiring English or developed so that students can understand, speak, read, and write in more than one language.

With the cognitive, psychological, and social benefits of being bilingual, programs in which the home language is not developed may be at odds with what is best for students (Baker, 2000). When children enter the door of a school, they bring with them all of who they are - lived experiences and rich backgrounds. A significantly important part of their identity is the language spoken at home, a valuable resource that connects them to family and can lead to a positive self-concept and educational success if promoted in school (Cummins, 2001; Genesee, 2012). The good news is that, regardless of the language program model in place, educators can create positive learning environments and make conscientious choices that build upon the cultural and linguistic resources students bring with them. The following are some suggestions:

  • Form traditions and rituals that incorporate the home language. It can be the start or end to the school day or a celebratory song/chant when the class accomplishes a goal. Come up with it together and make it your own! Many times, these are the things that students remember and enjoy.
  • Empower students and families by allowing them access to the “ways of school.” Depending on their exposure to our school system, students from nonmainstream cultures benefit from explicit guidance on how the classroom and the school functions. This can be especially challenging when there is a language barrier so, as much as possible, educators should make every effort to communicate information in the home language.
  • Tap into family and community resources. Invite family and other community members into the classroom to read a book, model how to do something, or teach a song or a poem in the home language. This can also be kept in mind when scheduling classroom trips.
  • Include the home language in ways to assess children’s understanding of concepts. As much as possible, utilize the home language to create ways for students to demonstrate what they know. At the very least, always have it as a point of consideration when analyzing other data points. This will be helpful for guiding instruction and making decisions about programming.
  • Advocate for the use of the home language beyond the classroom walls. Collaborate with and enlist the help of school staff, especially those who speak the students’ language(s), in infusing the home language throughout the day, during lunch, on the playground, in special classes, and at school-wide events.
  • Choose materials that authentically represent students’ language and culture. Offer a variety of books, both fiction and nonfiction, in the language(s) spoken by students. Choose books with which students can connect and encourage them and their families to be the creators of their own stories

The goal is that one day all students will have the opportunity to develop bilingual proficiency. Until that day comes, students will benefit from the choices educators make to honor and promote the home languages they bring to the classroom.

References/Suggested Readings

Baker, C. (2000). The care and education of young bilinguals. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Cummins, J. (2001). Bilingual Children’s Mother Tongue: Why is it Important for Education?

Faulkner-Bond, M., Waring, S., Forte, E., Crenshaw, R.L., Tindle, K., & Belknap, B. (2012). Language Instructional Education Programs (LIEPs): A Review of the Foundational Literature (pp. 107-121). US Department of Education.

Genesee, F. (2012). The Home Language: An English Learner’s Most Valuable Resource.

Garcia, O. & Baker, C. (2007). Bilingual education. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Nemeth, K. (2009). Many languages, one classroom: Teaching dual and English language learners. Silver Spring, MD: Gryphon House, Inc.

Response From Mary Ann Zehr

Mary Ann Zehr teaches English at the International Academy, a high school for English-language learners that is part of the Francis L Cardozo Education Campus in the District of Columbia Public Schools:

I work at an academy in the District of Columbia that is part of the Internationals Network for Public Schools. The network promotes a school design for teaching English-language learners that incorporates the use of students’ home languages in the classroom. I agree with this approach. Spanish is the home language for most students in our academy. My students have primarily immigrated from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, but some students have come from other countries and thus do not understand Spanish. All of my students are English-language learners.

I teach to the whole class always in English but I occasionally speak Spanish with some students one-on-one or in small groups to offer a brief explanation. When students work in pairs or groups, they may speak in their home language, but when they hand in an assignment to me or make an oral report to the class, they must use English. In every class, they must produce English. I pair students with more English proficiency with those who have less English proficiency and have the more advanced students help the newcomers to write what they want to say in English or practice saying words in English before they make a presentation to the class.

One of the most valuable uses of the native language is to have students read content first in their home language and then in English. Reading a text first in their native language helps them to better understand the English text. They do this while completing online research assignments. Also, when students are reading articles I’ve printed from Web sites such as newsela.com, I encourage them to read the content first in Spanish and then in English. In addition, last school year, we read excerpts from “Enrique’s Journey,” by Sonia Nazario, a story about a Honduran teenager who travels thousands of miles to try to reunite with his mother in the United States. I assigned students whose native language was Spanish to read the excerpts first in Spanish and then in English. This approach greatly increased their engagement. When their peers were reading aloud in Spanish, students were more attentive than if they heard the text read only in English. The Spanish text provided a bridge for those students who were newest to the class to understand the story.

When students are new to writing English, I encourage them to write their ideas first in their native language and then have another student help them translate the ideas into English or do so themselves. Using their native language is a way to get them started in thinking about what they want to say. Sometimes they are so new to English that they really don’t know enough words to express their ideas. Other times, they are simply stuck and can’t think of what to say. Once they write some ideas down in their native language, their ideas start flowing and it doesn’t seem so daunting to write in English.

While I constantly model English and encourage students to always speak with me and to the whole class in English, permitting them to use their native language while working in pairs or small groups can help students to get their heads around the content and then move to thinking, speaking, or writing in English. I believe teachers are missing out on some valuable strategies if they don’t incorporate students’ native languages into the teaching and learning process. At the least, if teachers have a number of students who share the same home language, such as Spanish or French, teachers can use words in English that have cognates in that home language to ease the acquisition process.

Thanks to Melissa, Wendi, Tracey, Sandy and Mary Ann for their contributions!

(This is the first post in a three-part series)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

What is the role, if any, of an ELL student’s home language in the classroom?

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