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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.

Teaching Opinion

Response: Home Language Support ‘Helps Learners Navigate Both Worlds’

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 04, 2017 12 min read
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(This is the final post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

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

In Part One of this series, Melissa Eddington, Wendi Pillars, Tracey Flores, Sandy Ruvalcaba Carrillo, and Mary Ann Zehr offered 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.

In Part Two, Rosa Isiah, Tan Huynh, Karen Nemeth, Sarah Thomas contributed their responses to the question.

Anna Bartosik, Nathan Hall, Chloe Smith, Beth Konomoto wrap this series up with their suggestions. I’ve also included comments from readers.

Response From Anna Bartosik

Anna Bartosik is an ESL professor from Canada. She is a teacher/facilitator with an extensive background in ESL/ELT education. Her current interests include instructional design, assessment and rubrics, storytelling, motivation’s role in memory, and thoughtful incorporation of educational technology in the classroom. You can follow her on Twitter at @ambartosik:

“It is better to prevent the mother tongue in the classroom in order to accelerate English language learning.”

“There is no discernible benefit to continuing bilingual education after a child has reached a standard level of proficiency in the target language.”

“Allowing ELLs who already possess proficiency in the target language to participate in two-way bilingual programs is costly and unnecessary.”

We hear these assertive statements being made by administrators and teachers alike. School districts are interested in hard data (read: grades) to support a winning formula for efficient instruction. It would be convenient to make a declarative statement that provides one correct answer to the question of using a student’s home language in the classroom.

The truth, however, is muddy. Or unclear from an administrative perspective.

Learning can’t occur in a vacuum; it needs to be connected to something meaningful and motivating. There is currently a big push for differentiated instruction in education. Each student’s experience is different, the argument goes. So why aren’t more teachers looking at language learning as differentiated learning as well? Why is it only one language at the expense of the other?

In the United States, two-way bilingual education can be a hot topic for funding decisions. In addition to being more expensive than transitional bilingual education, participation in two-way bilingual education is discouraged beyond kindergarten. However, transitional bilingual education, where the use of the mother tongue fades as proficiency in English increases, supports funding first, not the learners.

Why can’t the learner’s needs be considered first beyond the school district’s needs, beyond the “here and now”? Being fluent in the home language and the target language helps learners navigate both worlds they inhabit. By insisting on English at the expense of the home language, communication with family becomes stilted and superficial.

How does the learner perceive themselves when their fluency in English outpaces the first language? By not allowing the home language to be used in the classroom, the language learner is not encouraged to see their home language in a positive light. The ties to the home culture become weakened; this can affect family dynamics, where the grandchild who used to be able to share a common language with a beloved grandparent now approaches the relationship with the awkwardness of needing translation to facilitate communication.

Let’s consider the long-term effects of English at the expense of the home language. How will not speaking more than one language hinder future career prospects? Is that the best choice for our education system?

Each science learner is different and brings different strengths to the table. A science learner’s needs should be considered when making decisions about classroom approaches. A science classroom needs to provide instruction that makes all of its learners comfortable and maximize science learning.

Removing the adjective “science” from those sentences and replacing it with “language” does not change the teaching strategy. Learning is learning.

In short, eliminating the ELL’s home language in the classroom may or may not have an impact on exam outcomes, and the school may feel pressure to demonstrate to the district that it has been successful in achieving academic superiority and fiscal responsibility by erasing the mother tongue from the classroom. But by not allowing the mother tongue to thrive and maintain itself in the classroom, we may be doing our learners a larger disservice.

Response From Nathan Hall

Nathan Hall is an EAP instructor and teacher trainer for Douglas College in New Westminster, BC, Canada. He is especially interested in pedagogically sound uses of technology in the language classroom. He you can contact him through his website at nathanhall.ca or on Twitter at @nathanghall:

Welcome home: Inviting the student’s home language into the classroom

It was my first day in a language school. Opening the door to my classroom, there was a sign boldly declaring in no uncertain terms: English only! While this was my first “real-life” encounter with this philosophy of language education, the debate regarding the use of a student’s first language (L1) in the classroom has been taking place for decades.

The exclusion of a student’s L1 in the classroom sends a message of cultural hierarchy, with the target language (TL) in a higher position. Until 1996, this was the case in the residential schools in Canada, a system where indigenous children were emotionally and physically punished for using their L1. While this is an extreme case of language isolationism, cultural superiority through language restriction cannot be overlooked. Teachers must recognize the significance of a student’s L1 and the relationship it has with their culture. With their L1 placed in a role of importance, students are inclined to accept the TL as beneficial.

The importance of a student’s previous knowledge in mastering a skill has been the core of education since the seminal work of Lev Vygotsky. Students can use their L1 to explore complex ideas and can compare language concepts for appropriateness such as in the area of register. This is typically done in pairs and small groups as learners use their L1 to “fill in the gaps” in terms of lexis and form.

In many classrooms around the world, the teacher and students share a common L1. This shared knowledge can efficiently be used to explain complex concepts and can also be drawn on to provide clarification, turning the student’s attention towards cognates and linguistic similarities. Through providing a purposeful relationship between the L1 and the TL, students can appreciate the role of their language in the learning process.

While the potential for difficulties remains, the focus should be placed on a mutual understanding of respect. No rules or punishment can bring this about; only through a clear and open conversation between all stakeholders can boundaries be set and purposes clearly laid out for all to see.

Response From Chloe Smith

Chloe Smith (BA English, MA English, CELTA) is the project coordinator and teacher trainer for New Education Highway (NEH). Chloe is striving to change the local teaching culture in a rural community in Rakhine state, Myanmar from the outdated, passive model of Victorian England to active and student centered:

From my experience teaching in Greece, the US, and now Myanmar, I think the role of the home language depends on the existing learning culture and health of the students, as well as the diversity of the class.


Classroom culture plays the biggest role in whether I advocate for English-only or duel-language classrooms. For students who have never been taught by native speakers or participated in student-centered teaching, the use of home language keeps them engaged.

My rural Myanmar students do not respond well to 100% English. Having had no prior exposure to foreigners or to an active learning culture, they often become distracted. They need the calming reassurance of instructions in their home language for them to concentrate on the given task. In a rote learning system where students do not think for themselves, the home language also encourages them to engage critically with the new teaching method. They can begin to consider themselves as agents in their own learning. My desire is that the home language will recede into the background as student engagement levels rise to the new teaching method.

In Greece and the US my classrooms were English-only environments as students were familiar with active learning and were used to tourists and foreigners.


Sufficient food and nutrients affect students’ ability to learn, and therefore, the role of L1 in the class. For students who are malnourished, L1 is critical for the student engagement. I saw this in Greece during the economic crisis of 2012 and in rural Myanmar when my fellow teachers used L1 to keep the students’ attention. In Greece all of my fellow teachers were healthy and so they could teach for 8 hours a day. In contrast, Myanmar teachers sleep for up to 14 hours each day and are only able to teach 1.5 hour stints.


For a mixed nationality class, there is much more onus on the students to be inclusive and use English. This is especially true in English-speaking countries. I cannot and will not use every home language of each individual student.

Response From Beth Konomoto

Beth Konomoto has been teaching English to students from around the world since 2005. Originally from Canada, she completed her masters degree at the University of Birmingham. She has a passion to help international students and immigrants navigate their way through learning English:

A student’s home language plays an influential role in the classroom. This influence affects how the student processes and produces the target language. Teachers need to consider the student level and the context of the class to consider how the home language should be used in the classroom.

Depending on the level of the student, he or she may still be thinking mostly in their home language and attempting to translate. One option for teachers who can speak the home language of beginner-level students is to discuss both languages and translation in order to help students think about the relationship between the two languages and how to avoid making mistakes with direct translation, formality, pragmatics and other sociolinguistic-related choices.

The context of the class will also affect the role of the home language. If the class is monolingual, students take comfort in talking, confirming, and joking with their classmates in their home language. They also benefit from home language explanation of vocabulary and grammar. However, if the class is multilingual, there will be less time spent in any particular home language. If there are any who share the same language in a multilingual class, they will most likely gravitate towards each other for this comforting sociability. The effect of this is the exclusion of others which can include the teacher if he or she is not familiar with the language. An interesting phenomenon is when students self-police these groups. These students want to stay focused and maximize their use of English while in class. When students leave class they may be returning to non-English speaking families. They need class time to be “in English.”

Student level and class context are only two of the many variables in the role of the home language. Teachers need to find the right balance to ensure students feel they are getting the most efficient use of their class time.

Responses From Readers

Megan Forti:

Contrary to some advice I received as a student teacher, I’ve always told my Spanish-speaking ELs that I share a language with them. Their eyes light up with a look of surprise. When I meet their parents at conferences and explain their student’s progress in Spanish, their faces are shocked as well. The role of the home language in the classroom is crucial because it shows respect and love for the students and their culture. It also validates their language and experiences. I’ve found it useful in my instruction in various ways. Foremost, I understand the challenges of being a language learner. I can relate to the students. For instance, I have a newcomer who is making great progress in listening comprehension. But as she learns more and more, she usually prefers Spanish over English when we speak to each other. When I ask her a question in English, she understands and gives a perfect response to me in Spanish. That demonstrates comprehension right there!

It is a human right to use your home language. I have many students that speak to me in Spanish one minute and English the next. One student will tell me stories that happen at home in Spanish because that is the language she was immersed in when the situation happened. This doesn’t mean the student is deficient. It means they have incredible language skills. Knowledge is power, no matter what language it is in.

Thanks to Anna, Nathan, Chloe and Beth, and to readers, for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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