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Classroom Q&A

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: Understanding the Benefits of a Student’s Home Language

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 31, 2017 10 min read
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(This is the second post in a three-part series. You can see Part One 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.

Today, Rosa Isiah, Tan Huynh, Karen Nemeth, Sarah Thomas contribute their responses to the question.

Response From Rosa Isiah

Rosa Isiah, Ed. D serves students as principal at Smith Elementary School in Lawndale, Calif. Rosa is passionate and purposeful about equity, closing the opportunity gap, and learning with her school community:

“It is hard to argue that we are teaching the whole child when school policy dictates that students leave their language and culture at the schoolhouse door” (Cummins, 2005).

The number of English Learners has dramatically increased over the last two decades. Current research indicates an extraordinary boom in our English Learner student population in the United States. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that 4.5 million English learners are enrolled in public schools across the U.S. (CDE, 2016). The growth is evident across the nation, but especially in California where "...one of every four students is an English learner” (Goldenberg, 2010). For many educators, English language learners ARE the majority student population in our schools. Clearly, educators have the responsibility of addressing the needs of this growing student population, including nurturing the precious linguistic and cultural diversity they bring into the classroom. The validation of a student’s culture, home language, as well as the development of academic identity, should be a priority for every educator who has the privilege of working with language learners.

Home Language and Academic Identity

The home language of our English Learners plays a major role in the development of their academic identity and overall educational success. Researchers have found that validating a student’s culture and language in a safe and encouraging environment will help students develop a positive and confident student self image. “Students perception of how the majority culture accepts or rejects the culture and language they bring to school are extremely important for their eventual success” (as cited in Walqui & van Lier, 2010).

Culture and Home Language: English learner Assets

The linguistic and cultural diversity offered by our English learners has not been valued as an asset or a resource by many in the educational communities. Linguistically diverse students often have no choice but to adapt to an English-only culture and assimilate to the dominant language, English, as quickly as possible. In the process of attempting to immerse our students, educators create a subtractive schooling experience for students where their culture and language is seen as a challenge to overcome. This type of experience hurts the overall confidence and academic success of English learners, students who are trying to accommodate their ideas, feelings, and position in school. In life.

Home Language in the Classroom

We cannot completely address the needs of our English learners if we don’t consider their culture and language and use that knowledge as a teaching tool. How can educators support the home language of English learners in the classroom? We can support students in the classroom by:


  • Affirming a student’s home language and culture- talk about it, ask about it, establish a genuine connection with students

  • Inviting student to share similarities and differences between the students home language, second language, and cultures

  • Seek opportunities to incorporate home language in projects, celebrations, lessons

  • Give students an opportunity to use home language in the classroom

  • Provide materials in primary language: books, resources, websites, apps

  • Model strong language use in both home and second languages

  • Promote education about diversity, equity, and tolerance within the community

  • Encourage parents and families to continue to speak and preserve language and culture at home

  • Create opportunities for families and teachers to celebrate and share language and culture with the school community

There are many benefits to embracing and drawing from a student’s home language. Connections to a student’s primary language encourages bilingualism, preserves language and culture, helps develop a solid academic identity, and promotes overall academic literacy. Understanding these benefits and the monumental role culture and language play in the academic identity and success of English Learners must be a priority for all educators.


Response From Tan Huynh

Tan Huynh is a Teach For America alumnus and the head of the English Language Acquisition Department at Vientiane International School, an International Baccalaureate World School. He shares his classroom-tested, research-supported strategies on his blog, EmpoweringELLs.com with the hopes of adding to teachers’ instructional toolkits:

Some school adopt philosophies that are focused on learning with technology, while others adopt those that focus on technology integration. The difference between the two is the degree to which technology is seen as a fun activity versus an intentional tool for learning. The same philosophy is true for home language (HL) integration. It can seen as something to “honor” during cultural heritage months, or it can be valued as a tool to aid instruction. I prefer the latter.

There are three ways principle reasons I integrate HL into instruction: 1) to foster comprehensible input (Krashen, 1981), 2) to encourage social interactions and 3) facilitate comprehensible output (Krashen, 1981). Here are some specific ways I do so:




These strategies demonstrate the useful, strategic role HLs can play within instruction. HLs should not just be honored during sporadic cultural celebrations, and they should be used jointly with English in any classroom.

Krashen, S. (1981). Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning. Oxford: Pergamon Press.


Response From Karen Nemeth

Karen Nemeth, Ed.M. is an author, consultant, and advocate focusing on early childhood education for ELLs/DLLs. She has leadership roles in NAEYC, NABE, and TESOL. She hosts a resource website, Language Castle:

This question has special importance for teachers working with birth - age 5 populations because these are the children that have not yet fully developed in either/any of their languages. For this reason, the role of each child’s home language in the preschool and kindergarten classroom is critical. As early childhood programs are becoming increasingly diverse, several organizations have released similar recommendations. In, a paper from ETS, Ackerman and Tazi (2015) reviewed the research and reported a growing number of studies showing that supporting a young child’s learning of and learning in their home language is an effective way to build English competency. The term “dual language learners” (DLLs) is used to describe multilingual children in preschool and kindergarten instead of “English learners” because it highlights the importance of supporting both languages. While young children are still in the process of learning their home language, support of that language is vital.

We know that the brains of young DLLs have separate systems for each of their languages. They know information in the language that was used to teach them that information. To successfully build on their prior learning, teachers need to be able to interact with DLLs using both of their languages. Learning English is also very important, so early childhood educators have to find a balance between the types and amounts of language inputs. For this, we do not yet have definitive, research-based answers. We do know, however, that children who are immersed too early in English are likely to lose some of their home language proficiency. Children who continue to receive support in their home language at home and at school not only maintain their home language, but seem to experience no negative impact on their English language development. And DLLs that are immersed in English may be losing ground with concept and vocabulary learning as so much of what happens in their school time is not comprehensible to them.

By supporting a child’s home language and helping them see connections between what they know in that language with new information in English, teachers help them keep up with learning. Concept knowledge forms the foundation for all later language, literacy and learning. The more teachers do to make sure young children are getting a healthy dose of concept learning in any language, the better the children will achieve in English later on. In addition to these cognitive and academic reasons, teachers should also consider that supporting a child’s home language is beneficial to his identity development and self-esteem. Supporting the home language also encourages children to continue using it at home where it can be the tie that strengthens family bonds and home-school relationships. What can teachers do when they don’t speak the home languages of children in their class? Try these strategies:


  1. Invite family members or bilingual volunteers in to play, read and talk with the children.

  2. Ask the local children’s librarian for help finding high quality, authentic children’s literature, videos and non-fiction resources in the needed languages.

  3. Encourage oral language practice via conversations with adults and peers.

  4. Learn some relevant key words in each child’s home language by practicing with bilingual children’s stories or apps that come with audio recordings.

Ackerman, D. & Tazi, Z. (2015) Enhancing Young Hispanic Dual Language Learner’s Achievement: Exploring Strategies and Addressing Challenges, Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.


Response From Sarah Thomas

Sarah Thomas is a Regional Technology Coordinator in Prince George’s County Public Schools. She is also a Google Certified Innovator and the founder of the #EduMatch movement, a project that empowers educators to make global connections across common areas of interest. Sarah is a doctoral candidate in Education at George Mason University (Editor’s Note: You can read an interview I did with Sarah about her new book here):

Many times, when students enter school, they are met with a deficit model of bilingualism. Terms such as “limited English proficient” and movements such as “English only” do a huge disservice to students, as they fail to realize the strength that students bring with their home language and culture. Instead, schools should be embracing the richness that students bring, and fostering a positive climate that helps to bolster their cultural identity. For that reason, students should be allowed to communicate in their home language when in school. In addition, special attention should be given to underrepresented groups, who are often overlooked in terms of services provided.


Thanks to Rosa, Tan, Karen and Sarah 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.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder—you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader. And, if you missed any of the highlights from the first five years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. They don’t include ones from this current year, but you can find them by clicking on the “answers” category found in the sidebar.

This Year’s Most Popular Q & A Posts!

Classroom Management Advice

Student Motivation & Social Emotional Learning

Implementing The Common Core

Race & Gender Challenges

Best Ways To Begin & End The School Year

Brain-Based Learning

Teaching Social Studies

Project-Based Learning

Using Tech In The Classroom

Parent Engagement In Schools

Teaching English Language Learners

Student Assessment

Reading Instruction

Writing Instruction

Education Policy Issues

Differentiating Instruction

Math Instruction

Science Instruction

Professional Development

Teacher Leadership

Administrator Leadership

Relationships In Schools

Instructional Strategies

Author Interviews

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributers to this column.

Look for Part Three in a few days...

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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