English-Language Learners

Teacher: Transfer from First Language to English Isn’t Automatic

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 14, 2011 1 min read

A bilingual educator writing a guest blog post at Voice of San Diego says that students can benefit from instruction that lets them know what does and doesn’t transfer from their first language to English.

Ramon Espinal, who has worked in San Diego as a bilingual classroom teacher since 1995, writes that studies have found correlations between English and Spanish in word reading, phonological awareness, and spelling. But he added, “Teachers cannot assume that transfer is automatic.”

How to teach students explicitly what is similar and different between English and his or her home language is not something that I’ve seen pop up much in discussions about educating English-language learners. How I’ve heard it talked about is when researchers suggest that speakers of Spanish who are learning English can increase their vocabulary quickly with an understanding of cognates, words that are similar in Spanish and English.

I recall that when I interviewed Diane August, a senior research scientist at the Washington-based Center for Applied Linguistics, last November about a new mandate in Illinois requiring public preschools to provide bilingual education, she said the transition from Spanish to English should be well planned.

“You have to be careful to gradually transition students into English and give them the support they need,” she said, which is more complex than many educators realize.

She added that a lack of support for ELLs to transition from Spanish to English in bilingual education was a factor in California voters’ 1998 approval of an anti-bilingual education ballot measure there.

I think this issue of how to best aid students in transferring language skills from one language to another merits more attention in the field.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.