English Language Learners

How to Use English Learners’ Primary Language in the Classroom

It’s important for multilingual students to feel that their first language is valuable, seen as an asset, and a welcome part of their identity.

December 13, 2022

Someone who can communicate in many languages has mental flexibility, an expansive vocabulary, and more. Students in our classrooms with languages other than English in their linguistic repertoires have advantages. The question for us educators is how we tap into that linguistic capital—especially if we do not speak or understand the languages that our students know. How and why do other languages fit into the mainstream classroom?

First, let’s explore four common myths and misconceptions about using students’ primary languages in the classroom.

Myth/misconception: Everything needs to be translated for newcomers in the early stages of English proficiency.

Reality: Translation is a tool that is best used and taught with caution. Not all texts and lessons require full translation. In many cases, translating new content poses challenges for English learners because they haven’t been exposed to the academic vocabulary in their primary language yet. The words and concepts are new in both languages! Two effective strategies that lean on students’ funds of knowledge while building language and content are the Picture Word Inductive Model and the Language Experience Approach.

Myth/misconception: We must focus only on English to learn English.

Reality: Second-language acquisition is built on the foundation of the first language. Students acquiring English as an additional language should continue to speak and practice their first or other languages at school. When possible, pair students with peers of the same language for interaction. You can also offer them books in their first language.

Another routine that supports the use of a first language is Preview/Review. Students preview the lesson in their first language with a peer, parent, or volunteer; then they engage in the lesson in English with the class; and finally, they review the lesson in their first language again with a peer, parent, or volunteer.

Myth/misconception: English learners have to learn basic English before they can learn academic content.

Reality: A child who is developmentally and cognitively capable of learning should not be held back from thinking at their ability level due to language differences. Teaching that is infused with sheltered instruction methods such as visuals, gestures, pointing, cooperative learning, multimedia, frequent checks for understanding, and more increases comprehensible input for all learners. Fluency in a language does not indicate intelligence.

Myth/misconception: Children who speak a language other than English at home are at a disadvantage and may be confused in the classroom.

Reality: Languages are assets—we can view the home language as a way that students build new vocabulary, family ties, traditions, and culture. Homes that are filled with these things in any language are advantages.

This type of culturally inclusive pedagogy positions educators to embrace students and families as they are rather than ignoring central parts of their identities.

4 Ways to Encourage Primary Language Use In the Classroom

You can implement the following methods to suit your lesson plans at any grade level with students of all ages, and with English learners who speak a variety of languages.

1. Provide access to resources in students’ first languages. Be intentional about inviting and welcoming all languages into classrooms by including books and materials in languages that students speak. Begin by identifying the most common languages in the classroom, and collect resources in those languages.

When students see their first language in a book at school, they feel valued and appreciated. This practice also helps all of your students to build empathy for their classmates and appreciation of all languages.

2. Invite different languages throughout lessons. For instance, while reading a book about sea mammals, you can make a chart with different ways to name the sea mammals in the languages spoken by the students. Draw students’ attention to cognates (words that are spelled similarly in two languages and mean the same thing). Pair students up with same-language peers, and provide them time to discuss learning topics in their primary language.

A video from Atlanta Speech School, called The Gift, shows how the teacher uses students’ languages to help them feel valued and seen as well as to help them learn new information and acquire English.

3. Display the languages that your students speak on the walls. Label different items on the classroom walls in English and the other languages that your students speak. Eliciting the help of the students in your classroom to create the labels can be part of the learning and community building. This can be a flexible and ongoing task.

Students can read the words as a class, read them with partners, and play games with them. A word of caution about the use of classroom walls and cluttering them—too much decoration can be a distraction for learners.

4. Encourage families to speak the language they’re most comfortable with at home. Parents may think that they should speak to their children and read to them in English at home in order for them to learn it more quickly. On the contrary, families should use the language they are most comfortable with at home.

A strong foundation in the first language supports second language acquisition. Some families may find this counterintuitive, thinking that more English will produce more English. Remind them of the value of bilingual/multilingualism by modeling its worth during interactions with families, sharing success stories of prominent bilinguals, and showcasing bilingual brain power.

How to Assess Learners

When teachers don’t understand their student’s primary language, they can still find ways to formatively and summatively assess knowledge and understanding. Teachers who recognize the value and importance of tapping into a child’s full language repertoire are one step closer to helping a child learn content and acquire a new language.

You can ask students to point to, draw, answer yes/no questions, and categorize pictures. With advancements in technology, we also have the ability to translate students’ verbal responses. Though Google Translate is one of the most popular tools for live translation, use it cautiously, since direct translations are not always effective.

Effective assessment of English learners (ELs) at various levels of English proficiency will begin with a deep understanding of students’ strengths, what they can do, and will position students toward further linguistic growth. Teachers of ELs should rely on their state’s English Language Proficiency Standards and align instruction and assessments to them.

It’s amazing to see how students react when they find their primary language in the classroom in a book or on the wall. Their faces light up and their posture changes. They seem to become more confident. They gain a new sense of belonging that they didn’t find before. This feeling lets them know they don’t have to change who they are to be seen in this space—the gifts they bring are valued.

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Filed Under

  • English Language Learners
  • Culturally Responsive Teaching
  • Diversity
  • Formative Assessment

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