How Native Language Improves English Language Learning – 3 Tips

As our schools continue to become more diverse, using research-based, flexible and culturally responsive teaching strategies in the classroom can help English learners learn the language and learn academic content in English. This, combined with strong relationships with students and families, can be instrumental in closing the achievement gap. Surprisingly, the use of a native or home language can improve learning English and content in the classroom. I’ve done a lot of research on English language acquisition and linguistic development. Currently, my colleague Kendall King and I have been analyzing data we gathered from an ESL (English as a second language) class in an immigrant classroom. We have more than 50 hours of classroom data, plus interviews, and student work that are fascinating to explore qualitatively. We’ve published papers from this data set that focus on the strategies immigrant adolescents use to learn English and learn content in English. A recent paper we did focuses on the symbolic power of print literacy among Somali adolescents. We explored how some of the history of Somalia and the Somali script impact intra-ethnic dynamics in this classroom with students with a wide range of formal schooling experiences.

Native Language Supports Second Language Learning

High school immigrant/refugee students with prior schooling and literacy in their home language(s) tend to adjust to school in the U.S. quite easily. However, there are many students who are in school for the first time and they are often learning to read for the first time. This is the population of English learners that most intrigues me. I find they often acquire English, and other languages, easily and quickly, but their strong oral skills often outpace their academic literacy skills. This calls for unique instruction that can deliver content standards in ways that these students can learn as they develop the literacy they need to cope with the enormous amount of text found in high school content classes.

Adolescents with limited formal schooling and low alphabetic print literacy need to be taught to read as soon as possible by teachers who not only understand a great deal about the many circumstances of interrupted or limited formal schooling, but also understand emergent literacy for English learners. In an ideal world, students would be taught initial print literacy in their home languages. This would be the fastest route to learning English because students would grasp print concepts more quickly. Unfortunately, there are many policies and well as folk theories among parents and educators. Some believe the best way to learn English is to do just that and leave the home language(s) behind. This is not the case—when a student is able to draw on their native language literacy skills, they can grasp literacy in a new language faster.

Educational Needs of Adolescent English Language Learners Are Varied

For example, some of our East African communities in Minnesota are now more than 20 years old. There are second and third generation immigrants from Somalia, for example. There are also newcomers who have waited decades to be reunited with family or resettled from a refugee camp. Because of this wide spectrum of experiences, students’ interests and needs are extraordinarily diverse.

In my work, I have focused on Somali newcomers. In terms of schooling, they need programs and teachers who can embrace their unique sets of skills and help them succeed in our schools. The more teachers know about the often very gendered experiences of their students, about students’ religious beliefs, about their goals and interests, the better off these students will be. Here are some ways teachers can do this:

3 tips for teachers to effectively support the acquisition of English as a second language:

  1. Get to know the English learners in your school. They have vastly different backgrounds and rich life experiences. Keep working to make instruction relevant and accessible to those who have been in U.S. schools for many years as well as those who are new to school. You can do a short, free online course to help you understand key issues related to culture and English learners here.
  2. When you have newcomers, try to get an idea of their previous experiences in school and their literacy levels in their native language(s). This could be part of the usual intake and placement process. There are easy-to-administer screening tools that you can use that don’t require knowing the student’s language. Here’s one example.
  3. The U.S. is a society that is rich in oral traditions, but in comparison to some of the immigrant and refugee newcomers in our schools, we pale in comparison. When teachers examine the degree to which print is used in their teaching, they often realize that they could tap into students’ strengths by encouraging more oral processing, more use of students’ home languages, and applications that resonate with the students’ experiences at home, on migration paths, and in the U.S. This article can help teachers explore the role of oral language and home language(s) in teaching adolescent English learners.
Martha Bigelow

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Martha Bigelow

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