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Understanding the Benefits of a Student's Home Language- as shared in EdWeek Q&A with Larry Ferlazzo

This post was originally posted in Education Week, Classroom Q&A with Larry Ferlazzo, 1/31/17

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


“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 community. 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.

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