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"What if I don't speak it?" Classroom strategies to nurture students' heritage languages.

Is it an asset or a burden to be bilingual? Although bilingualism is appreciated by many people worldwide, immigrant families often struggle with the maintenance of their heritage language (1) (HL) and culture. In the United States, for example, the HL in most families is completely lost within three generations (Fishman, 1991). The loss of a child's HL negatively impacts their cultural identity development, relationships with parents and grandparents, and academic performance (Wong-Fillmore, 2000). Conversely, the maintenance of a child's HL produces many positive attributes.

People who are bilingual have more cognitive flexibility than those who are monolingual (Bialystok, 2007, 2010). A bilingual individual uses both languages actively, even when only one language is being used in a monolingual context (Bialystok, 2007, 2010). Bilingualism results in a cognitive reorganization of language in the brain. Specifically, the prefrontal cortex, which involves working memory and executive function, is also affected by language and works harder in people who are bilingual (Penn, 2010, as cited in Nunley, 2010). Furthermore, growth in working memory in the first language (L1) predicts growth in reading in the second language (L2) (Swanson, Saez, & Gerber, 2006).

Based on empirical evidence, in bilingual individuals one language depends on the other (Bialystok, 2007, 2010; Cummins, 2005). Bilinguals use their knowledge of concepts in the L1 to help them understand those in the L2; similarly, the L2 influences the L1 (Cummins, 1979; Valddes, 2005). Bilingual children's L2 acquisition can be promoted by using the strong foundations of their L1 skills, because they transfer to the L2 (Cummins, 2005). Mso, bilingual children experience benefits with some early literacy skills. For example, phonological awareness transfers easily from one language to another, and decoding and phonological awareness are more easily accomplished by bilingual children when compared to monolingual children, especially when their two languages use comparable alphabetic systems (Bialystok, Luk, & Kwan, 2005).

Although the benefits of bilingualism are acknowledged, teachers who want to promote their students' HL may wonder how they can do this when they do not speak the HL themselves. This article supports the position that teachers, regardless of their ability to speak another language, play a vital role in the maintenance of the HL through effective partnerships with families. First, we review literature on parents' and teachers' role in HL maintenance, and then we provide specific classroom strategies for teachers who might not speak the HL of the children in their class.


Supporting children in maintaining their HL and culture is the responsibility of all stakeholders involved in a child's life. Although parents play a pivotal role in the process of HL maintenance, teachers' recognition of the importance of the HL is critical to the empowerment of the child (Lee & Oxelson, 2006). Research supports this notion, showing that a lack of support from schools, communities, and society often jeopardizes parents' intentions for maintaining the HL (Nesteruk, 2010).

The Parents' Role

Parents' positive attitude toward HL maintenance and their efforts to generate opportunities for children to acquire and use the HL are instrumental in their children's HL maintenance (DeCapua & Wintergerst, 2009; Li, 1999; Nesteruk, 2010). These opportunities include reading children's books and folk tales in the HL, utilizing support within the ethnic community, spending extended time in the heritage country, and using technology (DeCapua & Wintergerst, 2002; Hashimoto & Lee, 2011; Nesteruk, 2010; Park & Sarkar, 2007; Rydin & Sjonberg, 2008; Senyurekli & Detzner, 2009). Specifically, parents and grandparents in one study repeatedly pointed out the significance of adults' active involvement in selecting appropriate resources, and guiding children in the optimal and creative use of media technologies (Szecsi & Szilagyi, 2012). However, even a combination of various opportunities for learning and using the HL might not guarantee the children's HL development, and children may become dominant in the school's majority language (the language of instruction), regardless of the families' strong intentions to maintain the HL (Nesteruk, 2010; Zhang, 2010).

The Teachers' Role

Research suggests that teachers who understand the benefits of bilingualism and the negative effects of HL loss tend to be more sensitive to the linguistic needs of bilingual learners. Lee and Oxelson (2006) found that two factors related to teachers' perceived role in maintaining the HL were teacher preparation and fluency in a second language. On the other hand, teachers without background in a second language strongly believed that HL maintenance was the responsibility of the parents only. Similarly, Garcia-Nevarez, Stafford, and Arias (2004) found that teachers without a bilingual education background did not believe that students should use their HL in the classroom, while bilingual teachers believed that using the HL was important for the child's development.

Cummins (2005) emphasized the importance of empowering teachers with strategies that allow them to help their students to value and maintain their HL and culture. He proposed three strategies in particular that focus on HL maintenance and language learning: systematic attention to similarities and differences in the HL and the second language through cognate relationships, crafting dual language books by translating the second language to the HL, and sister class projects that involve students who speak different languages (possibly from different countries) working together on creating literature and art. Lee and Oxelson (2006) also found that one of the reasons that teachers say that HL maintenance is not their responsibility is that they do not know how to promote HL maintenance. In particular, teachers who want to promote their students' HL may wonder how they can help when they do not speak the students' HL. In the following section, we propose easy-to-implement strategies that promote HL maintenance in the school.


Bilingual Books and Literacy Activities

Many high-quality bilingual books (e.g., Santillana, Cinco Puntos Press) are available for use in the classroom in many languages. Giving students access to bilingual books and asking them to complete specific assignments, such as reading bilingual books, summarizing in both languages, and participating in bilingual book talks, can result in literacy development that supports several languages. Students can be asked to read a bilingual book in both languages. Gaining experience reading in both languages is important, because students often have stronger literacy skills in one language. Therefore, being asked to read a bilingual book can help to strengthen both languages (Bialystok, 2007; Cummins, 2005).

Subsequent bilingual activities can supplement the benefits of reading in both languages.

After reading a bilingual book, students can write a summary of the book in both languages. "This summary can be sent home to parents, and parents can be asked to write one or two questions in the HL for their child to answer in the HL. Then, the child can translate the question(s) and answers as part of their homework that night or during morning work in school the next day.

In another possible activity, students can conduct a book talk (Fountas & Pinnell, 2001) in both languages. When creating and giving a book talk, students try to "sell" the book to others with the goal of piquing their audience's interest to read the book, building suspense and not giving away the ending. Students can present this book talk to classmates in the language of instruction and then present it to their parents in the home language. Parents can write a comment and a suggestion in the HL, and students can translate the parents' feedback for the class.

Authentic Contexts for HL Writing

When students write in either language, their literacy skills are strengthened in both languages, especially if the writing systems are similar (Bialystok, McBride-Chang, & Luk, 2005). Promoting bilingual writing in the classroom can be particularly daunting for teachers who are not literate in the students' HL. The following strategies for promoting bilingual writing do require that other bilingual people review the students' writing in the HL, thus relieving the teacher from that responsibility.

Students can translate news for the student body into the HL and then present it on the morning news following the relevant news presented in the language of instruction. Knowing that the wider audience will hear the news report is likely to motivate students to be careful and thorough in their translations. Creating the translation and reading it on the news will benefit the students' literacy skills in both languages, while promoting the concept of multilingualism to all students.

If the school has a newsletter that is sent home to parents, students can become involved in translating all or part of the newsletter. Parents who have the time to be more involved and are comfortable doing so, can work with students in school or at home to monitor and correct the students' work. A bilingual paraprofessional, if available, could work with the students at school.

To promote the child's ability to read and write in the HL, all the children can create a "Book About Me" in their HL or in two or more languages. "[he books can be shared with classmates and with parents at home. A "Book About Me" introduces the child through the use of pictures and words. It includes information about the child, such as what the child likes to do, eat, etc.; therefore, it provides a meaningful learning experience for the other children by sharing information about cultures and values. For this, as well as the other activities, parents could be asked to help the child as appropriate or necessary.

Find the Cognates: Detectives of Languages

An awareness of cognates is an effective language learning strategy, which teachers can utilize in teaching the second language, as well as in helping children increase their knowledge in their HL (Cummins, 2005). Members of the same language families (e.g., German and English) share cognates, and cognate relationships also exist between distantly related languages (e.g., Spanish and English, due to the origin of academic English in the Latin and Greek languages). The systematic use of cognates has the potential to increase students' vocabulary, reading comprehension, and spelling skills in both languages. For example, if students can make the connection between English dormant (low-frequency word) with Spanish dormir (high-frequency word), it might be easier to recall the meaning of the word in a science text.

During any reading activity, students can be encouraged to be a "detective" and find such cognates. During these activities, they can rely on their HL to identify L2 words that have a meaning, pronunciation, and spelling that is similar to the word in their L1. The Finda Cognate website at findacognate.html can be a useful tool in such investigations for speakers of the Spanish language. Resources on cognates between English and other languages are also available. For example, German-English cognates can be found at, and French and English cognates are available at

A Cognate Word Wall, to which students can add their new cognates, will promote exposure to cognates for all students. While false cognates can be found (e.g., "gimnazium" is "high school" in Hungarian, not a place to do physical education), awareness of a false cognate can illustrate the complexity of languages. Ultimately, drawing attention to cognates provides a tool that can help students utilize one language in building another language. Beyond cognates, children also can be encouraged to create a chart on the similarities and differences between languages, which can be displayed permanently in the classroom.

Interactive Academic Websites and Games in the HL

The development of academic language in both the L1 and the L2 takes extensive time and much effort. Multimedia resources are often incorporated in the curriculum, and some (e.g., Empower 3000) are available in various languages. More resources can be found at www. Using the L1 version of the lessons enables beginning L2 learners to access the grade-appropriate content knowledge. Although at this stage, students conceptualize the academic concepts in the HL while simultaneously developing the second language, the process ultimately will result in balanced bilingualism in the content areas. Even students who are proficient in both communicative L1 and L2 can benefit from using such educational online resources with the purpose of increasing their content area literacy skills in the HL.

A recent partnership between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Association of Bilingual Education resulted in a Spanish version of the high-quality game play Selene (http://, which is an interactive game that simulates the 4.5 billion year history of the Earth's moon to help children explore concepts related to planetary geology. Teachers can encourage children to play the game in their HL to improve all language skills. Teachers also can call parents' attention to finding interactive educational games in their HL so that children can use the HL in authentic and enjoyable contexts (Szecsi & Szilagyi, 2012).

Bilingual Students as Mentors

Students who speak a language other than English have a special language skill that must be treated as an asset. Teachers can build on this special skill wisely and effectively, even if they do not speak the students' HL. The use of a buddy system based on shared language is well-documented and effective (Izumi & Bigelow, 2000). Buddies with the same HL can assist each other in academic learning. As they brainstorm and negotiate in their HL about a math problem, a science experiment, or a history project, they mobilize academic vocabulary and sentence structures via critical thinking in their HL, which will contribute to their proficiencies in both languages. The ultimate product or outcome can be presented in the second language.

In addition to having a mentoring relationship with a classmate, students with fluent HL skills can serve as mentors for younger children who share the same HL. For example, 3rd-graders or older students can be a "Big Brother or Sister" for kindergartners. Five-year-olds who do not speak English will benefit from their mentors' explanations and guidance in their native language when learning about classroom and school rules, fire safety, and fire drills. When teachers are unable to convey the information in a language comprehensible for all children, these "Big Brothers and Sisters" can do the task. Thus, older children, the mentors, will use their HL in a more formal environment, which requires a sophisticated vocabulary, good speaking skills, and an ability to elaborate in response to questions. More important, both mentors and mentees will experience the need for their HL skills in an authentic context, which proves that their HL skills are appreciated.

Valuing the HL and Culture: Parents as Partners

Students' parents can help teachers support the students' HL in the classroom. The strategies included here hold benefits for all students in the classroom. For each, should the parent not be available, the student with the HL often can substitute.

Parents can share aspects of their culture with the children. Cooking traditional foods teaches the children about new cultures, and it provides meaningful connections to curricular content areas, such as science or mathematics. Additionally, such exposure to cultures also may lead to meaningful experiences that develop cultural sensitivity and open new areas of interest.

Parents can teach the children about their heritage language in the classroom, even if they do not speak the language of instruction. Teaching a song in the HL, reading a picture book in the HL, or teaching a few words to the class can be a valuable experience on multiple levels. It is important to follow up on the experience. For example, the children could create a display of the new words, such as how to say hello, and can be encouraged to use those words daily. Even a few simple words or expressions can help children develop and maintain positive attitudes toward the various first languages of all students. Similarly, the new song could be displayed on the wall to remind the children of the words, helping to ensure repeated practice.

Another way the teacher could build on the parent partnership is to have the parent read a picture book in the HL. As with the above activities, even if many of the children do not understand the HL, exposure to a new language is valuable. Based on the pictures, the children can reconstruct the story, leading to additional art-based and/or content-based activities.

A parent partner may be able to provide books, magazines, and CDs for classroom use. These resources can be available for children during choice time. Playing music in the HL while the children work on tasks increases awareness of and respect for the heritage culture. Parents also can make children aware of age-appropriate websites in the HL that can be explored during choice time.

Efforts such as the ones described above show respect for the HL and culture, which helps strengthen the process of HL maintenance. Considering the significant amount of time and effort it takes to maintain the HL at home (Szecsi & Szilagyi, 2012), teachers can provide valuable support through simply showing appreciation of the HL. By doing so, they not only reinforce the parents' efforts, they also assist in the process of learning about the HL and culture.


The goal of this article was to provide teachers with strategies they can use in their classrooms to promote students' HL skills, even if they do not speak the children's HL. Helping students maintain their HL in the classroom produces benefits on multiple levels. It not only shows students that their HL is valued, but it also may help counterbalance the possible negative consequences of a lack of support from school. Other children also benefit from the teacher's efforts to help students maintain their HLs, because they gain a sense of appreciation for multilingualism through exposure and experience with segments of another language. The strategies provided here can benefit students' language and literacy skills in both languages, and therefore contribute to their academic success, regardless of the language.


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Global Guidelines for Early Childhood Education and Care in the 21st Century

The Global Guidelines Assessment (GGA) is a valuable resource for early care and education programs. "Ihe assessment was developed with the input of educators from more than 27 nations. The assessment consists of five program content areas: Environment and Physical Space, Curriculum Content and Pedagogy, Early Childhood Educators and Caregivers, Partnerships With Families and Communities, and Young Children With Special Needs.

The 2011 edition of the GGA includes 76 indicators of program quality that have global relevance; however, please keep in mind that specific markers of how a standard is met may vary from nation to nation. Although the GGA includes a general rating scale (excellent to inadequate), educators will need to determine their own methods of measuring the attainment of indicators in relation to their own nation's policies and community practices and settings. ACEI encourages educators to use these resources either to design new early childhood programs or improve existing programs.

We are pleased to announce that revised versions of the GGA in English, French, Spanish, Greek, Chinese (simplified and traditional), Russian, and Turkish are now available. Translations in Korean, Italian, and Swahili will soon be available.

Visit the Global Guidelines page ( for more information and to download the documents.

Janka Szilfigyi, Debra Giambo, and Tunde Szecsi

Janka Szilagyi is Assistant Professor, Department of Education and Human Development, The College at Brockport, State University of New York, Debra Giambo is ProfesSor and Tunde Szecsi is Associate Professor, College of Education, Florida Gulf Coast University, Fort Myers, Florida.

Tunde Szecsi, Editor
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Title Annotation:Teaching Strategies
Author:Szilagyi, Janka; Giambo, Debra; Szecsi, Tunde
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2013
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