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How can monolingual teachers take advantage of learners' native language in class?

With the increasing linguistic diversity of students in many classrooms around the world, teachers need to be well-equipped with strategies to address the learning needs of students with limited proficiency in the dominant language of the classroom. This article outlines various strategies that might help teachers reach that goal by taking advantage of students' proficiency in their first language, using examples from the United States. Conversations about the significance of students' first language can contribute to enhancing students' confidence and learning abilities. What can be learned about the value of first language in education has relevance for multi-lingual learning environments across the world.

Ms. Thompson has a new student in her 7th-grade class. Reem is from Egypt and does not speak much English; her reading level is far below grade level. Because she is behind the other students, she suffers from a lack of confidence and is hesitant in class. As Reem is very dependent on the teacher for guidance and reassurance, Ms. Thompson is seeking ways to build her confidence and help her acquire her new language. But she also must attend to the needs of the 24 other students in her class. In this article, we hope to outline strategies that may help Ms. Thompson accomplish some of these goals by taking advantage of her student's first language (L1).

For the past few decades, many mainstream teachers have seen an increase in the number of language minority students (LMSs) in their classes. These students often have lower levels of proficiency in the dominant language of the classroom, their second language or L2, and speak, read, and write in a minority language that the mainstream teacher rarely comprehends. The examples used in this article refer to nonnative English speakers learning English as a second language, but the challenges are mirrored around the world wherever teachers have students whose first language is different from the language of instruction.

In the United States and elsewhere, inclusion movements have resulted in LMSs spending more time in the mainstream classroom as opposed to being segregated in self-contained LMS classrooms (Samson & Collins, 2012). While this inclusive movement has allowed LMSs to truly participate in the school community, it also has placed more pressure on mainstream teachers, many of whom are not adequately prepared to help LMSs achieve academic success. In the United States, approximately 74% of mainstream teachers have had little to no preparation for working with LMSs (Lucas & Grinberg, 2008). Of those who had participated in professional development related to ESL practices, few had more than a few hours of preparation. According to the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition (2008), only 29.5% of U.S. teachers with LMSs in their classes have the preparation to effectively engage LMSs in academic instruction, and 57% of teachers believe they need additional preparation with regard to LMSs.

Often, monolingual mainstream teachers who have LMSs in their classes are hesitant to take advantage of an LMS's L1 in class for a variety of reasons. Some teachers are simply uncomfortable around other languages, and some do not believe they can use a second language in the classroom if they do not have the language skills themselves. Other teachers may believe that non-native speakers will acquire their new language faster if they are not allowed to use their first language in class. Yet many authors have written about the benefits of using an LMS's L1 to increase both content learning and language acquisition (Espinosa, 2008; Reed & Railsback, 2003). According to Espinosa, studies suggest that young children are quite capable of learning subject matter in two languages and that this process has cognitive benefits. Ricciardelli's (1992) research supported the conclusion that higher levels of bilingualism are correlated with higher levels of cognitive development in LMSs.

The purpose of this article is to provide mainstream teachers with several activities by which LMSs can effectively use their L1 to both build confidence and improve their acquisition of the new language. The examples provided are scenarios adapted from personal experiences as well as our literature review. In most cases, these activities have been used in elementary classrooms, but they also have applications in upper grade levels. These activities can increase the sense of community within the classroom. The most important requirement from mainstream teachers is that they are willing to try something new.


Brooks and Karathanos (2009) outline good, well-established reasons to use an LMS's L1 in a mainstream class. It is critically important that LMSs not only maintain their L1 while learning the new language, but also continue to actively use it. Recent research indicates that the early development of two languages increases density in the areas of the brain related to memory, language development, and attention (Mechelli et al., 2004).

Mother tongue loss is common among LMSs (Hakuta, Butler, & Witt, 2000). This L1 loss may have significant negative impacts for young children. Early L1 loss in young children can predispose teachers and others to presume a learning disability when children do not progress in L2 acquisition (Brice, Brice, & Kester, 2010). Additionally, children's loss of their first language can greatly hamper communication with their parents. Finally, L1 loss can significantly impact L2 acquisition (Cummins, 1984, 1998; Thomas & Collier, 1997).

In order to be academically successful in a mainstream class, an LMS must acquire both social and academic aspects of the new language (Cummins,

1981). This relationship between social and academic language has been studied for quite some time in the field of bilingual and ESL education and much is known about the relationship between academic success and the acquisition of the academic language of instruction. In fact, one cannot realistically occur without the other. Cummins (1984,1998) was one of the first researchers to link L1 maintenance to L2 acquisition. He posited that LMSs are able to effectively transfer language skills from their L1 to the L2, but only if a certain point, a threshold, of fluency had been reached in the L1 (Cummins & Swain, 1986).

Additionally, using an LMS's L1 in class can make that classroom more inviting for the student. Pappamihiel (2002) found that LMSs often feel more anxious in the mainstream classroom than they do in a self-contained ESL classroom. Even simple use of the LMS's L1 can help alleviate some of this anxiety. Saying "Good morning" or "Good afternoon" in the student's L1 can go a long way in creating a welcoming, safer environment for LMSs in the mainstream classroom. Making some effort to speak the student's L1 can also give teachers the chance to be a learner and show LMSs that diversity in the classroom is valued.


Some teachers believe that an immersion approach is the most appropriate method of helping LMSs learn a new language quickly and efficiently (Reeves, 2006). Other teachers believe that exposing children to too many languages will confuse them. Although this perception has been proven false (Espinosa, 2008), the belief remains. Karabenick and Clemens Noda (2004) found that a majority of teachers in their study believed LMSs using their Lis at home inhibits their new language acquisition at school.

Sadly, some teachers simply hold negative attitudes about an LMS's L1 . Garca-Nevarez, Stafford, and Arias (2005) found that traditional, mainstream teachers tended to have more negative attitudes about their LMSs' L1 than bilingual education teachers. Additionally, these same authors found that mainstream teachers are less receptive to LMSs using their L1 in class when compared to teachers certified in bilingual and / or ESL education. These mainstream teachers believed that English should be the language of instruction for all students at all times.


How can a monolingual mainstream teacher support a student's L1 in the classroom? It is not necessary to have translation in class or require mainstream teacher to learn the native languages of LMSs. Teachers cannot be sure that the LMS will be familiar with words used in a translation. Dialectal language differences could cause confusion and lead to erroneous identification of L1 deficits.

L1 use strategies can be simple or complex. Even a complex L1 strategy can be easily implemented, however, by a monolingual teacher. We encourage teachers to adapt these strategies to suit their classes and the needs of all their students. Please note that pseudonyms are used throughout.

L1 Study Buddies

One of the most common L1 strategies is using an L1 study buddy. This strategy is most easily implemented when several children in the classroom share the same L1 . In this strategy, teachers can take advantage of L1 peers whose second language proficiency is more advanced than others. In these cases, L1 study buddies can be used when the whole class is doing a group assignment or when the teacher is working with a particularly challenging topic that may require an exorbitant amount of time for developing new vocabulary. Teachers should note, how ever, that dialectal differences can impact the effectiveness of this strategy. Before implementing this strategy, teachers should ensure that students do share enough language to make this a feasible accommodation.


Vocabulary development can be particularly trying for LMSs, especially when learning new vocabulary without an extensive existing schema or context. Cardenas-Hagan (2012) recommended that students be allowed to have extended discussions using the word(s) and note that bilingual glossaries can help reinforce newly learned vocabulary. L1 study buddies allow LMSs the opportunity to develop schema for new vocabulary that then can be transferred into the mainstream language environment of the class.

For example, when a 3rd-grade teacher, Mr. Jones, introduces the concept of Fahrenheit and Celsius in a science lesson, he can allow his three Spanish-speaking LMSs the opportunity to discuss the topic in Spanish for a few minutes. He knows that one of the students, Jesus, has a high enough English proficiency to understand the explanation. Jesus then can have a fairly in-depth conversation with his lower proficiency level classmates (Marta and Alvaro), helping them to build schema for these two new vocabulary terms. When the class comes together to complete a hands-on project, Jesus has further developed his knowledge by teaching something to his peers and Marta and Alvaro are able to take better advantage of the demonstration and hands-on activity.

The important part of this strategy is the extended discussion.

When another native L1 speaker is not available and students are working independently, teachers can allow LMSs to use their L1 to brainstorm. For example, if students are doing a pre-writing graphic organizer, like a bubble map, LMSs can complete the bubble map in their L1 and then use that native language organizer to help formulate their essay in the new language.

L1 Dialog Journals

Dialog journals facilitate communication between teachers and students. Students write on a topic and their teachers then respond in writing. Ideally, they serve as written conversations. They have been used with both native and non-native speaking students and have multiple benefits for both groups (Peyton, 1993). The authors of this article have seen this type of dialog journal used with great success with 3rd-grade LMSs who were on grade level in their L1, Korean. When the year began, they wrote almost exclusively in Korean; as the year progressed, however, the balance shifted and they began using English most of the time.

In these dialog journals, LMSs write in their L1 , using their new language when they know the approximate words and illustrations to scaffold their message. Teachers find a few minutes each week to review the journals, asking the LMS to explain to the best of his/her ability what is happening in the journal entry. The teacher then writes a response to the LMS's journal, highlighting new vocabulary using the LMS's own illustrations. This type of strategy allows the LMS to take advantage of fluid writing time without spending so much time with the dictionary.

For example, a student from Burkina Faso in Mrs. Williams' 5th-grade language arts class has low literacy skills in English, but a high proficiency in French. Mrs. Williams does not speak or write French. Twice a week, she and Ismael sit down and discuss his dialog journal entry using the limited English language skills that Ismael possesses at the moment. Through rough sketches, a bilingual dictionary, hand gestures, and mimicking, they are able to discuss the dialog journal entry. Mrs. Williams later prepares a feedback response to their exchange, providing new vocabulary as well as clarification of any misunderstandings that arose. Ismael is able to review Mrs. Williams' comments later at his own pace and use those comments in his next dialog journal entry.

Coding the Text

As teachers and students move into more complex readings, LMSs often have difficulty reading large amounts of text. As they transition from "learning to read" to "reading to learn," this extra reading can be a significant challenge. An LMS may need much more time to read a piece of text than native speakers. This extra work places a significant linguistic burden on LMSs that is often unnecessary. Consider how much reading an LMS does for a social studies assignment when the objective of the assignment is content-related rather than a language arts exercise. By helping LMSs highlight main ideas ahead of time, teachers can reduce the linguistic burden placed on them, especially when the focus of the reading is content learning. Teachers can identify the sentences or paragraphs that contain the important points related to the lesson objectives and place sticky note sheets or blank thought bubbles onto the LMS's copy. The LMS can fill in the bubbles and sheets with L1 notes. This strategy helps LMSs develop schematic connections that are meaningful to them on both linguistic and cultural levels (Brooks & Karathanos, 2009).

In Mr. Fiveash's 5th-grade social studies class, Yadira, a new arrival from the Dominican Republic, has a limited working proficiency of English. While she is able to function in the classroom without much difficulty, she does not completely understand some of the more demanding texts. With this in mind, Mr. Fiveash prepares a copy of the chapter on exploration of the Americas by Europeans for Yadira using thought bubble notes above the most pertinent passages. Yadira, knowing that these sections are important, is able to fill in the bubbles with notes in her L1 . Later, she can use these notes to create graphic organizers and other helpful notes.


Several researchers have commented on the effective use of cognates (Garcia & Nagy, 1993; Nagy, Garcia, Durgunolgu, & Hancin-Bhatt, 1993). Cognates are pairs of words in two different languages that are similar in either spelling or pronunciation and so are easily recognizable in either language. These word pairs help establish familiar territory and schema for LMSs who are expanding their reading skills in a second language.

The use of cognates also can help teachers increase word awareness in LMSs, a task highly associated with the development of academic English.

In terms of academic English, native Spanish-speakers have an advantage when it comes to using cognates. Because many of the words we associate with academic English have Greco-Roman roots, it is common to find many cognates between these academic English words and more common words in other Romance languages, such as Spanish. Corson (1997) argued that higher-level Spanish readers are able to take better advantage of cognates because many of the low-frequency academic words in English are actually high-frequency words in Spanish. While Spanish is the most common minority language in the United States, cognates also can be found between Arabic and English, German and English, and even Japanese and English (although many of these are words that have been borrowed from English and integrated into Japanese).

Ms. Dowdy's 5th-grade science class is studying Newton's First and Second Laws of Motion. Two students from Mexico City who had attended a school known for academic excellence, are very familiar with the material in their L1. However, English still gives them trouble. Much of the English language vocabulary has direct Spanish cognates that they use quite often (object=objetos, accelerate=acelerar, dependent=dependiente, etc.). Putting Manuela and Ricardo into separate small groups with 3 to 4 native English-speaking students who are also having trouble with the assignment, Ms. Dowdy instructs the group to look for cognates in the reading. Discussion of the vocabulary allows both the language learners and the native speakers to flesh out the gist of the class assignment.

One word of caution: "false" cognates do exist that could cause problems in the classroom. For instance, in German, which is closer linguistically to English than Spanish is, the word "gift" means "poison" rather than "present." In Spanish, the most commonly noted false cognate (or "amigos falsos"--false friends) is the word "embarazada." While it sounds very much like "embarrassed," it really means "pregnant." We advise teachers to be aware of these false cognates and to share some examples to raise student awareness of the phenomenon.

Word Walls

Word walls and other glossed vocabulary strategies can be very effective with LMSs. Word walls are organized collections of high-frequency words or words that relate to a particular theme being studied in class. They act as visible reminders, and help students see patterns and relationships among words. While word walls are most closely associated with lower elementary grades, there is no reason not to use them in upper grades. We recommend that word walls be living centers in the class; words would come and go, depending on their role in the class at a particular time.

With word walls, use of the LMSs' L1 is made public. The LMS's language becomes visible for all to see because the L1 is on display and an integral part of the classroom environment. This visibility allows all the students in the classroom to become familiar with the LMS's L1 and helps provide a more supportive learning environment for bilingual children. In a recent study of vocabulary instruction, Carlo et al. (2004) suggested using word walls to increase vocabulary development in both native and non-native English speakers.

Hanna, a 4th-grader from Korea, has studied English grammar. However, she is shy and struggles with speaking. Mr. Brown puts Hanna in a group with three native English speakers working on a word wall project. Using the text as a guide, the students create a glossary for a unit on the solar system using both English and Korean. Hanna is able to participate with the other students without the pressure of speaking in front of a large audience. Other students in class ask her how to pronounce the words in Korean.


Using the L1 strategies outlined here, monolingual mainstream teachers can take advantage of LMSs' native languages to have a positive impact on their self-esteem and sense of well-being in the classroom, while improving their new language acquisition. We hope that mainstream teachers will take these strategies and expand upon them to suit the needs of their individual classes and the students within them.


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Eleni Pappamihiel is Associate Professor, College of Education, and C. Allen Lynn is Assistant Professor, Department of Instructional Technology, Foundations, and Secondary Education, University of North Carolina Wilmington, Wilmington, North Carolina.
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Author:Pappamihiel, Eleni; Lynn, C. Allen
Publication:Childhood Education
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2014
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