Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Strategy: Use ELLs' Native Language & Culture to Aid Comprehension

In his famous book, Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury says, "You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture.  Just get people to stop reading them."  Taken in a metaphorical sense, this can apply to many situations, especially ELLs.  The daily life and education of ELLs in the United States often requires them to mold themselves into our way of life and also to acculturate quickly--it's not the burning of books, but the denial of their culture to flourish.  The United States of America has always been a melting pot, celebrating the fact that our cultural diversity is plentiful.  From Pennsylvania's Dutch to New Orleans' French Quarter to California's Latin American & Eastern Asian influences, America boasts some of the most cultural diversity in the world.  So, this being said, why in the world would a school require ELL students to put their own culture and language on the back burner and focus on "ours?"  ELLs' cultures should be celebrated in the schools, not "burned" or forced away.   

There are proven, research-based benefits of allowing ELLs to use their native language and cultures in the classroom.  An article called Principles for Writing Practices with Young ELLs says, "only by recognizing and relating to ELLs' linguistic and cultural backgrounds could teachers authentically improve instruction and help them succeed" (McCarthey 117).  I believe teachers need to prove to their ELLs that they can celebrate and appreciate their native cultures and languages at school.  This can be as simple as respecting cultural differences like how some cultures in Asia are taught to never question the teacher, even if the student needs help, because the teacher is the authority figure---we should try that here, am I right?  I believe that ELLs need to feel comfortable in the classroom in order to thrive in gaining content knowledge AND English proficiency.  Allowing them to use their native language and cultures can help ELLs connect to their background knowledge, gain proficiency, self-confidence, and other social and academic skills.  

 Here are some ideas I have for allowing students to use their native language and culture in the classroom:
  • Have ELLs keep a daily journal to record their thoughts and feelings in their native language, which will maintain their writing/literacy skills.
  • Provide handouts/graphic organizers with photos and charts so that ELLs can comprehend these concepts in the native language and transfer that to English comprehension.
  • Plan a cultural unit/week where groups of students, headed by the ELLs, present their cultures to the whole class with visuals, food, items, etc.  This will help ELLs with teamwork, trusting their peers, presentation/oral skills, English comprehension, and more!  Also, the rest of the class will be exposed to different cultures, traditions, and hopefully appreciate their ELL classmates for their unique backgrounds.  
  • Record videos of yourself for assignment instructions or class material presentations, and send to ELLs so they can practice comprehension and maybe even use subtitles from their native language. 
  • Partner each ELL with a native English speaker during class to act as a peer mentor and translator (through gestures/drawings).
  • Recommend movies, songs, and books in English to your ELL students, so they can practice at home.  These can even be content area related.
  • Create a type of dictionary of pictures and English words that ELLs can use on assignments, during class, and possibly even on tests.
  • Be creative, innovative, and resourceful with technology!
Overall, I think this is the start of a great list to help ELLs make the transition into content area class and English instruction.  It may take some time, and it may take extra work for teachers, but I believe it will be worth it for the best interest and success of the ELL students.  Finally, remember that you are the teacher, the authority figure, and one of the people with the most influence on every student's development and learning experience.  Be their champion!!  Create a diverse and celebrated culture within your classroom where every student feels safe, comfortable, and loved, and you will reap the benefits of watching your hard work pay off in the form of all of your students achievements!

Here is an interesting video of a dual language class where the teacher uses native language to fortify concepts in English vocabulary learning... (4:00 Minutes long)

- McCarthey, Sarah and Zheng, Xun.  :Principles for Writing Practices with Young ELLs."  Best Practices in ELL Instruction.  Ed. Guofang Li.  New York: Guilford Press, 2010.  (103-126).  Print.  
- Photo Credit:,
- Video Credit: Dual Language Learners: Developing Literacy.  From:

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