The Home Language: An English Language Learner's Most Valuable Resource

Dr. Fred Genesee

In this article written for Colorín Colorado, Dr. Fred Genesee discusses the research supporting the importance of a child's home language. In addition, Dr. Genesee explores the question of why an approach that is well-supported by research has been largely ignored in the era of "research-based" policy.

Overview

Webcast: ELLs and Reading

Learn more about using the home language to support ELLs' reading instruction in our Teaching ELLs to Read webcast featuring Dr. Genesee!

The education of English language learners (ELLs) is one of the most important issues facing U.S. educators. ELLs are a large and growing proportion of the school-age population — according to National Center for Educational Statistics, in 2007, about 10.8 million (or 20%) school-aged children in the U.S. spoke a language other than English at home (Planty, Hussar, Snyder, Kena, Kewal Ramani, Kemp, Bianco, & Dinkes, 2009). This situation is not likely to change because ELLs are currently the fastest growing population in U.S. schools (National Center for Education Statistics, 2004), with the number of ELLs expected to increase another 50% by 2025 (Passel & Cohn, 2008).

The importance of the issues goes beyond the sheer number of ELLs, however. It has been shown in numerous national studies and surveys that, on average, ELLs under achieve in comparison to their English-speaking peers in academic domains and that the achievement gap tends to increase the higher the grade level (e.g., Fry, 2007; Rumberger, 2007; McNeil et al., 2008). As we consider ways to help ELLs increase their academic achievement, then, it is clear that educators need all the resources at their disposal to meet these challenges.

Policy and Home Language

Until recently, significant efforts were made to enhance the educational outcomes of ELLs by offering alternative forms of education that incorporate use of ELLs' home language (Genesee, 1999, for a review). These programs were justified on the grounds that educating ELLs in English only posed a triple threat to their educational success since it would require that they simultaneously:

  • learn academic English to high levels,
  • master challenging academic skills and content taught through English,
  • adopt new social skills that would permit them to integrate with their English-speaking classmates and teachers.

However, in recent years, recent political and legislative initiatives that disfavor bilingual education have made these educational options difficult to access, despite evidence of their success (Goldenberg, 2009). Along with these politically-motivated changes, it would appear that educators and policy-makers no longer recognize the native language skills of ELLs as an important educational resource and, indeed, it would even appear that they discredit it having any role in the education of ELLs.

What does the research say?

At the same time that the role of the home language is diminishing in public education policy, there have been growing political and legislative expectations that educational policies and classroom practices be backed up by scientific, empirical evidence. With respect to ELLs, there is undeniable and growing evidence that the home language of ELLs is of considerable benefit to their overall academic success. There are multiple sources of such evidence. First, recent meta-analyses have shown that educational programs that systematically incorporate use of ELLs' home language result in levels of academic success, including achievement in literacy and other academic subjects, that are as high as and often better than that of ELLs in English-only programs (Genesee & Lindholm-Leary, in press). In a review of these meta-analyses, Goldenberg (2008) notes "Readers should understand how unusual it is to have five meta-analyses on the same issue conducted by five independent researchers or groups of researchers with diverse perspectives. The fact that they all reached essentially the same conclusion is worth noting. No other area in educational research with which I am familiar can claim five independent meta-analyses based on experimental studies — much less five that converge on the same basic finding." (p. 15).

Second, in a study of ELLs in two-way immersion programs, Lindholm and Aclan (1991) found a significant positive relationship between individual student's level of bilingual proficiency and their achievement in math and reading in English. Furthermore, the students who were classified as "high bilinguals" were able to attain grade level results by fourth grade in English reading and by third grade in English math.

Third, a growing body of evidence from researchers around the world has shown that bilingual children exhibit significant cognitive advantages in comparison to monolingual children (e.g., Bialystok 2006; Chin & Wigglesworth, 2007; Kovaacs & Mehler, 2009). These advantages have been demonstrated in executive control processes related to selective attention and inhibition and monitoring of attention when, for example, children are engaged in problem solving.

Fourth, and finally, extensive research, again from around the world, has found that children who are learning to read in a second language are able to transfer many skills and knowledge from their first language to facilitate their acquisition of reading skills in the second language. The best evidence of this comes from studies showing that students with strong reading skills in the home language also have strong reading skills in their second language. Much of this work has been done on ELLs in the U.S. (August & Shanahan, 2006; Riches & Genesee, 2006).

What we see in the U.S., then, is a push for research-based policy but the creation of policies that contradict the research. Debate concerning the value of using ELLs' home language in specially-designed programs, such as two-way immersion, will undoubtedly continue, and so it should since it makes little educational sense to diminish U.S. students' opportunities to become bilingual in an increasingly globalized community.

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Home Language in the Classroom

In the meantime, teachers and students can't wait for these policy debates to be settled before deciding how or whether to draw upon ELLs' home language. The question arises how can schools and teachers, even those who are monolingual, act on evidence that clearly shows the personal, cognitive, linguistic and educational value of using the linguistic resources that ELLs bring to school. There is no simple or single answer to this question, but a number of options are worth exploring that, at the moment, are often overlooked and discounted. Cloud, Genesee, and Hamayan (2009, Chapter 3) offer a number of suggestions:

  • To encourage students to see connections between their languages and, thus, to better understand how languages are structured and organized, talk to ELLs about their home language — ask them:
    • How is the home language the same and how it is different from English?
    • Are there words in the home language that sound the same and mean the same thing in both languages?
    • Are there words in the home language and English that sound the same but mean different things?
  • As part of phonological and metalinguistic awareness exercises to facilitate reading acquisition, ask students:
    • to say words that start with the same sound(s) in English or the L1.
  • how words are changed and formed in the home language — singular and plural forms, present tense and past tense forms of verbs — to enhance their word knowledge
  • who are new to your class, to read books in their home language to show you what they know about reading.

By using the collective skills and knowledge of all students (both ELL and English-L1 students) in the classroom, even a monolingual teacher can tap into these valuable language resources that ELLs have and do so with the confidence that these methods will promote their language development — in English as well as the home language.

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Education for All

A hallmark of public education in the U.S. is respect for and appreciation of the individual skills and backgrounds of students as a foundation for furthering their education. Taking advantage of ELLs' home language resources is asking no more than the same respect and appreciation for this group of learners. At the same time, parents, teachers, educational leaders in local school districts, and politicians should discuss how best to provide all students in the U.S. with high quality educational programs that promote competence in additional languages. At stake is not only the competitiveness of individual students once they enter the work force but, indeed, the ability of the U.S. itself to compete in an increasingly multilingual and multicultural world.

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About the Author

Fred Genesee is Professor in the Psychology Department at McGill University, Montreal. He has conducted extensive research on alternative forms of bilingual and immersion education for language minority and language majority students. His current research interests also include language acquisition in pre-school bilingual children, internationally-adopted children, second language reading acquisition, and the language and academic development of students at-risk in bilingual programs. He is the recipient of the Canadian Psychological Associate Award for Distinguished Contributions to Community or Public Service and the 2-Way CABE Award of Promoting Bilingualism. Publications include:

Genesee, F., Paradis, J., & Crago (Eds.) (2010). Dual Language Development and Disorders: A Handbook on Bilingualism and Second Language Learning, 2nd Edition. Baltimore, Maryland: Brookes Publishing.

Cloud, N., Genesee, F., and Hamayan, E. (2009). Literacy Instruction for English Language Learners: A Teacher's Guide to Research-Based Practices. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

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Acknowledgements

Our policy section is made possible by a generous grant from the Carnegie Corporation. The statements and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.

References

August, D., & Shanahan, T. (Eds.) (2006). Developing literacy in second language learners. Report of the national literacy panel on minority-language children and youth. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Bialystok, E. (2006). The impact of bilingualism on language and literacy development. In Bhatia, T.K., & W.E. Ritchie (Eds.) The handbook of bilingualism (pp. 577-601). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Chin, N.B., & Wigglesworth, G. (2007). Bilingualism: An advanced resource book. London: Routledge.

Cloud, N., Genesee, F., & Hamayan, E. (2009). Literacy Instruction for English Language Learners. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Fry, R. (2007). How far behind in math and reading are English language learners? Washington, D.C.: Report of the Pew Hispanic Center.

Genesee, F. (1999). Program alternatives for linguistically diverse students. Educational Practice Report #1. Santa Cruz, CA: Center for Research on Education, Diversity and Excellence.

Genesee, F., & Lindholm-Leary, K. (in press). The education of English language learners. In K. Harris, S. Graham, & T. Urdan (Eds), APA Handbook of Educational Psychology. Washington DC: APA Books.

Goldenberg, C. (2008). Teaching English language learners: What the research does — and does not — say. American Educator, 32, 8-23, 42-44.

Kovacs, A.M., & J. Mehler, J. (2009). Cognitive gains in 7-month-old infants. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(16), 6556-6550.

Lindholm, K.J., & Aclan, Z. (1991). Bilingual proficiency as a bridge to academic achievement: Results from bilingual/immersion programs. Journal of Education 173, 99-113.

McNeil, L., Coppola, E., Radigan, J., & Vasquez-Heilig, J. (2008).Avoidable losses: High-stakes accountability and the dropout crisis. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 16(3): http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v16n3/

National Center for Education Statistics (2004). Language minority learners and their labor market indicators: Recent trends. http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2004/2004009.pdf

Passel, J.S., & Cohn, D. (2008). U.S. Population Projections: 2005-2050. Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center: Social and Demographic Trends.

Planty, M., Hussar, W., Snyder, T., Kena, G., Kewal Ramani, A., Kemp, J., Bianco, K., & Dinkes, R. (2009). The Condition of Education 2009 (NCES 2009-081). Washington, DC.: National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

Riches, C., & Genesee, F. (2006). Cross-linguistic and cross-modal aspects of literacy development. In F. Genesee, K. Lindholm-Leary, W. Saunders, & D. Christian, D. Educating English language learners: A synthesis of research evidence (pp. 64-108). NY: Cambridge University Press.

Rumberger, R. (2007). Lagging behind: Linguistic minorities' education progress during elementary school. University of California Linguistic Minority Research Institute Newsletter, 16(2), 1-3

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