I will always remember the first time I observed Ms. King's class. As I walked down the hallway on my way to her room, I was captivated by a bulletin board displaying a series of plastic spoons wearing colorful paper clothing, sporting yarn for hair, and featuring silly faces drawn on with permanent marker.
I smiled as I began to read the stories that accompanied the spoon people. All of them were written in both English and Spanish. I couldn't believe it. I walked through the classroom door and found Ms. King speaking in Spanish to an attentive group of 4th and 5th grade students.
In that moment, I felt a sense of validation about my first language that I'd never experienced before in an academic setting. I spent the rest of that school year student-teaching in Ms. King's two-way immersion classroom, conducting research on first-language maintenance and bilingual students and investigating the relationship between English language learners' perception of their first language and their academic performance.
What I found is that students who have a positive perception of their first language academically outperform students who view their first language negatively. My investigation clearly demonstrated that those teachers who created a language-inclusive classroom simultaneously created a more effective learning environment.
Value Students' First Language
Teachers play an important role in helping students form a positive image of themselves. When teachers recognize and value their students' first language, they not only contribute to their students' academic success and second language development, but also tell students that they value and appreciate their cultures and backgrounds. By doing so, teachers encourage their students' sense of self-worth and competence.
It is important to mention that teachers do not need to be fluent in the native languages of their students to recognize the value of those languages. In fact, I have seen many monolingual, English-speaking teachers create inclusive classroom environments. Many of the activities that I use in my classroom to recognize my students' first languages were shared with me by such colleagues.
My Favorite Classroom Practices
Here are some of my favorite classroom practices that I use with my students to create a positive and inclusive learning environment where students' language diversity is honored.
- Family tree: I ask my students, both in my elementary and college classrooms, to create a family language tree. Students then share their trees with the class.
This year, my students made colorful trees by placing their handprints on construction paper using tempera paint. Students took their trees home and asked the relatives they were visiting over the holiday break to tell them what languages they spoke.
- Thank-you cards: In November, students learn to say "thank you" in many different languages. One parent volunteer helped my class make multilingual thank-you cards using letter stamps and colorful ink.
- Teaching cognates: Cognates are words that mean the same in English and Spanish and are often pronounced and spelled similarly. For example, cognado is Spanish for cognate. I teach my Spanish-speaking English language learners how to use what they know in Spanish to figure out the meaning of an unknown word in English, and vice versa for my native English speakers.
However, I also teach them about false cognates, such as the word largo, which means long, not large. We keep a list of cognates and false cognates in our classroom. Whenever we come across one, we write it down.
- See the assets: I subscribe to an assets-based teaching pedagogy and reject "deficit" ideologies that view English learners as bundles of deficiencies with nothing to offer their learning community.
- Make barriers flexible: I establish and uphold flexible language barriers. In other words, I allow my students to verbalize their thinking in their native languages in my classroom.
- Create meaningful writing assignments: I create meaningful writing assignments based on ideas such as, "¿Vale la pena ser bilingüe?" (Does it pay to be bilingual?) The year that I taught with Ms. King, she read an article from Time magazine written by a monolingual English-speaking mother who wanted to raise her children bilingual.
Using the article as a springboard, the class spent considerable time discussing the effort, benefits, and outcomes of being bilingual and wrote essays in English and Spanish expressing their thoughts.
- Share research: I share my knowledge and research findings on the benefits of being bilingual with my students and their families. In fact, this week I was invited to speak to parents of incoming kindergarteners about the importance of first-language maintenance and the two-way immersion program at our school.
- Greetings in different languages: One of the teachers at my school teaches her students a different greeting each month. When she takes attendance, her students answer by using the greeting of the month. She starts with greetings in the languages represented in her classroom.
- Include songs: We listen to and sing songs in other languages. Every morning in my classroom, the Student of the Day picks a song for the class to sing from our collection.
In my experience as an educator, creating learning opportunities that place value on students' heritage languages is a crucial part of ensuring academic and social success.
What are you doing in your classroom, implicitly or explicitly, to honor your students' language diversity? Discuss this article on Inservice, ASCD's blog, and share your ideas for creating a language-inclusive classroom.
Liliana Aguas is a 2nd grade dual-language immersion teacher at Leconte Elementary School in Berkeley, Calif. She received ASCD's Outstanding Young Educator Award in 2012.
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