Using Students' Native Language for Advanced Learning

Instructor: Linda Winfree

Linda has taught English at grades 6-12 and holds graduate degrees in curriculum and teacher leadership.

In this lesson, you will learn how to use a student's native language for advanced learning with your English Language Learners, including activities to use prior to and during learning.

Using Students' Native Language for Advanced Learning

As a teacher of students who are English Language Learners (ELL), you want to promote their acquisition of English. However, you also want to promote their content area learning. While instruction in English is important, there are times when utilizing a student's first language is equally important.

Using a students' first language in learning activities allows them to focus on the content to be mastered. While they will still be able to practice their English skills with properly applied strategies, the opportunity to interact with content using their native language increases student learning because students are focused on processing the content, rather than the language used.

Let's explore practical classroom strategies you can leverage with your ELL students.


A variety of learning strategies can be used in a student's native language. Layla and Clarissa co-teach middle school classes, with Layla providing instruction in English Language Arts (ELA) and social studies, while Clarissa provides inclusion ELL services. In their grade level, social studies content is state history. Layla and Clarissa find that their ELL students, many of whom emigrated from other countries, struggle with social studies.

While both teachers want their ELL students to increase their English proficiency, they also want the children to acquire knowledge about their new home state. The teachers incorporate instruction based on their students' native languages at several stages throughout an instructional unit.

Activating Prior Knowledge

Layla and Clarissa know that for effective learning to take place, they need to provide a means for students to hook new information onto existing knowledge. Thus, the before learning stage of instruction is an excellent place to use activities in ELL students' native languages.

For this step, Clarissa often pre-teaches unit vocabulary translated into students' first languages. She uses an organizer that presents the terms and definitions in the home language and includes a space for children to sketch their understanding of the term. Clarissa can then assess student understanding from the drawings.

Layla and Clarissa's classes often combine ELA and social studies instruction. Layla knows that anticipation guides, which present students with a series of universal themes or facts about a subject, are effective for all students in activating what they know before learning. She translates these handouts for their ELL students so students can read and respond.

Learning through Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening

Once Layla and Clarissa have activated prior knowledge, they use strategies that incorporate various elements of language, including reading, writing, speaking, and listening.

First, they provide their ELL students with videos and online tutorials in their native language. Layla translates notes and articles about the content into their home languages, so students can learn through reading. This allows students to access information more quickly than if presented in English.

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