Five Fundamental Strategies for Bilingual Learners

12/23/2015 05:05 pm ET Updated Dec 23, 2016

What do you do when half of your class speaks one language, but the other half was raised speaking another? As a teacher, it's physically impossible to speak more than one language at a time, and no matter how much you slow down, repeat instructions, or demonstrate the task at hand, often you're met with blank stares - or worse, students who checked out the second you started using their second language. But is it really their fault?

Teachers in dual language classrooms face an incredible challenge: they need to teach a linguistically diverse class of students to read and write in both languages, while also teaching increasingly difficult academic content... in two languages. While research points to numerous benefits of bilingual schooling, our teachers are the ones who need to - almost magically - turn a class full of kids into bilingual learners. This article aims to provide educators with five fundamental strategies to promote linguistic cross-pollination among students in dual language classrooms. These recommendations are drawn largely from the Center for Applied Linguistics.

1. Use group work strategically

One advantage of dual-language classrooms is the opportunity for students to work with classmates who are not from the same community, language background or culture. Next time you're creating groups, think about how you want to structure them. On one hand, heterogeneous groups allow students to practice communicating and collaborating across languages and cultures, while on the other, homogenous groups allow you to tailor specific learning objectives to learners with differentiated needs. Secondly, when designing group tasks, create both structured and unstructured opportunities for kids to use their languages. In the classroom, this might be a task where students need to use formal language to plan a group project according to a graphic organizer (structured), or to interview classmates and collect data based on these projects (unstructured).

2. Adopt a content-based language instruction approach

To keep up with the academic rigors for your language learners, content-based language instruction is an effective teaching approach that incorporates both language and content area objectives into each lesson. One way to think about it is to have a SWBAT (students will be able to...) for content area objectives, and another SWBAT for the language objectives. For example, when teaching a unit on the lifecycle of butterflies, a content objective might be for students to explain the lifecycle in a poster presentation, while the language objective would be to use the language of sequencing (i.e. First, Then, Next, etc.) to express the lifecycle. Make sure students know what the content and language goals are for each lesson, so they can self-regulate their learning and reflect on how well they achieved each objective.

3. Maintain a positive relationship with all students

Though it may not seem like a strategy, research shows that students from any linguistic or ethnic background who have positive social interactions with their teachers have better academic performance. As a teacher, reflect on how you perceive student behavior and achievement in your class, and recognize the biases you bring to the classroom as you interact with students from backgrounds that are different from your own. Challenge labels and dispel stereotypes that are pinned to children who shuffle through the school system (i.e. negative connotations associated with "special education" and "ELLs"); show kids that you are devoted to their education.

4. Set clear expectations about when to use each language

In dual language classes, it is very natural for students to want to use their native language to express themselves. This, however, often results in children who only speak to others with the same language background. To encourage students to persevere in their second language, try setting expectations about which language students should be using during different parts of the day, lesson, or task. Not only will they learn about how to problem solve in moments of linguistic difficulty (i.e. asking their peers for help), but they will also be exposed to, and better able to emulate their peers who are native language speakers of their second language.

For the teacher, studies also show that monolingual lesson delivery is more effective than language mixing during lessons. Monolingual lesson delivery means that for a certain period of time, instruction is only given in one particular language, without translation from teacher assistants or other aids. This engages students in prolonged language exposure of academic content in their second language, and helps them develop listening strategies in their second language.

5. Allow students to translanguage

When thinking about language policies (#4), remember that children who come from bilingual homes often 'translanguage', which is the act of strategically using words from two linguistic repertoires to communicate effectively. This could be saying one sentence in English and then another in Farsi, or even mixing the two languages within one sentence. Welcoming this natural linguistic process into the classroom allows children to engage in the rigors of difficult academic content, and express themselves in deep classroom discussions as they draw from their two languages as a resource. In time, as students gain a stronger command for each language, they will also gain confidence to communicate in each language individually. Most importantly, because they were able to translanguage, they will not have missed out on crucial big ideas and class debates that were discussed in their developing second language.
So what does translanguaging look like? And how can there be a strong presence of both languages in your classroom?

  • Is the literature in your library representative of the different cultures in your class?
  • What languages are visible on the classroom walls?
  • What routines can allow children to express themselves bilingually to promote a multicultural ethos?
  • Do you allow children to translanguage during certain group discussions if they find it difficult to express an academic concept in their second language (for example, multilingual turn-and-talk)?
  • Can students keep a language journal to document and reflect on their ability to speak, read, write and listen in each of their languages?
  • Are there bilingual dictionaries and glossaries for students? Do they know how to use them?

How do you help your learners become bilingual and biliterate in class or at home? Feel free to share in the comments section below.