Why Don’t We Teach ELLs in Their Native Language?

It has been 35 years since the famous Supreme Court decision in Lau v. Nichols, 414 U.S. 563 (1974), in which the court ruled it was a civil rights violation to teach children in a non-native language they did not understand. The rationale behind the decision was the practice deprived these students of their right to an education, which they were entitled to under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which banned educational discrimination on the basis of national origin). However, the court decided not to prescribe a specific remedy. This left it up to the schools to decide how they would educate non-native language speakers, empowering them with free choice to decide the programs and techniques they would use.

For the most part, school districts developed their own ELL programs and they varied significantly. Not surprisingly, most districts decided it was “better” to teach non-native language speaking students to speak English, rather than provide instruction in the student’s native language. This approach was and is still rationalized by the district, claiming it is in the “best interests of the students”, citing local community circumstances and needs driving the practice. I would contend educating non-English speaking students using English is in the” best interest of the district”.

Back when court decision was made, it is true there was limited research available on the best practices for teaching English Language Learners (ELLs). Back then, it made sense that there would be a broad range of programs and strategizes used for teaching ELLs.

However, in the past 35 years, little has changed. We are far from having universally agreed-upon standards for teaching ELLs. It leads me to wonder why formalized standards and best practices for teaching ELLs is left to the district and not standardized at the state or federal levels.

We’ve known for decade that human learning and cognitive development is based upon activation of prior knowledge. Teaching ELLs in a language other than their native one prevents the ELLs from connecting much of their prior knowledge with the new information they receive. It seems as if this practice ignores one of the most basic fundamentals for human learning.

Still, many school administrators claim limited research exists on what is most effective for teaching ELLs. Some would even claim there is an ongoing debate regarding the best programs and techniques for educating ELL students.

However, there are clear benefits, as mentioned above, to providing ELLs with instruction in their native language. Unfortunately, the reality is economic constraints of delivering this kind of instruction, has created what I’d consider to be a false debate which results in many instances of ELLs being provided with an inferior education that is mediocre at best.

Today, most programs can be categorized into five categories (Hakuta, K., 2000). Those categories, as follows:

1) English as second language (ESL). These programs provide separate instructions for English-language skills. Academic content is provided through mainstream classrooms. (Often, the core content lessons are sacrificed when time is spent outside the classroom learning English under this model).
2) Sheltered instruction/structured immersion. These programs cluster ELLs by their proficiency levels. The subject matter can then be custom tailored to the level.

3) Transitional/early-exit bilingual education – ELLs receive academic instruction in their native language while gradually transitioning to English only instruction over a two-four year timeframe.

4) Maintenance/late-exit bilingual education – like Transitional programs, ELLs receive academic instruction in their native language and gradually transition to English instruction, but differs in that some instruction is continually taught in the students native language for the purpose of developing academic proficiency in both languages.

5) Two-way bilingual education/dual-language immersion – A class of students that consists of two groups: one is ELLs, who all speak the same native language; the other group is native English speaking students. The instruction is provided in both languages, to all the students in the class, and they all students gain bi-lingual academic proficiency.

Most schools in New York have implemented the English as second language (ESL) strategy. I find it interesting that they are all have no state mandated requirements for the mainstream classroom teacher of ELLs.

If we were to ever agree on a universally accepted program it would almost certainly incorporate some level of teaching in the student’s native language. This kind of instruction enables the ELL to activate their prior knowledge and makes cognitive processing of new information more effective.

However, the economic realities are the expenses associated with teaching students in their native languages make it impractical for most school districts. It would be unrealistic to think schools can find and afford to hire enough bilingual teachers, who proficient in both English and the students native language, and also knowledgeable in the requisite content areas. When you consider the dozens of languages spoken in the world, the problem is compounded exponentially.

Even if we could enough bilingual teachers with knowledgeable of the content areas, the class sizes would be relatively small for native languages other than Spanish. Once again, these small class sizes would make the practice cost prohibitive in most districts. This is unfortunate since research shows a positive correlation between smaller class sizes and higher academic performance.

So contrary to subjective debates on the best ways to educate ELLs, I contend it starts with delivering instruction in the child’s native language. The challenge is having adequate resources. I believe we may be able to deliver native language education still remain sensitive to the economic realities of the world we live in.

I believe native language learning is beneficial but currently unfeasible because of the costs. One solution may be to look at this like other learning services and offerings that are inefficient for smaller districts run and manage themselves in-house. The states New York B.O.C.E.S. (Board of Cooperative Educational Services) was established years ago so that individual districts could achieve economies of scale, and outsource services and programs that would be inefficient for the individual district to implement. By borrowing this model and working together, it may be possible to share resources amongst the districts. Then, bilingual teachers who were knowledgeable in the requisite subject areas would only cost the districts a small percentage of the total salary instead of a one full headcount for what may be a handful of students.

Under this plan, the school would then pays only a fraction of what it would cost them as compared to hiring full-time teachers. Not only are ELLs provided with a better education based on learning that utilizes their prior knowledge, but, the students are afforded some cultural familiarity, creating a sense of acceptance and belonging which is instrumental for learning as well. For ELLs, this may be of added importance since many times they are transitioning from a foreign country. Pooling students from neighboring districts also creates an opportunity for them to make new friends who share their cultural values while they learn, which, can also be instrumental for learning.

I am not suggesting that local schools turn the responsibility of educating ELLs over to B.O.C.E.S. Rather, borrow this shared services model to establish more cooperative relationships between neighboring school districts. This would enable them to pool groups of students, who speak a common language and are at same level, into class sizes that are economically feasible.

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34 responses to “Why Don’t We Teach ELLs in Their Native Language?

  1. I feel that this is a very controversial topic. I feel that it is important for students who speak other languages to be able to learn in their native language. However, I feel that this becomes a crutch for many students after a certain point. I am a substitute teacher and I see, many times, students pretending that they don’t speak English just to not do the work. These students try to get away with the fact that their main language isn’t English so they try to do as little work as possible. Therefore, these students are robbing themselves of a proper education.

  2. Students who speak a different language I dont believe should be taught in their native language. As grlsofn1, stated it will become a crutch for those students. Many students feel comfortable speaking in their own language, yes, but where is the learning in that for them. I think for non-english speakers, they should work at learning another language or the the language of the country they are living in. One reminder, they wont always be able to speak to someone of their culture all the time or have the use of a translator. They must put the work in to learn and advancing them selves educationally.

  3. I understand and agree with making certain concessions for students who have trouble with the English language (extra help, english tutoring, etc), but bending too far to help can be detrimental rather than beneficial. In my opinion, that’s where this topic falls. To teach children in their native language is like treating a head cold with decapitation. Let’s put it this way… and I’m going try my best not to sound, at the very worst, like a racist or at the very least, uncaring. But the last time I checked, this was America and OUR native language is English. Not Spanish, not Chinese, or any other language for that matter. Therefore, if an individual – child or adult – wants to make a life here, then they should be forced to learn English just like every other person who preceeded them. My grandparents came here from Italy. Neither of them knew a word of English. They knew, however, that the key to their success was to learn the English language, which they did. If a child from the U.S. moved to Japan, do you think they would change tests around so he or she could read them in English? I’m so tired of hearing about how our system needs to adjust to help people fit the system. They’ve got it wrong. It’s the people that need adjusting, not the educational system.

    • I believe that an education student as you and I should not think about our future students in the way you are doing it, without any sympathy. You do not know what is like to come from another country and don’t know the language. A child who comes to this Great Country without knowing the language has a lot to deal with. The child’s self esteem is low because his/her insecurities. The child also has to learn a new language and besides that has to learn every class subject in the new language. It is not an easy task; however, many of them achieve the task. You don’t have an idea what that is like. I am glad for your grandparents that came to the USA and learned the language, but I strongly believe that they also felt the pain that all these students feel when they come to this country without knowing English. You should think as a good teacher would think: every child is different. Many people are shy, a problem that makes the learning more difficult. I am an adult and I still have problems with the language just because I am a timid person.
      A person should think before he/she says what is on his/her mind. People that grew up here are very lucky, but not everybody is that lucky. I believe that the child or the adult that comes to this country should learn the language, but only for their own good and not for the reason that you stated “But the last time I checked, this was America and OUR native language is English”. You need to think before you talk or many people will think that you are racist. You show no compassion in your heart at all. Your quote “I’m going try my best not to sound, at the very worst, like a racist or at the very least, uncaring” is grammatically incorrect, especially for a person with your English intellect. However, going back to your statement, I do believe that you do not care about our ELL students.
      We as teachers should care about every child. We need to understand their background, culture, and needs. We should be there to help students and not to diminish them with ideologies that only show racism.

      This is the reason why the education system continues to look for new ways to reach the students because some folks do not have an open mind and innovative mind to teach.

  4. Yes, it is true that people living in USA should definitely learn English. However, the fact of the matter is that this country is one, which with the passing of the years, has prided itself in being very diverse and one of opportunities. With that said, I believe that if a person knows another language other than English, he/she is that much more marketable in ANY profession they might be interested in. And so, these studednts’ native language should not be oppressed but embraced and they should be encouraged to practice it along with English not replace it.

  5. This topic is very interesting and could go both ways. It could go a way that teaching the students in their native language could help them keep and get more proficient in it. Considering that a lot of student does lose their mother tongue after certain amount of time if it’s not used. Or it could go a way that teaching in the students native language can impact their learning in a new language and perhaps slow down the learning process. In my opinion you have to look at the type of children you have, considering you may have students who will learn and excel in a new language when they are being taught in their native language and you do have to look at those kids who perhaps need to be immersed in just the new language in order to learn it.

  6. As many of you previously stated, the issue of teaching ELL students in their native language is controversial. When I attended SUNY Oswego, I was a TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) major. Therefore, I feel that ELL students should be taught in English; but teachers need to be aware of teaching strategies to help the ELL student. If the child doesn’t learn English, they will have difficulties later on with finding a job and communicating with peers. If you think about it, if you were to move to a different country and didn’t know the language then you would have to learn the language that is spoken in that country.

  7. I think that the Ells should be offered in ENGLISH, as they are, due to the obvious fact that we’re in America- where English is the langague! I completely understand that learning a new language in a new country is difficult, having studied abroad I understand the challenge that these students face, however, I had to learn French while in France.. and I strong belive that they should learn English. I agree that teachers need to keep in mind that this may be difficult for some of their students, and extra attention and help might be needed, but overall, this is America, we speak English, our test our in English and if you don’t like that, don’t come to this country.

  8. There are some thoughts that people should keep to themselves. I feel very sorry for future teachers that show nothing but antipathy to diversity. A conscious teacher should not post those kinds of comments. What is that you are going to teach your students? I feel some of you are very racists and need to stop making those kinds of comments.

  9. Children who speak another language should not learn in their native language. The best way to learn any language is to be totally immersed in it. Compare it to learning a foreign language in school, most teachers taught you French, Italian, Spanish… etc. in English. Now think if you would have spent that time in France, Italy or Spain. A place where you have no idea what is being said but you learn. You learn because you have no other choice. English is no longer a crutch since it is not being used. Your only way to succeed is to learn the language. In a class that is only taught in English will allow the children to experience something similar.

  10. I think that this is a very controversial issue. I do feel that in order to be a successful student, children must learn English, since all of our tests are in English. I disagree with teaching children in their native languages. I do not think that it helps. When my family came from Italy they went to school knowing nothing of English. But they now can speak it better then me. I believe that total immersion in a language is the best way to learn the language. However, this does not mean that the teacher should not be sensitive to ELLs. I am a TESOL major (teaching English to speakers of other languages) so I am learning the techniques and strategies to help teach the ELL students, without needing to speak their native languages. Maybe all teachers should know these strategies in order to deal with this ongoing issue.

  11. godsproperty2006

    In 1974, the Supreme Court ruled that children should be taught in a language they do not understand. Schools had to plan programs for non-native language speakers and many different types of programs were planned. According to Hakuta,” Today, most programs can be categorized into five categories:
    1) English as second language
    2) Sheltered Instruction/structured immersion.
    3) Transitional/early-exit bilingual education.
    4) Maintenance/late-exit bilingual education.
    5) Two-way bilingual education/dual-language immersion.
    According to the article, teaching students in their native language is often difficult it is very costly and it is often difficult to find bilingual teachers. The article recommends using NY B.O.C.E.S. to teach ELL learners. Students would get a better education and the plan would be least costly for districts.
    I agree with the article because I feel it is often difficult and costly to hire a bilingual teacher. Students should be thought in their own native language, but at the same time, it is very important for them to learn English. Most Americans communicate in English. It would be beneficial for the student to learn English in order to be successful in school and to continue their studies.

  12. I have mixed feeling about this article. I have never been in another country where I did not know the language, so I can’t really understand how ELL students feel. Being a TESOL major has helped me to understand how non native English speakers feel. I believe that there needs to be well researched research on this subject. Is total immersion good for these students?? Is teaching in part native tongue and English better? I have yet to read a great article that addresses this issue. I have however read a lot of articles wondering what we should do.

  13. Why don’t we Teach ELLs in Their Native Language?

    After reading this article I came to the conclusion that what the writer is trying to say is respectable. The idea of teaching ELL in the student’s native language well definitely enhance learning. I personally don’t agree with the idea of teaching students in their native language. Learning will be easier for the student in their native language, but they will never become proficient in English here in America. The ELL student will use his/her native language as a crutch instead of being pushed to develop English skills. The ELL students who learn English will quickly pick up the language and apply it in school. These students know that time is crucial and every second counts if they are to do well in school. If a class was being taught by a teacher who is bilingual, the students will not feel so pressured to learn English because they know the teacher can speak to them in their native language. This will delay the process of learning English and eventually slow their down their learning in the long run. They will become accustomed to the bilingual teacher only to find out later that the world does not operate in this way. Just maybe if we push these students a little harder we can make English the dominate language. Then everyone in the United States will know how to speak, read, as well as write in English so that we can abolish all the other languages in the working society of America.

  14. This article made me think more about learning
    English from the point of view of the student. It must be extremely difficult for a new student from another country who doesn’t know English to integrate into a public elementary school or high school. The demands of learning the new curriculum at the same pace as their classmates must be daunting. They are learning a new language with help from an ELL teacher in many cases but they logically must be falling behind in their school work while they are in the process of learning this new language. We should be more cognitive of this hardship and try to incorporate teaching in their native language for a certain amount of time. Anything else is truly unfair.

  15. The first question that comes to mind, as the mother of a multilingual four year old, why do we teach our English-speaking children in English? Shouldn’t we teach them math and science in Chinese if we really wanted to put them a step ahead? Shouldn’t we teach both the ELL students and the English-speaking students according to the business world they will have to engage in as professionals?

  16. Teaching ELL students in English and their native language is the better option but it is also expensive. Reserach shows that the ELL student performs better when bilingual education is supported.

  17. elizabethhartofilis

    This is truly such an important topic especially because of all the diverse cultures we have in this country. It truly must be hard for the english language learners to consitrate on a new to them language and at the same time still have to learn the curriculum. I realize and understand that teaching them new things in their own language will trigger their prior knowledge and they will learn more effectively. But the issue though is that they need to learn and speak english. I do not think there is any easy way around this. maybe there can be a transition period where they are taught in their own native language, but slowly this has to be changed all to english. As good as it sounds for schools to share teachers so they dont have to haev the full expensive, I just dont see how this can happen. I think this can become complicated and confusing. It is a possibility even the teacher will not want to work at different districts.

  18. This was a very enlightening article that highlights the challenges of educating ELL students. ELL students should initially evaluated to determine a proper course of action. The student’s education level prior to arrival, possible learning disabilities, and prior experience with the English language are all factors that should be included in a proper individualized plan. It is both ineffective and insensitive to disregard the student’s prior experiences. In my experience, the value of languages other than English is often overlooked. As educators, we should encourage English speaking students to become fluent in another language, just as we encourage ELLs to learn English. Perhaps, we should even challenge ourselves to pursue another language.

  19. It sounds as if a combination of transitional/early exit bilingual and ESL programs would work best. In order to be succesful students and adults, children must gain command of the English language. Its the only way for students to take advantage of their education and make it work for them, rather than constantly being at a disadvantage that may be present only because of a language barrier. While I can see the benefit of a dual language program, I feel it unfairly leaves out ELL students that may not be part of the predominant non-native English language population in a particular school district.

  20. it all comes down to money and thats why i believe ELL students are not taught in their native language and the fact that its hard to come by translators in their native tongue because of the different dialects. If money wasn’t an issue i think its important to make the students feel comfortable and teach them in the language they know. As a teacher you should let the students master the concepts in their native language and then teach them in english so they can master the concepts

  21. I believe that ELLs should be taught in their native language at first and then slowly move on to being taught in English. You do not want to make a student feel uncomfortable with throwing work at him with a language he/she does not even know. You will discourage this student from learning English. I do agree with grouping students who speak the same language and are at the same level together, so that they can encourage and help each other out.

  22. I think that ELLS students should be taught in the native language but also feel that a plan such as the ESL plan should be implemented while they are being taught. Mainstreaming then into the regular classes at first might be tough but i think it will be more beneficial because if gives them a chance to potentially learn broken English or other forms of the language from classmates.

  23. I found the article really covers the issues surrounding a very controversial topic. I agree it would be beneficial if the schools could offer some teaching of ELLs in the students native tongue but I don’t think it is feasible. The are so many different groups who immigrate to this country that speak so many diffent languages. Perhaps we could do what the article proposes but I think that would be just for the larger non-english speaking groups and that would be seen as unfair. I do think it is the best for each individual student to learn English. But I can’t imagine the fear and isolation for a little child to come to school and not understand the language.

  24. I am shocked at some of the comments left by some people. Teachers need to be more sensitive to students’ feelings especially when they may already feel invisible in this new place away from home. As teachers it is imperative that we gain knowledge about the differences of our students and show an appreciation for each individuals culture. We must have patience and focus on what students do well at rather than what they do not do well at.

  25. I totally agree with the people who feel like this is a very sticky,controversial issue. I am also stuck on how I feel about the whole issue. When I was getting my B.A. I spent a semester in Austria. The German language courses that I took at the University there were all taught in English. It was very helpful that the professor spoke in my native language ,but I felt that it did end up being a crutch for me. I wasn’t totally emmersed in the language and I didn’t try as hard because I knew if I asked a question my professor was going to answer me in English. From that experience I feel like ESL programs should be a good thing but I still have my reservations. I was a college student and I was learning German for fun. My life didn’t depend on it. I feel so bad for kids that are so bright when learning in their own langauge, and then they get labeled as bad students in an ESL program. Learning a new language is hard even if you are still a kid. In short I feel that ESL programs are useful , but I also feel they should be tailored to the individual needs of the students.

  26. I guess in a lot of ways, an ELL to be taught in English would be better for them in the long run, especially since they would be surrounded by the language in a country where English is the primary language. But even for an ELL, they would be speaking their native language at home and if they go from school to home, they don’t have that much exposure to the English language. I think it would be a good idea to teach ELL in their native language, particularly in the very beginning. If they do not know the language at all, that would be better, but if they are familiar with the language somewhat, it might be more beneficial to teach them in English.

  27. I too think that this is a controversial issue. I think that an ELL should be first taught in their native language, then as they start to make progress, the teacher should start teaching in English. The only way that the student is going to learn is if they understand. Teachers should take this into account when teaching ELL and ESL. It takes time to learn a new language.

  28. i think it is neccassy to learn english just like the people preceeded these student because my own mom who is in her late 40’s had to go to school to learn english just so she could function. it is up to the student as an individual to have the will power and wants to successes. i just think the teacher just need to keep in mind the extra attention that is needed when dealing with these diverse student.

  29. I have been observing in a bilingual kindergarten classroom for a few weeks now and I have seen drastic improvements in students learning and language through being taught in a language they are not familiar with. The teacher I am observing teaches her class in English but gives the directions to lessons in Spanish. I have seen children become so advanced through this method of learning that they themselves have taught their own parents English in just a few months.

    It is very important for students who live in the United States to speak the native language of this country. It will help them in the future as far as employment and communication, their families and themselves.

  30. I think it is important for ELL students to learn and understand ENGLISH language a quickly as possible to help with further instruction in their academic careers. If we chose to teach them in their native language it prolongs the communication barrier and doesnt fully prepare the student for a future in the work force.

  31. As many posters before me have said this is not an easy topic (are any of the topics easy?) I have mixed feelings. Form an education point of view I know that learning in their native language benefits the students. They can call upon prior experiences and can understand nuances and innuendos that language provides, i.e.e, using one term vs. another. With this said it is cost prohibitive for the schools to have proficiency in 400+ languages. Maybe just Spanish and English? I also need to look at the family responsibility. I know this is controversial but you moved to a country whose primary language is English – where is their responsibility? The students will need proficient English to succeed in the US. Should or can the family help in the classroom? Is there a technology that can be developed or introduced? Maybe the student can help?

    We also must acknowledge that at home the student will probably continue to speak in their native language. Does this help? Hurt? Confuse? When you read about how the US is changing we may need to really research and look for solutions to the very old debate that will not being going away anytime soon.

  32. This article is very interesting. I can relate to this topic because I am an international student and I had to go through this process of learning. I don’t think there should be classes taught native language for many reasons.
    One, many times they immigrant fot their children’s education for the purpose of learning english. If classes are taught in their native language, they would not be able to get enough exposure to englishto learn.
    Second, not only for education the immgrats, would need to learn the language of the country anyways for their daily activities including leisure, shopping.
    Teachers allow equal opportunuties to native students and immigrant students because immigrant students often find themselves not being able to explain or express their ideas. For this reason, they start to lose confidence little by little.

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