Primary Language Support in General Education Classrooms

by Valentina Gonzalez


What is Primary Language Support? 

Primary language support (PLS) is the use of students’ first languages to build on the development of their target language. For example, if a child first learned Italian at home and then begins school in America, the primary language of Italian would be used as a leverage to build the English language. 

Primary language support is not the same as bilingual instruction. Bilingual instruction differs from PLS because in bilingual instruction, content is taught in the student’s primary language. On the other hand, PLS is used in English instruction to make content comprehensible and to lower the linguistic load. Students’ primary languages are used as a leverage to support the acquisition of English. 

For many decades in the United States, primary language support has been a highly controversial topic in education. Some argue that the use of primary language may delay ELs’ English language development. However, Claude Goldenberg states in a 2013 article for American Educator that, “there is an inherent advantage of knowing and being literate in two languages.”

Why Is Primary Language Support Important? 

Primary language support benefits English learners because it promotes an assets-based stance. PLS views students from a strengths-based lens and makes us ask, “What literacy do students come to us already having? How can we use their primary literacy in order to grow literacy in a new language?” 

PLS also lives under the premise that language is tied to a student’s identity. And if we believe that, then we honor students’ identities by making room for all of their native languages. We make connections to their linguistic repertoire and teach them how to do the same. 

How Can I Use Primary Language Support in My Classroom? 

Primary language support is easily given when a teacher or paraprofessional speaks the same language as the student. However, it can still be provided if you don’t speak the languages your students speak. As an ESL teacher, I had students who spoke various languages including Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, Korean, Mandarin Chinese, Urdu, Telugu, Egyptian, Japanese, and many others. There’s a common misconception that, when you have many students that speak a variety of languages, it’s too difficult to use primary language support. Here are some ways to use PLS even when you don’t speak your students’ primary language. 

  1. Bilingual Dictionaries: Bilingual dictionaries can be an excellent resource for students who are literate in their primary language and are able to use them effectively in mainstream classrooms. However, for students who have difficulty reading in their primary language, they are of little use. It’s important to find out how well your students listens, speaks, reads, and writes in their primary languages. You can find out by asking the children, asking parents, and making observations. If you have access to a book in the child’s primary language, ask him or her to read to you. Even if you can’t understand the language yourself, you can make observations about the student’s reading and speaking. Does the student sound fluent or are they reading word for word? Are they sounding out words and getting stuck? Are they pointing to the words? Do they seem to be exhausted by the text? If they selected the text, does it look age appropriate? All of these observations will help you determine if a bilingual dictionary will be an appropriate PLS for your student. 
  2. Label the Classroom: Label the room in English and in the students’ primary languages. Students can help with this. The labels are a great source for reading materials during transition times of the day, such as lining up for lunch or recess or at the end of class. Teachers point to the labels and students chorally read or echo read the words in English. Some teachers play reading games with the labels, such as asking students to find the object in the room that ends with “ER.” The primary language support provided by the labels in students’ primary language helps make the new vocabulary comprehensible. 
  3. Encourage Primary Language Use: Encourage students to continue reading, writing, speaking, and listening in their primary language at home. In the same American Educator article, Goldenberg asserts that many experimental studies show that “learning to read in their home language helps ELs boost reading skills in English.” Sometimes parents will ask if they should speak English at home with their children, and it is recommended that parents communicate with their children in the language they feel most comfortable with. According to Wayne Wright, “reading or being read to at home in the home language promotes literacy development and allows parents to participate in their child’s education.” One way to support students with primary language literature is to begin purchasing it for your classroom or school library. Many popular books come translated in various languages. When you have extra funds, start buying books that reflect your students. They will love seeing their language represented. 
  4. Preview-Review: In its essence, Preview-Review is done with a teacher or paraprofessional who speaks the same language that the student speaks. You begin by previewing a lesson with the student in his/her primary language. Then the lesson is taught in English. Finally it is reviewed in the primary language. So what if you don’t speak the students’ languages? You can modify Preview-Review by offering students an avenue to explore the content ahead of time in their primary language. Then teach in English. And finally express themselves (orally or in writing) in their primary language for the review. Some teachers share upcoming units of study with parents and recommend that parents talk to their kids about the topics in their primary language before they are taught in class. This is another way to modify Preview-Review. 
  5. Cognates: Cognates are words that are related in two languages. For example, nose (English) and nos (Serbian). Whenever possible, explicitly teach cognates. Even though cognates may seem obvious to us, for some students they are not obvious. As students begin to see the relationship between the two languages, they will become attuned to cognates.  

Why Do Some Say Students Should Only Use English in Their Classrooms? 

It is not uncommon to hear teachers say that they want students to only speak in English during their class period. Often they are well intentioned. They want students to learn English. They want them to practice English. They want them to be successful not only in their class but in their future, too. However, if we acknowledge that language is central to our identities but we tell someone they can’t use their native language, then what message are we conveying? Keeping in mind that learning happens when we feel that we belong — that we are safe, that we are valued — how can we convey a message that creates a safe, comfortable, accepting environment?  

There is no way to turn off a language that is already within someone. If you were a second language learner in a classroom, your primary language would be there whether your teacher allowed you to use it or not. By inhibiting students, we are blocking their cognitive ability to grow as learners and thinkers in the content area. This also breeds assimilation rather than acculturation. Assimilation is the process of becoming like everyone else, similar, and erasing one’s identity. Assimilation a subtractive approach, while acculturation honors both cultures and represents bicultural living, an additive approach. 

Moving Forward…

As you move forward from here, think of where you are in using PLS with students. Perhaps you were on the fence about it before. Maybe you used to think that it wasn’t an option in an ESL setting, or you didn’t think it was important. Think about what your next steps will be from here. How will you support English learners as they continue to acquire language and content without losing their own native language and culture?


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