Should ELs Be Allowed to Speak Their L1 in School?

In 2016,  20% of people living in the United States considered themselves bilingual, compared to 10% in 1980 according to the annual American Community Survey. Grosjean states in a 2018 article in Psychology Today that one of the reasons there is this rise in bilingualism is that we have had a steady increase in immigration, and when immigrants learn to speak English, they become bilingual.

This is why I am so surprised that some educators feel that students should speak only English in school. In fact, some states have an official English-only policy and refuse to test students in another language. According to Genesee’s article for Colorín Colorado, entitled “The Home Language: An English Language Learners Most Valuable Resource,” there is indisputable evidence that the L1, or home language, of English learners (ELs) is of considerable benefit to their academic success.

Bilingual programs have become more common because English-only programs  threatened ELs’ ability to learn academic English at the same time as they mastered challenging academic concepts. Now, according to Genesee, the role of the home language is diminishing with new educational policies. Both educators and legislators fly in the face of research and are not taking into consideration the important role that first languages play in learning English.

I recently Googled the question of ELs using their first language in school and the first entry to come up is an opinion piece published in 2018 by experienced English and ESL teacher and author Ken Beare. The article maintains that if we allow ELs to speak other languages in school, it distracts from their learning English. The author claims that ELs need to speak English to learn English. Beare admits that he occasionally uses a student’s L1 to give directions or explain a grammar concept. His biography does not say what age students he teaches. I suspect, however, that he teaches adults who come to him for ESL a few times a week.

I have spent my 28-year career teaching elementary age ELs, and I disagree that ELs should speak only English in school. When students speak their L1 to learn English, it is an asset, not a barrier. In fact, I totally agree with Jim Cummins, who recently said at the 2019 Multilingual Learning Conference in London, “To reject a child’s language is to reject the child.”

Here are a few reasons that ELs should be encouraged to use their L1 to learn English:

  • Research shows that programs for ELs that incorporate the students’ first language have success rates that outperform those of ELs in English-only programs (Thomas & Collier, 2012).
  • Research has shown that children who are bilingual demonstrate definite cognitive benefits in comparison to monolingual children (Bialystok, 2015). These benefits have been shown in executive control processes.
  • Students with strong reading skills in their L1 demonstrate strong reading skills in English. When learning a second language, students are able to transfer much of their knowledge of reading from one language to another (Genesee, n.d.).

Bilingualism is a resource that is beneficial to the United States. We don’t want to keep students from speaking their L1 in schools.


Bialystok, E. (2015). Bilingualism and the development of executive function: The role of attention. Child Development Perspectives, 9(2), 117–121.

Genesee, F. (n.d.). The home language: An English language learner’s most valuable resource. Retrieved from

Thomas, W. P., & Collier, V. P. (2012). Astounding effectiveness—The North Carolina story. In Dual language education for a transformed world (pp. 43–64). Albuquerque, NM: Fuente Press. Retrieved from

About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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3 Responses to
Should ELs Be Allowed to Speak Their L1 in School?

  1. Fred Carrigg says:

    Quickest way to proficiency in literacy in English is to be proficient in the native language.

  2. Judie Haynes Judie Haynes says:

    I think that it is fair to require English output when students are in ESL class.

  3. Julie K Uher says:

    I teach very small classes of ELLs. One class has 3 Chinese high school kids and 1 Korean student. I don’t mind the clarification between students when they are trying to understand the English. I do require them to speak in English during cooperative learning situations in my English class. Is that fair?

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