What Language Should Multilingual Learners Speak in the ESL Classroom? 6 Strategies

During a recent Twitter chat, a teacher of multilingual learners (MLLs) wrote that she was struggling with a class of fifth and sixth graders who persisted in speaking their home language (Spanish) in class. The teacher explained that her goal was to have students practice speaking English.

I remembered that I had a similar problem teaching a group of fourth- and fifth-grade Japanese-speaking students. Although I was a seasoned teacher of MLLs, it was my first experience with Japanese students and with having all my students from the same language background. It took me months to figure out how to to guide my students to appropriately use both their home language and English in school. Here are six ideas to help students focus on using all of their language resources in the classroom.

1. Set a Policy About Language Use in Your Classroom

In 2019, I wrote a blog for TESOL entitled “Should ELs Be Allowed to Speak Their L1 in School?” In this blog, I quoted Fred Genesee in an article he wrote titled “The Home Language: An English Language Learner’s Most Valuable Resource.” According to Genesee, there is indisputable evidence that the L1, or home language, of multilingual learners is of considerable benefit to their academic success. I personally believe that we need to allow MLLs to speak their home language in school and that using L1 in school helps them acquire English. There are circumstances, however, where MLLs need to focus on speaking English to complete assignments.

Teachers need to set fluid policies that specify the situations where home language should be spoken and other situations where English should be spoken. When MLLs are discussing something they read in English, for example, they should certainly be allowed to speak their home language.

2. Have Students Brainstorm the Value of Learning English

Write their responses on a chart so that all students can see them. You want students to see the real-world benefits of learning English. You also want them to take pride in their home language and culture. I’ve used a Venn diagram to have MLLs compare and contrast the reasons to learn English and the value of maintaining their first language.

3. Provide Multilingual Learners With Comprehensible Input

One of the reasons that students may be speaking their home language throughout their ESL class period is that the material being presented may not be adequately scaffolded. MLLs must be able to comprehend the material that they are learning. Teachers need to provide comprehensible input using visuals, realia, and multimedia as well as link new information to prior knowledge. To get ideas for scaffolds, see my TESOL blog, “10 Scaffolds for Supporting EL Learning.” You may want to encourage students to discuss difficult vocabulary or key ideas in their home language.

4. Have MLLs Work in Small Groups

Encourage MLLs to speak their home language in order to understand directions for an activity and to learn key concepts. Once students are in groups, give directions for the activity you want them to complete in English and then allow students to discuss the directions in their home language. Give MLLs real reasons to speak English. You can get much more productive student talk if you base those discussion on something that is meaningful to your students. Find activities that touch your MLLs’ lives. Give them a goal that needs to be reached. The task should be at the MLLs’ English language development levels.

5. Set Very Specific Tasks for Practicing English

A lesson plan that has the goal that “MLLs will practice speaking English” is not a good plan. It’s important to set very specific tasks for MLLs to complete in their groups. Before having students begin their group work, teachers need to preteach the necessary vocabulary and be sure that MLLs understand the key concept, and then give a specific assignment.

For example, if you’re studying “The growth of cities in the 1800s,” ask students to make a drawing of one of the items people could find in the cities in the 1800s that was not found in the countryside. Have them find three facts about that item. These might include tall buildings, elevators, trolley cars, and tenements.

6. Remember to Respect the Process of Translanguaging in the Classroom

Research has shown that multilingual students do not have two or more separate languages. They have one linguistic repertoire that consists of features of the languages they speak. They pull information from all the languages as they work in school. This translanguaging is normal in multilingual communities. Also, MLLs use their home language to learn English. Guide students to use all of their linguistic abilities in academic classrooms throughout the day.


So, the answer to the question posed in the title—”what language should multilingual learners speak in the ESL classroom?”—is that MLLs should be encouraged to use all of their linguistic repertoire to complete academic work in school.

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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6 Responses to
What Language Should Multilingual Learners Speak in the ESL Classroom? 6 Strategies

  1. Prof. Charles says:

    This is a very appropriate topic for our small university in Oaxaca, Mexico. The English-only or partial immersion (only in English class) approach has been well established over decades, while the bilingual / translanguaging approach has not been adopted worldwide to the same degree (among administrators and instructors of other fields). I am constantly defending the use of Spanish (L1) as a vehicle to teach English (L2) to basic students. Any suggestions on research / statistics that I can use to demonstrate its effectiveness?

  2. Gabriela Marotta says:

    I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer. Everything will depend on the school policies, and if L1 can be spoken in class, or at school. It can also depend on the level. Beginners are more likely to use their mother tongue while, as the level grows, students tend to be more independent with L2.

  3. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  4. It’s also good to fully comprehend the absolutes in the process of language acquisition. Once a teacher is at that level, s/he becomes a genuine facilitator.

  5. For me, the biggest reason students didn’t use English in the classroom was because they couldn’t. Providing comprehensible input helped a lot!

    • Judie Haynes Judie Haynes says:

      Yes, you are correct. Chatter in home language is far superior to complete silence because students are told that they can’t speak their home language in school.

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