This article on integrating ELLs’ home languages was originally published in Classroom Q & A with Larry Ferlazzo on January 26, 2017.

the roles of home languages - bilingual instruction for ELs

Some schools adopt philosophies that are focused on learning with technology, while others adopt those that focus on technology integration. The difference between the two is the degree to which technology is seen as a fun activity versus an intentional tool for learning.  

The same philosophy is true for home language (HL) integration.  It can seen as something to “honor” during cultural heritage months, or it can be valued as a tool to aid instruction. I prefer the latter.

There are three reasons I integrate HLs into instruction:

  1. to foster comprehensible input (Krashen, 1981),
  2. to encourage social interactions, and
  3. to facilitate comprehensible output.
Home Languages & Comprehensible Input

Building Context

Ask students to search for a video in their HL that is related to the topic.  Videos can be documentaries, commercials, newscasts, interviews, short Youtube clips, or full-length movies.  They will report about back to their classmates about the ideas in each video.

Understanding Vocabulary

Vocabulary is the main obstacle to comprehending text in a new language.  Permit students to translate unfamiliar words into their HL, but do not allow full-sentence translations.  As translating alone is not enough, also encourage ELs with the same HL to discuss the meaning of the vocabulary together and identify some examples.  After all, a word’s meaning is built by the context used to explain it.

Reading Texts

If your goal for reading a text is to develop conceptual understanding, then the language of the text is irrelevant. Allow ELs to read a text related to the topic in their HL.  Have them present what information they learned from their text to their classmates.

Home Languages & Social Interactions

Thinking Metacognitively

Encourage students to Quick Write a reflection about their learning in their HL. Pair students with the same HL and have them share their reflections.

Working Collaboratively

Permit ELs to seek assistance and guidance from others who share the same HL. They don’t have to work exclusively together all the time or for the duration of the project, but they can collaborate to explain the more complex ideas.

Communicating Opinions

Opinions can be complex, and when you’re trying to communicate the nuances in a language that you’re just learning, the emotions are often diluted in their meaning. Allow students to express their opinions with a classmate who speaks the same HL or in a Quick Write.

Home Languages & Communicating Ideas

Writing Text

At times, when writing in English is not flowing, allow ELs to switch and write in their HL.  This works particularly well when trying to communicate complex ideas.  Writing a section of text in their HL often stimulates ideas to flow more freely.

Learning Grammar

To learn English grammar, ELs often need a reference from another language.  Have students produce a similar sentence in their HL.  Let them compare the ways languages are structured differently between cultures. Sometimes, the students’ HL follows the same grammar rule in English.  Making this connection cultivates their ability to communicate more accurately.

Thinking by Talking

Provide multiple opportunities for students to present their ideas before they write because talking is a form of practice.  Prepared speeches can have the same register as written academic language.  Allow ELs to present their ideas with a friend that speaks the same HL.  

If she is the only speaker of that language in your class, have her record her speech on an iPad or another electronic device so that she still gets the opportunity to use speech as performance.


These strategies demonstrate the useful, strategic role HLs can play within instruction. HLs should not just be honored during sporadic cultural celebrations; they should be used jointly with English in any classroom.

Krashen, S. (1981). Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning. Oxford: Pergamon Press.