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Problems of Practice

Leveraging Language: How can students who are learning English use their home language in a personalized classroom?

Key Takeaways

Leverage students’ home languages by:

  • Removing basic barriers for students around everyday tasks
  • Building opportunities for content conversations using their home language
  • Offering choice around how to demonstrate mastery (both from a task and language perspective)

Recommended Action Steps: Design two ways to leverage students’ home language to increase engagement and mastery of content in your classroom. Post your ideas and questions on Twitter and tag us @LearningAccel.

Two students sit together in classroom near laptop

What is the problem?

The Learning Accelerator worked with a team of fellows from Latinos for Education to explore the ways in which blended and personalized learning can support EL students, who currently make up nearly 10 percent of all children enrolled in U.S. public schools and almost three-fourths of whom are Latinx. While opportunities and bright spots abound, the team found that challenges remain. They reported that, in some cases, districts and schools saw blended and personalized learning as a “silver bullet to solve poor-quality instruction or lack of teacher expertise with language development,” allowing technology to replace instruction instead of leveraging it to build additional opportunities for support. However, when educators in personalized classrooms are more strategic and design curriculum and instruction that takes into account both content and language needs, EL students are able to engage with the content in new and exciting ways.

One example is to leverage students’ home languages in an asset-based manner. This can be done by:

  1. Removing basic barriers for students around everyday tasks
  2. Building opportunities for content conversations using their home languages
  3. Offering choice around demonstrating mastery (both from a task and language perspective)

Why is it important?

"With respect to ELs, there is undeniable and growing evidence that the home language of ELs is of considerable benefit to their overall academic success.” (Genesee 2017)

The research says...

  • “Students who have a solid understanding of their home language can connect new English words to known words for success in the classroom.” (Melissa Eddington, Education Week, January 2017)
  • Using a student’s home language (e.g. L1, primary language, etc.) can also support the development of teacher-student and student-student relationships.
  • “Multilingual learners use their full linguistic repertoire, including translating practices, to enrich their language development and learning.” (García, Johnson, & Seltzer, 2017; Hornberger & Link, 2012; Wei, 2018)

How: Solution

“When successful, blended learning is clearly connected to and in the service of a clear vision for EL instruction that includes explicit teacher instruction, guided and independent practice, and a supportive instructional environment that addresses English language and content knowledge development.” (Latinos for Education TLA fellowship team) One way to do this is to not only allow for but highlight and design opportunities for students to communicate and show mastery in their home language.

When going through these sections, ask yourself: In what ways can I offer additional opportunities for students to use their home language within my classroom?


Removing Basic Barriers

Each day when students walk into their classrooms, they are met with multiple tasks that seem simple but could pose barriers for EL students. This is especially true for personalized classrooms where students are given additional ownership over tasks and monitoring progress. Entrance tickets, goals sheets, and even trackers are designed to keep students engaged, on task, and driving their own learning, but these tools can be obstacles for students who are still gaining English proficiency. By removing these barriers and allowing students to complete these types of tasks in their home language (or even a combination of English and their home language), you will likely see an increase in engagement and also in the complexity of their answers because their language skills aren’t holding them back from sharing exactly what is on their mind. One district uses the binder to the right with its elementary students to monitor goals, help them progress when using online software, and even to gauge how they are feeling. Students are able to choose either Spanish or English versions of the worksheets depending on which language they are most comfortable with. The theory is that if the binders are meant for the students to reflect, monitor, and learn where they are with the content, they won’t be as useful in supporting this learning, if not accessible.


Other examples of ways to remove basic barriers are to:

  • Learn about your students through an interest survey and ask about their home language and comfort with English. Remember how comfortable a student is with English and what shows up on their language tests is not always equal!
  • Let students utilize technology (like Google Translate) to translate small items on their own, discreetly, during low-stakes tasks or independent work time. (NOTE: This strategy will vary depending on age.)
  • Offer student-facing documents in multiple languages or let students answer in multiple languages. Examples include:

Content Conversations

By creating opportunities for students to engage in content-based conversations (both in English and their home language), you provide EL students the ability to both show their mastery and practice language proficiency in a non-threatening manner. Opportunities for discourse using their home language can be as simple as a “Think/Pair/Share” task or as complex as student-led teaching, which can be personalized based on the needs and comfort level of the student. The more you allow students to engage authentically using their home language (or a combination of their home language and English), the more EL students will gain confidence and build proficiency in both languages and content mastery.

“The goal is for students to use their L1 (home language) intentionally to access English (and the content at hand). Our role is to teach students to value their language as a tool for comparing, accessing, and contextualizing information. Encourage students to think deeply by showing that language learning is both a perspective and a process.” (Wendi Pillars, NBCT, Edweek, January 2017)


Explore these strategies to see examples of how schools are currently designing opportunities for discourse in a content-rich fashion.

NOTE: These strategies don’t explicitly include the option for students to use their home language, so when exploring these resources, ask yourself:

  • When would it be appropriate to group students homogeneously or heterogeneously around language? What would be the benefits of both?
  • What types of scaffolds would ensure EL students are supported in multiple languages within each strategy?

Choice Around Demonstrating Mastery

One of the benefits of personalizing learning is the ability to offer students choice and agency around not only their pathway to mastery but also how they might demonstrate it. Choice enables students (whether or not they are EL students) the ability to take ownership of their learning and illustrate their understanding in a way that resonates with them. For EL students, this may involve leaning on their home language to show proficiency, or it could involve leveraging other skills (e.g., writing, drawing, acting). By offering opportunities and choice, students who are learning English have the chance to truly show their mastery of the content instead of just their language proficiency.


Here are some strategies that allow students to both take ownership of their learning and show mastery in multiple ways using multiple languages.

NOTE: These strategies don’t explicitly include the option of demonstrating mastery using a home language, so when exploring these resources ask yourself:

  • Where are there opportunities to add in the use of a student’s home language?
  • How could these be adapted to better support EL students in language and content acquisition?
  • What scaffolds would be needed to ensure my students make appropriate choices to illustrate mastery in meaningful ways?

Take it further

When discussing a student’s home language, it is also important to understand that language is directly tied to culture. The first step to leveraging a student’s home language effectively is often breaking down the potential barrier of fear around using their language in a general education classroom, along with building acceptance and understanding of the culture behind the language. To start building the bridge between language and culture and develop a classroom culture of acceptance and sharing, try introducing activities, resources, and opportunities for students to share their culture.

It is important to note that the activities listed below should be thoughtfully planned, culturally relevant, and authentic experiences for students and families. It is suggested that you reach out to community contacts and utilize any community resources that may have authentic connections with the cultures being represented. For example, should you host an International Night and one of your countries represented is Ghana, connect with a Ghanian family in your community who can help with planning. By deliberately integrating experiences like these into your longer-term curriculum around culture and language, you can create opportunities for authentic and nuanced touchpoints with your students’ cultures to promote deeper and richer learning.

Some activities/ideas include:

  • Culture Food Fair:
    • Students bring in food from either their culture or a culture that they choose to share with the group.
  • “Tell Your Story” Activity:
    • Students write or draw a story of what makes them who they are (e.g., traditions, songs, family memories).
  • International Night:
    • Families and students participate in an engaging, culture-centered gathering. Students are given passports when they arrive and "tour the world," receiving a stamp at each represented country. Each classroom teacher "hosts" a different country —ideally alongside families of students, who may wear traditional clothing from that country and be directly involved in the planning of the event. Different areas are set up with food from each country, information about the country (e.g., student-created pamphlets, posters), and activities (e.g., flamenco dancing from Spain, henna from Pakistan).
  • Cultural Holidays and Events:
    • Classrooms celebrate, acknowledge, and discuss different cultural holidays and events, like Eid, Lunar New Year, Day of the Dead, Ramadan, and more.

In addition to adding culturally supportive and relevant components to your classroom, learn more about English Language Development Standards and how to support multilingual learners and explore the “World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment” (WIDA) website and Application of the English Language Development Standards document.