According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of July 1, 2006 there are 4.6 million English language learners (ELLs) in U.S. schools. The National Association of Education consistently finds that ELLs are significantly behind in reading and math, which challenges educators and raises questions about how to improve academic achievement in this population.

Why Is It Important To Support Native Language Development?

It is often assumed that since the ultimate educational goal for ELLs is to develop a high level of English language proficiency, there is no reason for the first language to be supported. Parents of ELLs are often asked to speak English at home to enhance the development of the second language and to facilitate academic achievements. However, it has been observed that in a variety of language and academic achievement tasks, ELLs taught bilingually have higher scores on English measures than ELLs taught only in English (e.g., Slavin & Cheong, 2005; Thordardottir et al., 1997). This finding suggests that supporting children’s first language enhances second language development (MacSwan & Rolstad, 2005).              
Much of the misunderstanding about second language acquisition comes from the notion that developing literacy in the native language confuses ELLs. In fact, research suggests that literacy in a native language is a short cut to literacy in a second language:
Learning how to read and write in the native language, which is better developed than the second language, is easier for the child.
  • Literacy skills in the native language, such as phonological awareness, letter identification, reading comprehension, and word naming, predict and readily transfer to literacy skills in the second language (e.g., August & Shanahan, 2006; Dickinson et al., 2004).
  • By stimulating reading and writing in the home language, parents can help children advance in English (Kohnert et al., 2005).

What About Kids With Language Disorders or Learning Disabilities?

There is a common misunderstanding that supporting two languages is problematic for ELLs with language or learning disabilities. Parents often hear that learning two languages confuses the child and delays English language development, causing parents to stop using the native language in favor of English. Currently, there is no scientific evidence to support this notion. Learning two languages may take longer for ELLs with disabilities in comparison with ELLs developing typically, but it is due to their disability and not to the use of two languages. Research indicates they are no different in performance from monolinguals with the same disabilities (Genesee, Paradis, & Crago, 2004).
  • There is no evidence that depriving children from their native language has any benefits to the acquisition of English, and in fact, it has many negative effects on the native language and communication within the family (Restrepo, 2003; Restrepo & Kruth, 2000).
  • Effective daily communication is critical for a child’s self-esteem and social-emotional status (De Houwer, 1999).
  • The native language forms an integral part of cultural identity. Depriving a child of the ability to become bilingual and bicultural can continue to have negative repercussions (LaFromboise, Coleman, & Gerton, 1993; McCardle et al., 1995).

How Can Parents Stimulate Native Language Development?

Stimulation of both native and second languages is necessary for children to communicate effectively in their home, school, and social environments. Often bilingual programs can enhance the development of two languages, but unfortunately such programs are limited in the U.S. Even if schools do not provide bilingual education, parents can support and stimulate the native language through a variety of strategies and activities.
  • Provide children with opportunities to communicate with native language peers and family.
  • At school, children often feel pressured to speak English, and that can reduce the children’s motivation to learn their native language. Discuss how important it is to be bilingual in the workforce and socially.
  • Peer interactions in the native language foster a positive image of the first language and place values toward proficiency in more than one language. Encourage those social interactions.

How Can Dialogic Reading Help My Child?

Try doing dialogic reading with your child. In dialogic reading, the adult helps the child to become the storyteller by using the following strategies:
  • Asking specific “Wh” questions. “Who is this?” and “When did he leave?”
  • Asking more open or abstract questions. “What is happening here?” and “Why do you think he left?”
  • Expanding what the child says. “Yes, he went to the zoo . . . with his class.”
  • Connecting the story with child’s personal experiences. “Do you remember when we went to the zoo? What did we see?”
Dialogic reading lends children opportunities to develop many of the areas that are crucial for language skills and school success.
  • Children gain experience with books, structure of stories, vocabulary, print awareness, attention, and pleasure of learning.
  • Reading times become pleasurable and memorable moments of your parent-child interactions, during which you’re having conversations in the native language.
  • This strategy can be used for children almost at any age; it does not matter whether the child knows the alphabet and can read.
  • The child has an opportunity to learn that every book has a title or a name on the cover and the pages are turned from right to left.
  • The child learns how to orient the book in space and how to find a beginning and an ending.
  • More importantly, the child has an opportunity to use the native language in a meaningful context and learn literate language and vocabulary that are critical for school success.
Placing value in native language literacy and development through different experiences will help the child maintain and develop native language skills.

Quality Over Quantity

The quality of communication in a language is more important than the amount of time spent speaking it (McLaughlin, 1992; Slavin, & Cheong, 1994). It is vital for parents to communicate with their children in the language with which they are most comfortable and to provide their children with meaningful and emotionally positive contexts of communication. Effective communication skills in both the native and school languages are critical for children to succeed academically, to establish strong family bonds, and to maintain a healthy bicultural identity. 


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