How Using First Language Supports Can Propel Academic Content in English

How Using First Language Supports Can Propel Academic Content in English

In today’s classrooms, it is not uncommon to find students working in collaborative groups.  They are placed into these groups by using various methods and sometimes those methods (MAP RIT ranges, student interest, student choice, randomization) can result in second language users being paired together.  When students share the same first language, they often use the first language to communicate with each other when they are working in small groups.  What precautions should a teacher take, if any, to prevent this from occurring?

Clarifying ideas and directions propels understanding of academic content in English.

Recently, I was able to attend the American Speech-Language and Hearing Association’s (ASHA) national conference.  One of the sessions that I attended discussed the use of dual-language during the academic process.  The researcher, Robin Danzak, offered the idea of “translingual literacy” as a natural process and a method for scaffolding learning in those students acquiring English as a second language.

Danzak noted that there is a natural process that occurs when a learner is engaged in higher-order thinking that sometimes requires the use of the native language to express their ideas effectively and efficiently.  Danzak suggests that this process should be recognized as an acceptable practice for students learning English as a second language and the teachers that teach them.

While Danzak goes to the extent of suggesting that teachers should purposefully structure instructional units to promote the use of the native language as part of the cognitive process that occurs during critical thinking, Dea Silvani (2014), falls short of making the same recommendation in her research “The Use of First Language in the English Classroom“.  Silvani does however, support the process as a natural process for second language development.  In fact, Silvani’s research suggests four reasons for students’ use of their first language to communicate within the English classroom.

Use MAP RIT ranges and first language support to propel academic understanding.

Silvani’s four reasons:  building meaning during group discussion, clarifying instruction, clarifying pronunciation, and expression of frustration, suggest that even when students are working in their Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), students may have a need to use their first language to push their comprehension to a higher level.

So, as educators encounter more second language learners in their classroom, they should recognize that while some use of the native language may occur during collaborative learning, there should not be significant concern when the first language is used to propel critical understanding of academic concepts. Using MAP RIT ranges to target a student’s ZPD may result in collaborative work with similar native speakers, but this grouping may be beneficial for critical thinking. Thus, teachers should not hesitate to use MAP RIT ranges to target appropriate academic content for second language learners, even if this results in second language learners being grouped together. This grouping may provide the language support that they need in order to propel the learning forward.

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