Helping Emergent Bilingual Students Develop Language Comprehension
From the desk of Maya Goodall, Senior Director of Emergent Bilingual Curriculum
Learners who don’t yet speak fluent English may still be able to decode words in English because of their understanding of basic language principles, but that is not enough for true language comprehension. Learners who come to the table with valuable language skills and knowledge have many assets for learning English, and these “Emergent Bilinguals” already hold the tools necessary to develop their English comprehension abilities. By taking an asset-minded approach, educators can honor learners and what they already know by placing value on their prior knowledge and lived experiences.
Teaching Emergent Bilingual students how to speak and comprehend oral English is a critical component of learning how to read and comprehend written English. In today’s diverse society, it’s more important than ever to use our students’ assets to help them become bilingual.
I was recently featured in SmartBrief, where I discussed the importance of teaching English from an asset-minded orientation and how to use this approach to teach Emergent Bilingual students how to speak, read, and comprehend English. To successfully teach Emergent Bilingual students language comprehension, I believe it is crucial for educators to honor students’ heritage languages and value their prior knowledge.
Here are four starting points to teach language comprehension to Emergent Bilingual students:
1. Embrace their heritage language
A student’s first language is a valuable asset and can be used to leverage learning the new language. Teachers can take advantage of the language mechanisms and skills that the student already knows and understands, and position learning English as an opportunity for growth.
2. Adjust instruction to meet their needs
Using a scaffolded approach, teachers can ensure that students have opportunities to practice using the language in meaningful ways. This builds comprehension of the new language and gives students the opportunity to express themselves.
3. Offer opportunities for speaking practice
By teaching students how to have an academic conversation, they learn both how to ask and answer questions. Provide scaffolding for students, such as sentence starters, to guide conversations between students. For those who require more guidance in asking and answering questions, consider sentence frames or language frames for constructing meaningful sentences and phrases.
4. Create opportunities for listening comprehension practice
The goal of literacy and reading is comprehension; learners must understand what they’re reading. We know students can understand a higher level of language than they can speak, so take the opportunity to provide input that is at their listening level and practice oral comprehension as a means to scaffold reading comprehension.
These strategies apply to content teachers and literacy teachers alike. By leaning into students’ language assets, educators can help Emergent Bilinguals develop language comprehension in reading, writing, and conversational settings.
If you want to learn more about how you can adjust literacy instruction for Emergent Bilinguals, check out this education insight: How Do You Make the Science of Reading Work for All Students?
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