Perhaps you’re a principal who has heard a teacher say, “But they don’t know the language.” Perhaps you have said or thought this about a student yourself. It’s an understandable concern to wonder how a child can learn at their grade level when they don’t know English. The question becomes even more urgent when asked by a teacher who is committed to holding high academic expectations for all of their students, but who may not have had formal training in how to support emerging bilingual children. Feelings of frustration are real, but there is a place to start that moves both student and teacher beyond helplessness to collaboration.

Additional certifications, degrees, or even in-​service professional development may not be necessary to become immediately more effective for your English-language learners and emerging bilingual students. The first step involves understanding what it means to be an “emerging bilingual student.” Consider these three common misconceptions about students who are in the process of learning English:

  • Students learning English don’t or can’t understand concepts at grade level.
  • Language learning is just translating words.
  • Only bilingual schools should desire for students to be bilingual.

These beliefs—while often unconscious or unintentional—disempower both the teacher and the student. These views express a fixed, misinformed mindset about what emerging bilingual students are capable of and, therefore, bring lowered expectations without any additional support. By replacing these common misconceptions, teachers take the first step toward becoming more effective for their students. Let’s look at three things we know about understanding language learning and emerging bilingualism in children.

An Individualized Education Program Is Not Required

Just because a student isn’t fluent in English doesn’t mean that they have a learning difference or cognitive issues that require an individualized education program. Learning differences that result in classifications for special education are completely independent of language learning needs. Of course, a student can have both needs, but it isn’t a certainty. In addition, the language learning process typically follows a predictable pattern of building up skills in four areas of literacy: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. All four areas should be supported, but it is important to note that listening comprehension typically accelerates quickly, especially in an immersion experience such as an English-only school. Emerging bilingual students can grasp grade-level concepts as their listening comprehension increases. The quality of the language support is what will ensure that they can also increase speaking, reading, and writing skills consistently and intentionally.

Learning English Is Intentional

We know learning a second language is an intentional process that, in most cases, requires support in the form of systematic vocabulary instruction and teaching that makes ideas comprehensible through visual and experiential pedagogy. Basically, instruction for language learning is only as good as it is comprehensible to the learner. This type of teaching goes well beyond “translating” words. You must support teachers in recognizing the importance of interpreting as a mental process for both teaching and learning. Translating will result in a word-for-word exchange, but interpretation aims to create aligned meaning and significance in both languages and cultures. If the above is true, then what is a teacher to do practically in their classroom to maintain high expectations as a no-nonsense nurturer?

  • Ensure that students receive verbal and visual modeling for each scaffolded step in their grade-level work that includes think-alouds with strong demonstration.
  • Have students practice a verbal or visual skill after each scaffolded step leading up to the grade-level expectation.
  • Use a variety of checks for understanding or assessment formats throughout the lesson to better understand learning needs or to determine when learning breaks down.

Your staff may say, “But that just sounds like effective teaching,” or they may say, “But what about students who don’t need that?” The truth is, yes, learning strategies are just effective teaching methods. While all students don’t need this support, they can all benefit from the solidification of concepts.

Teaching English-Language Learners Can Be Confusing

We know the mention of emerging bilingual students may be confusing to some educators, but bilingualism is always the goal for students learning English. Language learning begins at infancy, and by the age of 5 most children have acquired a native language at some level of age-appropriate listening and speaking proficiency. While not all English-language learners will develop English as well as their first language, honoring and maximizing a student’s strength in a first language only enhances their English learning. Plus, it helps to create a culturally relevant learning environment in which the student feels respected and safe. For example, if a student learns that words have meaning in Spanish or Farsi, that concept does not need to be retaught in English. It has permanence across the board. Therefore, when schools intentionally honor and embrace the first language, even when they don’t speak it, children learn to embrace the strengths they bring to language overall. Principals, teachers, and staff can do this in big and small ways throughout the year, but the first and foremost way is to honor the child’s name by pronouncing it correctly. Children can also be invited to teach the adults—and perhaps the class—a “word of the week” in their first or home language.

Where does this leave you? Perhaps you have had an “aha” moment as a no-nonsense nurturer in regard to one or more of these misconceptions. Perhaps your next step is to learn about making the instruction in your building comprehensible for emerging bilingual students. Ideally, we will all continue to be committed to holding high expectations for all students, including emerging bilingual students, who will learn to leverage two languages and often two cultures with our encouragement and support.

Wanda Perez-Brundage, MEd, is the founding principal of Academy of Health Sciences Charter School in Rochester, NY, and serves as a consultant for CT3, a company providing professional development for teachers, coaches, and school leaders.