People, Research

Using home language essential to ESL students’ success

March 29, 2022

A new book is urging teachers to bring equity and inclusion to their instruction of English language learners in the classroom.

Kate Paterson, a fourth-year PhD student at Western Education, is providing teachers with the tools and strategies to increase inclusive and effective instruction with her book, Using home language as a resource in the classroom: A guide for teachers of English learners.

The key, Paterson said, is encouraging students to use their home language, also known as their first language, because it helps them learn English and understand the remaining academic curriculum. Concepts and skills developed in one language readily transfer into the other language.

In contrast, English-only immersion persists in ESL and English-medium instruction because educators often assume it’s the most effective way to learn the language.

“A student’s language is an integral part of their identity and – for English language learners – represents a vital entry point for new learning,” Paterson said. “TESOL research is increasingly advocating for approaches that involve drawing on students’ entire language repertoire and its cultural dimensions, but practice has lagged behind.”

An English-only approach to instruction can frustrate students because they may understand a concept in class but have difficulty communicating it in English. As a result, it’s difficult for teachers to assess the students’ knowledge if students are restricted to communicating only in English. Instead, including home language – and all of the knowledge encoded within – corrects this flaw in assessment, Paterson said.

Her book contains over 30 activities, reflection questions, key insights, downloadable templates, and checklists as well as a website for online resources. Paterson said it also provides practices that allow teachers to implement fairer assessments.

She hopes her book bridges the gap between research and practice. She said some teachers haven’t received training on providing equitable instruction for English language learners. Even for those who have received it, some may still struggle to make curricular content comprehensible or provide ways for students to participate fully, exercise creativity, or engage in cognitively challenging work.

“Inclusive education is about changing instruction, curriculum, and success criteria, and not continuing to try and fit students into standardized models of success.”

With close to 14 years experience in English language education, Paterson has taught ESL at elementary and secondary schools, as well as community-based language instruction for newcomers to Canada. She’s currently an occasional teacher with the Thames Valley District School Board.