School administrators and classroom teachers should encourage parents to speak their native language at home. It is much more beneficial for children to hear fluent native language with a rich vocabulary than it is to hear imperfect, halting English. When students learn academic concepts in their primary language, this knowledge will transfer to English. Let's look at the case of one ELL, Isobel, and her family as they try to integrate English into their home life.
Isobel's family is from Costa Rica. Her parents speak some English and are literate in Spanish. When Isabel's teacher told them that they should speak English at home, her parents became distressed. They tried to speak English with her at the dinner table, but their conversations were stilted. Isobel's parents no longer felt comfortable asking her about her school, classes, and homework in Spanish. They stopped discussing books and the television news with her. Although the family reverted to their native language at the dinner table after a week of hesitant English, Isobel felt ashamed of her native language. She wished her parents spoke English.
What Isobel's teacher and parents did not know was that by reading and discussing stories with her and by encouraging Isobel to share her school experiences in Spanish, they were giving her experiences in their native language. Informal conversations like these are critical for Isobel because they will help her establish values and discuss ideas that she is not ready to learn in English. Eventually, what she learns in Spanish will help promote her English proficiency. The concepts and skills that students learn in one language will transfer to the second language when the learner is ready.
Students who are literate in their native language have many skills to draw on when they learn academic English, even when the writing system is different. It is much easier to teach a concept if the student already has some background with it in native language. Once students grasp the underlying literacy skills of one language, they can use these same skills to learn to read in another language. For example, 6th graders who are literate in Spanish will understand the underlying process of reading in English. Older students will be able to transfer skills such as scanning, selecting important information, predicting what comes next, and visualizing to enhance comprehension. Younger children who are literate in one language will know that printed words carry meaning, that words can be combined into sentences and paragraphs, and that certain letters stand for certain sounds.
We want to be sure that the parents of our English language learners are encouraged to speak their first language at home.