by Nonie Lesaux
Harvard Graduate School of Education
June 10, 2013
The short answer to this question is: no. An English-only rule at home is unlikely to support English language learners’ (ELLs) academic development in the way that one might think. In fact, it’s likely to do more harm than good.
Encouraging all families to talk (and talk, and talk!) in the languages with which they are most comfortable (most often their native languages) is a key way to provide children with the learning experiences they need for reading success (Snow, Porche, Tabors, & Harris, 2007). In other words, from the earliest years, families can help build knowledge about the world and therefore children’s literacy skills by having rich conversations at home in familiar languages.
How is it that rich conversations at home in a language other than English can probably better support a child’s English language and reading development than conversations in English?
When caregivers speak using the language that best facilitates sharing ideas, telling stories, and having rich dialogue, they are boosting children’s world knowledge, which almost always boosts their ability to read in any language (August & Shanahan, 2006). We need to help families realize that the accumulation of knowledge, over time, is what enables children to read and understand the texts they will encounter in later school years (Lesaux, 2012). It is also what enables critical thinking as adults. In the end, it is depth of knowledge about the world that is a difference maker in reading achievement.
Because it is natural to use more words and spin more creative narratives in the language that is most comfortable, an English-only rule at home doesn’t make sense. When children develop deep understanding of concepts in their home languages, they then just need to map a new label, in English, to a concept they already grasp. This is much like we do, as adults, when we are in a foreign country--we learn the names of familiar concepts in the foreign language in order to navigate the new territory.
To support our ELLs’ vocabulary knowledge and literacy development, we need to partner with all families to support and encourage the use of questioning, dialogue, and storytelling in everyday moments to build up children’s knowledge of language—in whatever style and language comes most naturally.
August, D., & Shanahan, T. (Eds., 2006). Developing literacy in second-language learners: Report of the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth. Mahwah, NJ : Erlbaum.
Lesaux, N.K. (2012). Reading and Reading Instruction for Children from Low-Income and Non-English-Speaking Households. Future of Children, 22(2), 73-88.
Snow, C. E., Porsche, M. V., Tabors, P. O., & Harris, S. R. (2007). Is literacy enough? Pathways to academic success for adolescents. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing Co.
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