Dr. Wayne E. WrightDr. Wayne E. Wright is an Assistant Professor in the Division of Bicultural-Bilingual Studies in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Texas at San Antonio. His research areas and expertise encompass issues pertaining to language, literacy, and the unique challenges faced by English language learners. He was recently nominated for the Achievement Award for New Scholars by the Conference of Southern Graduate Schools, and currently holds several editorial positions in scholarly journals.

One of the greatest strengths ELL students bring to the classroom is their primary language (L1). Richard Ruiz (1984) reminds us that effective programs for ELLs view the primary language as a resource, rather than as a problem to be overcome. Even in non-bilingual classrooms teachers can utilize their students’ L1 in a manner which will make content-area instruction in English much more comprehensible (Wright, 2008). As Krashen (1985) has pointed out in his Comprehensible Input Hypothesis, students acquire English when they can understand messages in that language. Thus, proper use of the L1 makes English language instruction much more comprehensible, and thus students will acquire English much more quickly and effectively while at the same time mastering grade-level content. The use of students’ L1 in this manner is called Primary Language Support (PLS). Even in states such as Arizona which restrict bilingual education and require sheltered English immersion (SEI), the law makes it clear that teachers may use PLS as needed. Indeed, PLS is a critical component of sheltered English instruction, as evidenced by its inclusion in the Sheltered English Observation Protocol (SIOP) (Echevarria, Vogt, & Short, 2004).

Not all uses of students’ primary languages are effective. The worst use is concurrent translation, that is, providing a direct translation of everything the teacher says in English. When direct translation is provided, students have no need to attend to the English, and thus, no comprehensible input actually occurs.

One of the most effective PLS techniques is Preview-Review. It takes just a few minutes before and after a lesson or read-aloud, yet it maximizes students’ comprehension in English. If the teacher cannot speak the students’ language(s), Preview-Review may be provided by a bilingual paraprofessional. Preview entails having a brief discussion with students in their primary language to activate prior knowledge related to the book to be read or lesson to be taught. For example, if a teacher is doing a unit on plants, she could ask students, in their primary language, everything they know about plants and how they grow, and guide the discussion to cover the key ideas which will be taught in English. For a read-aloud, the teacher could activate prior knowledge about the topic of the book by discussing the cover, doing a picture walk to help students understand the characters and settings, and allow the students to make predictions about what they think will happen. After this brief preview, the teacher then presents the lesson or reads the book in English, using appropriate sheltered strategies and techniques. At the conclusion, the teacher briefly reviews with the students in their primary language the key ideas in the lesson, or asks comprehension questions about the book read. Researchers have found that ELLs who received Preview-Review had higher rates of learning English vocabulary than students who were only taught in English, or who received concurrent translation (Ulanoff & Pucci, 1999).

If the classroom teacher or bilingual assistant can speak the students’ language(s), the following techniques are other effective ways of providing PLS:

  • Provide quick explanations in the L1 of confusing key concept or terms during whole class or small group instruction.
  • Use the L1 to help students at their desk struggling with independent seatwork.
  • Pull students aside and reinforce/re-teach concepts in the L1 that students are struggling with in English.
  • Read books aloud in the L1 that reinforce concepts being taught in English.
  • Accept students’ contributions in their L1 during class discussions, then repeat back in English what they said.
  • Label the classroom in English and the students’ L1(s).

If the classroom teacher does not speak the students’ L1(s) and does not have a bilingual paraprofessional, there are still effective ways to provide PLS:

  • Provide bilingual picture dictionaries and show students how to use them.
  • Accept initial writing in the L1 as students transition to English writing.
  • Place L1 books and recordings in the listening center which are similar to books being read in class in English, and/or which reinforce key concepts being taught (recordings can be bought commercially or made by a parent or other volunteer).
  • Send the above L1 books home for students to read with their parents and siblings.
  • Send home letters in the L1 explaining concepts being taught in school, and ways parents can support at home (many curricular programs provide letters of this type in several different languages in the back of the teachers’ guide).
  • Utilize multilingual resources available through the internet (e.g., translation tools, on-line bilingual dictionaries, interactive educational activities with built-in language support, etc.).
  • Allow bilingual students in class to use their language skills to provide assistance to lower-level ELL students in their primary language.

These are just a few of the ways teachers can provide Primary Language Support. Not only does PLS make English more comprehensible, and thus helps students acquire the language better and faster, but it also sends students a strong message that even in an English-language classroom, their primary language is valued and that it is a viable resource for learning. This, in turn, creates a very positive environment for ELL students conducive to effective language teaching and learning.

References

Echevarria, J., Vogt, M., & Short, D. (2004). Making content comprehensible for English learners: The SIOP model (2nd ed.). Boston: Pearson.

Krashen, S. D. (1985). The input hypothesis: Issues and implications. London: Longman.

Ruiz, R. (1984). Orientations in language planning. NABE Journal, 8(2), 15-34.

Ulanoff, S. H., & Pucci, S. L. (1999). Learning words from books: The effects of read aloud on second language vocabulary acquisition. Bilingual Research Journal, 23(4), 319-332.

Wright, W. E. (2008). Primary language support. In J. M. Gonzalez (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Bilingual Education (pp. 666-668). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

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9 Responses to “Primary Language Support: Facilitating English Language Development and Sheltered Content Instruction through Effective use of Students’ Primary Language(s) by: Dr. Wayne E. Wright”

  1. Diep Nguyen on 2/19/09 11:38 AM US/Eastern

    Thank you for a succinct blog on the importance of PLS. We have several schools considering SIOP. I will certainly share your article with my team.

  2. Wayne on 2/24/09 9:25 PM US/Eastern

    Hi Diep,

    Thanks for your comment. Glad your district is considering the SIOP, which does give importance to PLS. As I’m sure you already know though, the SIOP is not a panacea, and teachers need sufficient training in SDAIE before they can really use the SIOP. As I like to say, the SIOP is a great tool for organizing SDAIE instruction, but only works if teachers have a full understanding and commitment to the things the SIOP is organizing.

    Good luck!

  3. Tammie Franklin on 6/18/09 6:23 AM US/Eastern

    What do you do when you can’t speak your student’s language and they have been included in your class with out an aid or specialist? (I’m new to the world of ESL.)

  4. Wayne on 6/28/09 1:55 AM US/Eastern

    Hi Tammie,

    See the bulleted list of suggestions at the end of the article for ways teachers can provide primary language support when they don’t speak the language(s) of the student.

    You may also be interested in reading an article I wrote about a teacher’s and school’s efforts to meet the needs of two newcomer students from Cambodia who didn’t speak English, and no one in the school could speak their language:

    Wright, W. E., & Li, X. (2006). Catching up in math? The case of newly-arrived Cambodian students in a Texas intermediate school. TABE Journal, 9(1), 1-22.
    Available on-line at http://www.tabe.org/members/Catching%20_up_in_Math.pdf

    I hope this helps. Good luck!

  5. sandra742 on 9/9/09 9:33 AM US/Eastern

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. :) Cheers! Sandra. R.

  6. Primary Language Support for English Language Learners | Essential Educator on 3/29/11 1:00 PM US/Eastern

    […] Primary Language Support for English Language Learners Posted on March 03, 2011 Print Friendly One of the greatest strengths ELL students bring to the classroom is their primary language (L1). Richard Ruiz (1984) reminds us that effective programs for ELLs view the primary language as a resource, rather than as a problem to be overcome. Even in non-bilingual classrooms teachers can utilize their students’ L1 in a manner which will make content-area instruction in English much more comprehensible. As Krashen (1985) has pointed out in his Comprehensible Input Hypothesis, students acquire English when they can understand messages in that language. Thus, proper use of the L1 makes English language instruction much more comprehensible, and thus students will acquire English much more quickly and effectively while at the same time mastering grade-level content. The use of students’ L1 in this manner is called Primary Language Support (PLS). Indeed, PLS is a critical component of sheltered English instruction, as evidenced by its inclusion in the Sheltered English Observation Protocol (SIOP). Access this article HERE […]

  7. Www.experienceproject.com on 5/21/14 7:28 AM US/Eastern

    Hello there! This blog post could not be written any better!
    Looking at this article reminds me of my previous roommate!
    He always kept preaching about this. I will forward this article to him.
    Pretty sure he’s going to have a great read. I appreciate
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  8. Chris BERGER on 9/21/14 4:08 PM US/Eastern

    This was very informational and I just wanted to say Thank You.

  9. Prasanna Chakranarayan on 3/19/17 12:39 PM US/Eastern

    Hi this very helpful for my teaching as this semester I am using ‘Foundation For English Language Learners’ by Wayne E. Wright.

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