Inviting Heritage (Home/L1/Native) Language into Classrooms

Inviting Heritage (Home/L1/Native) Language into Classrooms

by Carly Spina

Many of us are guilty of sharing how much we love and value the heritage languages (also known or referred to as native language, home language, L1) of our students, but few of us actually demonstrate this within our classrooms and schools. Why? For one, we may not know how to incorporate native language usage into our content or lessons. Secondly, we don’t always share the same linguistic assets as our students. In this article, we will talk about ways to effectively and meaningfully incorporate our students’ linguistic gifts and talents into our teaching and learning.

I have taught English in two different language acquisition program models- monolingual EL for five years and bilingual (Spanish) education for six years. The ultimate goal of both programs was to attain English proficiency. Later, my bilingual program switched to a biliteracy model where the goal was dual proficiency. Throughout these years, I have navigated different ways to build the English language capacity of my learners while leveraging their native language talents, aside from merely posting an isolated list of multilingual cognates on a content board. I currently serve 8 schools (pre-K through 8th grade) as an EL/Bilingual Instructional Coach. I work with teachers of all content areas and grades. In this article, I will share practical tips for any educator of language learners to integrate students’ multilingualism into their practice- regardless of grade level or content area!

Why is Integrating Heritage Language Important?

When this topic is brought up, it sometimes causes some discomfort. Teachers may fear that by inviting native languages into English Learner classrooms, we are “holding back” students’ English development. This is a common misconception-- but fear not! Studies have shown that native language usage actually improves English proficiency and overall language development. In addition, “encouraging students to use their language serves the dual purpose of validating whom they are and furthering their academic success” (Sumaryono, Ortiz 2004). Teachers may also worry what their colleagues or administrators will say.

Across the country, there are cases of extreme language policies that are highly restrictive, outdated, and based on fear, ignorance and prejudice. However, in today’s political climate, now more than ever, we need to ensure that our students can find sanctuary in the walls of our classrooms and learning spaces. Not only is this best practice, but it allows us to make stronger connections with our students and families. It also helps to build a stronger school community that values and honors its diversity. Finally, educators sometimes grapple with fear that they won’t be able to understand their students’ conversations or output-- How will I be able to know that my students are on task? How will I be able to assess the task? While these may be valid questions, I would always rather err on the side of trusting my students and having them rise to the occasion, instead of never offering my students the opportunity to engage meaningfully in their native language with content.

Before we go any further discussing tips for integrating students’ languages besides English into the classroom, it is important to note that just because a student has oral skills in another language, this does not mean that the student can read or write in that language. This is why it’s so important for us to really get to know our students!

If you’re ready to dive in, let’s start small and begin with a few key ways to integrate other languages in our instruction. Ready? Let’s do this.

Think, Pair, Share

This is a very popular structure that educators use across content areas. A teacher offers a prompt for students to consider, offers think time, then time to share with a nearby partner. You can have students who share a common language become think partners and consider the prompt in the language of their choice. If you have students who do not have a language buddy, they can still share in their native language, if the purpose is merely to express a thought and not engage in conversation. Or, have students record their thoughts in their preferred language so that they can digitally share their thoughts with a classmate or buddy from another class (or even another school within your district!).

Final Products

Allow your students to express their learning in Vietnamese, Tagalog, Arabic, or whatever beautiful language they know. I recently had the privilege of seeing an amazing example of an 8th grade science teacher, Melissa Feiger, who encouraged her students to create a product to show their learning. Two students who shared a common language partnered and created a video about the biodiversity of Mexico. The whole video was in Spanish and featured very high-level academic language. They even included English subtitles for their monolingual peers so that their video would be more comprehensible to those who only knew English.

Another middle school teacher I am blessed to work with, Kathryn Baumgartner, began a social justice book club unit midyear. She knew her 6th grade students well and took time to understand their linguistic abilities. After learning that a few students had literacy skills in Spanish, she ensured to have a few extra copies of titles available in Spanish. She offered a “Book Speed Dating” day where students were able to spend a few minutes with books featuring different social justice themes. Ultimately, they were able to select which book (and which language) they wanted to read. Book club conversations could be held in whichever language the students preferred. The students later were invited to present reflections in either language. Finally, students were to present a quote in the character’s native language related to a current social justice theme. Take a look at a copy of her rubric below. It shows that even if a student does not have an additional linguistic ability, they must actively research it! The teacher shared that incorporating these elements elevated the status of other languages in her classroom and created a stronger classroom community based on respect and appreciation.


With the influx of devices in our learning spaces, our students have increased access to technology during the school day. Many teachers allow students to record personal reflections to social studies topics, science experiments, literature, social emotional learning activities, and more. If the purpose is for students to record their personal thoughts to a prompt or experience, why not invite students to reflect in a language that feels most comfortable to them?

Student-Led Parent Conferences

There has been a big movement in having students lead parent-teacher conferences. I have seen really empowered students sharing their instructional goals, favorite learning experiences, and pieces of work with families. Students gather samples of their work, highlight their notebooks, and take photos of their art and compile them into a presentation to eventually share with their families. This one seems like a no-brainer, but if the families only converse at home in Hungarian, why should they prepare for their conference in English? Please also note, we should never assume that children and parents share the same level of proficiency in any language.

Final Thoughts

Whether you are inviting the opportunity to reflect, create, or discuss--it is important to be explicit in your invitation. By encouraging students to bring their linguistic assets into the classroom, we are elevating the status of languages other than English. This highlights the gifts and talents that our students have. If languages are flowing freely in our classrooms, it will not prohibit anyone’s English language development. It will build up a classroom community and demonstrate that we all have passions, talents, interests, and identities--and it will teach that all of these things strengthen our learning, our classroom, and our school. The best part is--it does not require us to become masters of all of these languages, but simply an empathetic educator who is utilizing all the linguistic strengths of their students!  

To Further Your Learning:

Language and Culture: They Go Hand in Hand from Confianza

Strength-Based Teaching ESL from Cult of Pedagogy

Your Students Have Assets, Not Deficiencies: Differentiating Instruction for English Learners based on Strengths and Interests from Confianza

Academic Citations:

Sumaryono, Karen, and Floris Wilma Ortiz. Preserving the Cultural Identity of the English Language Learner. Voices from the Middle, May 2004, lead.     

Vallance, Anna L., "The Importance of Maintaining a Heritage Language while Acquiring the Host Language" (2015). Honors College Theses. 34.


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  • Posted by Joel and Randi Feiger on

    Melissa Feiger is he best!

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