A version of this response was published on Education Week Teacher today.
The new "question-of-the-week" is:
What is the role, if any, of an ELL student's home language in the classroom?
Response From Chloe Smith
Chloe Smith (BA English, MA English, CELTA) is the project coordinator and teacher trainer for New Education Highway (NEH). Chloe is striving to change the local teaching culture in a rural community in Rakhine state, Myanmar from the outdated, passive model of Victorian England to active and student centered.
From my experience teaching in Greece, the US, and now Myanmar, I think the role of the home language depends on the existing learning culture and health of the students, as well as the diversity of the class.
Classroom culture plays the biggest role in whether I advocate for English-only or duel-language classrooms. For students who have never been taught by native speakers or participated in student-centered teaching, the use of home language keeps them engaged.
My rural Myanmar students do not respond well to 100% English. Having had no prior exposure to foreigners or to an active learning culture, they often become distracted. They need the calming reassurance of instructions in their home language for them to concentrate on the given task. In a rote learning system where students do not think for themselves, the home language also encourages them to engage critically with the new teaching method. They can begin to consider themselves as agents in their own learning. My desire is that the home language will recede into the background as student engagement levels rise to the new teaching method.
In Greece and the US my classrooms were English-only environments as students were familiar with active learning and were used to tourists and foreigners.
Sufficient food and nutrients affect students' ability to learn, and therefore, the role of L1 in the class. For students who are malnourished, L1 is critical for the student engagement. I saw this in Greece during the economic crisis of 2012 and in rural Myanmar when my fellow teachers used L1 to keep the students' attention. In Greece all of my fellow teachers were healthy and so they could teach for 8 hours a day. In contrast, Myanmar teachers sleep for up to 14 hours each day and are only able to teach 1.5 hour stints.
For a mixed nationality class, there is much more onus on the students to be inclusive and use English. This is especially true in English-speaking countries. I cannot and will not use every home language of each individual student.
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