10 Ways to Value ELs’ Language Assets

I visited my son’s fifth-grade classroom yesterday with permission to share our Golden Retriever puppy, Rica. I said her full name: Que Rica es La Vida!

“I know what that means!” a boy at the front table exclaimed with a beaming smile.

“Tell us,” I said.

“How rich is the life!” he translated with pride. Then four other students raised their hands to share they also spoke Spanish.

“How wonderful that you know other languages,” I said. Then I asked the class, “what other languages do you know?”

Celebrate Multilingualism

In this elementary school with a small population of English Learners, most students are monolingual. The few who speak another language were excited to raise their hands and share. One boy told us he knew how speak Tagalog. Another told us he spoke Laotian.  Each time a student shared a language, I asked if the student could teach us a word. I, and then the class, repeated the new words we learned.

A girl raised her hand and said, I have German blood, but I don’t speak German. I want to learn German. Another girl shared a sentence she had learned in French.

“I speak Quechua,” one girl who also spoke Spanish told us. “I’m from Peru!” She said she wanted to speak five languages, but now “only” knew three. Of course, the rest of us were impressed. Even more so when I taught the class to count to five in Mandarin Chinese and the same student trilingual in Spanish, English, and Quechua told me, “Three is the same in Chinese and Japanese.”

“Look how your multilingual brain is making connections!” I said. She was right, san in Mandarin means three, the same as san in Japanese. I added, “Looks like you know more than three languages!”

The Power of a Single Conversation

In one conversation, we made multilingualism something to celebrate in the classroom community. We made students’ language assets visible and valued. In an English classroom like this, where the few ELs have high levels of English proficiency, it’s easy for their multilingual assets to be invisible.

You don’t even need to know other languages to lead the change. With a few small shifts, every teacher can transform the classroom learning environment to value students’ multiple languages. Try these ten actions.

10 Easy Actions for Every Teacher

Here are ten easy ways to value ELs’ primary languages in your classroom. These work in any setting, whether you have many students gifted with multilingualism or just one. The fewer multilingual students in your school, the more essential it is for you to use these strategies.  Be the change!

  1. Be Excited about Language Assets.

    Ask a simple question, as I did in my son’s classroom: “Who speaks another language?” If you speak another language, you can mix it up by first asking in the language you speak, and then in English. When students share the languages they speak, be impressed. When students want to learn other languages, celebrate this vision.

  2. Build Multilingual Greetings into Your Routine.

    It’s easy to learn “good morning” in every language in your classroom community by asking people, or consulting Google Translate. For a quick routine that takes less than a minute, start the day by chorally saying “good morning” together in each language in your school community. You can extend beyond greetings, as well, to teach and use words like thank you, yes, or no in other languages. One first-grade teacher, for example, taught her students to say no in Urdu (nahe), and had them chorally say nahe when they disagreed with an idea she shared.

  3. Take Risks to Learn New Languages.

    With respect and mutual trust, ask multilingual learners to teach you a word or phrase in their language. You can also research first using Google Translate or Duolingo to learn something simple, then take a risk to try saying it in class. Be humble. Accept feedback. Have a growth mindset that you can learn to pronounce sounds that may be really hard to hear and pronounce at first. Your risk-taking sets a positive example for ELs to take more risks with English.

  4. Use Home Languages to Build Background.

    Especially when you have emerging ELs who are fluent in another language, invite them to read or watch videos about the high-level concepts and topics you are teaching to build background before each lesson. “When students first build background in concepts and topics in their primary language, they will have an easier time making meaning from your speech and texts on that topic in English” (Singer, 2018, p. 24).

  5. Use Cognates to Teach Vocabulary.

    When students are fluent in a romance language (e.g., Spanish, French, or Italian), use cognates to help them learn new words in English. A cognate is a word that has similar spelling and meaning across two (or more) languages, such as the following cognates in English and Spanish: education and educación, inference and Some estimate that 80 percent of English words, and even more in the context of science teaching, have cognates (Bravo, Hiebert, and Pearson, 2007). (Flip to EL Excellence p. 125 to learn the cognate strategy).

  6. Be Curious about English “Errors.”

    These can provide insights into understanding what might not transfer from a students’ first language. What sounds like an “error” is often an application from a grammatical rule in the first language. Reflect, “What can I learn from this about my students’ understanding of how to use language? Would that use of grammar or vocabulary make sense in the student’s primary language or home dialect?” (Singer, 2018, p. 26). If you don’t speak the primary language, consult a fluent speaker to learn more.

  7. Encourage Peer Conversations.

    Peer conversations in a home language help emerging ELs (and all who have the asset of multilingualism) access rigorous content learning.  Use this strategy when you have two or more students with fluency in the same language.  Create opportunities for the students to use the home language to discuss prior knowledge, clarity complex concepts, clarify task directions, and/or identify questions for deeper learning. In an English classroom, this is a powerful support that leverages an Emerging bilingual students’ assets to deepen learning. In addition, when your primary instructional goal is English language development, structure English conversation tasks with appropriate scaffolds to engage ELs at all proficiency levels in academic conversations English.

  8. Use Multilingual Texts.  

    Start with this Amazing Video. Videos are powerful for teaching many concepts, and also can make great “text” for literary analysis. Include international videos in other languages that feature subtitles to help students understand the content. Use this five-minute short about a soccer team, for example, to analyze theme or discuss problem-solving, collaboration, and character traits such as persistence. Even if the language of the video isn’t a language your students speak, using multilingual sources in your instruction is another way to model valuing multiple perspectives, languages, and voices.

  9. Encourage Families to Use Their Language(s).

    The evidence is clear: the use of primary language(s) promotes academic achievement in English (Francis, Lesauz, and August, 2006). Encourage families to read together and engage in discussions in their primary languages(s). Celebrate ongoing connections with extended family members (via video calls and free chat apps, for example) to continue to strengthen students’ language and cultural skills.

  10. Be an Advocate for Multilingualism.

    Even if you are new to other languages and your school context is completely English, you can be an advocate for multilingualism. Encourage your school district to offer research-based bi-literacy programs such as dual-language programs that benefit both ELs and students who speak English as their home language. Be an advocate for your state to recognize the Seal of Biliteracy so kids who build proficiency in two or more languages graduate with this recognition to bring their assets to college and career growth.

Creating a classroom and school community that values students’ languages is a win-win for ELs and non-ELs. You create a community that builds on students’ assets to enrich all learning and prepare students to thrive in a globalized world.


These are ten of many possibilities. What other ideas will you add to this list?

How do you already celebrate languages in your classroom and school?

What new actions will you take tomorrow?


Join Tonya for These Upcoming Events

November 6           Fresno, CA             Conference Keynote for the Best Results for English Learners Conference

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I am a keynote speaker, author and educational leader helping educators teach and lead for equitable schools. My books include EL Excellence Every Day, Breaking Down the Wall & Opening Doors to Equity. I'm a descendant of colonizers and enslavers deeply committed to transforming my family legacy for healing.


  • Tan

    October 31, 2018, 5:09 am

    Hi, Tonya.

    Thank you for this very reader-friendly article. Alllll of these ideas really do help us focus on what ELs can do with what they bring. I am tempted to create an infographic to share with teachers. Would that be ok?

    • Tonya Singer

      October 31, 2018, 7:27 am

      That’s a great idea, Tan! I’ll message you on Twitter as well.

    • Tonya Singer

      November 3, 2018, 1:32 pm

      I love your infographic, Tan! I’ve updated my blog to include it. It’s a beautiful thing when we collaborate across continents to strengthen instruction for all multilingual learners in classrooms everywhere!

  • M. Lourdes

    October 31, 2018, 10:00 am

    Thank you for the article, Tonya!! I love your “10 Easy Actions for Every Teacher.”
    I am also going to create a “teacher-friendly” presentation and share it with all my K-4 colleagues in my school.

    • Tonya Singer

      November 3, 2018, 1:27 pm

      Thank you for sharing the love, M. Lourdes! How was the presentation? Which ideas are teachers most excited to try? What other ideas did you add to this list? What challenges exist in moving from theory to action?

  • Justin G

    November 2, 2018, 8:04 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing, Tonya. Viewing language as an asset in the classroom can help empower language learners to value both their culture and learning new languages! Even if the teacher knows a few words in different languages (greetings, basic vocabulary, etc) can make a world of difference.

    I’ve been writing about my own experiences learning Thai and how it relates to my classroom teaching. I’d love your feedback!


    • Tonya Singer

      November 3, 2018, 1:25 pm

      Thank you, Justin, for sharing your writing and learning! I love how you reflect on your experiences as a language learner, too. Learning another language is one of the BEST professional learning experiences to understand the power of effective strategies and scaffolds from the inside-out.

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