But they don't know the language... - CT3
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But they don’t know the language…

Perhaps you’re a coach or school leader who has heard a teacher say, “But, they don’t know the language.” Perhaps you are an educator who has said or thought this about a student. It’s an understandable concern to wonder how a child can learn at grade level when they don’t know English. The question becomes even more urgent when asked by a teacher who is committed to being a No-Nonsense Nurturer that holds high academic expectations for 100% of their students but who may not have had formal training in how to support emerging bilingual children. Feelings of frustration on the part of teachers are normal and understandable, but there is hope and a place to start that moves both student and teacher beyond helplessness to collaboration in the process.

An additional certification, degree, or even in-service professional development may not be necessary to become immediately more effective for your students learning English and emerging as bilingual students. The first step is to begin by understanding what it means to be an “emerging bilingual student.” Understanding often arrives as we name misconceptions and actively choose to see through a different lens. Consider these three common misconceptions about students who are in the process of learning English:

  • Children learning English don’t or can’t understand concepts at grade level.
  • Language learning is just translating words.
  • Only bilingual schools should desire for students to be bilingual.


These beliefs, while often unconscious or unintentional, are disempowering to the teacher and student. They express a fixed, misinformed mindset about what emerging bilingual children are capable of and therefore, expectations are lowered without any additional support. By replacing these common misconceptions, teachers take the first step to becoming more effective for their students. Let’s discuss the three things we know about understanding language learning and emerging bilingualism in children:

  • We know learning English doesn’t mean that a student has a learning difference or cognitive issue requiring an IEP. Learning differences that result in classifications for special education are completely independent needs from language learning needs. Of course, a student can have both needs or just one. In addition, the language learning process typically follows a predictable pattern of building up skills in all four areas of literacy: listening, speaking, reading and writing. All four areas should be supported, but it is important to note that listening comprehension typically accelerates quickly especially in an immersion experience such as an English-only school. Emerging bilingual students can grasp grade level concepts as their listening comprehension increases. The quality of the language support is what will ensure that they can also increase speaking, reading, and writing skills consistently and intentionally.


  • We know learning a second language is an intentional process that in most cases requires support in the form of systematic vocabulary instruction and teaching that makes ideas comprehensible through visual and experiential pedagogy. Basically, instruction for language learning is only as good as it is comprehensible to the learner. This type of teaching goes well beyond “translating” words. Teachers must also recognize the importance of interpreting as a mental process for both teaching and learning. Translating will give you a word for word exchange, but interpretation aims to create aligned meaning and significance in both languages and cultures. If the above is true, then what is a teacher to do practically in their classroom to maintain high expectations as a No-Nonsense Nurturer?


    1. Ensure that students receive verbal and visual modeling for each scaffolded step in their grade level work that includes think-alouds with strong demonstration.
    2. Have students practice a verbal or visual skill after each scaffolded step leading up to the grade level expectation.
    3. Use a variety of check for understanding or assessment formats throughout the lesson to better understand learning needs or when learning breaks down.


Teachers may wonder, “But that just sounds like effective teaching?” or they may say, “But what about students who don’t need that?” The truth is yes, learning strategies are just effective teaching and while all students don’t need this support, they can all benefit from the solidification of concepts.

  • We know the mention of emerging bilingual students may be confusing to some teachers, but bilingualism is always the goal for students learning English. Language learning begins at infancy and by the age of five, most children have acquired a native language at some level of age-appropriate listening and speaking proficiency. While not all English language learners will develop their first language as well as they will English, honoring and maximizing a student’s strength in a first language only enhances their English learning, not to mention helps to create a culturally relevant learning environment where the student feels respected and safe. For example, if a student learns that words have meaning in Spanish or Farsi, that concept does not need to be retaught in English. It has permanence across the board. Therefore, when teachers intentionally honor and embrace the first language even when they don’t speak it, children learn to embrace the strengths they bring to language overall. Teachers can do this in big and small ways throughout the year, but the first and foremost way is to honor the child’s name if it represents their culture by pronouncing it correctly. You can also invite the child to teach YOU (and perhaps the class) a “word of the week” in their first or home language.


So where does this leave you? Perhaps, you have had an “ah-ha!” moment as a No-Nonsense Nurturer in regards to one or more of these misconceptions. Perhaps your next step is to learn about making instruction comprehensible for emerging bilinguals. Ideally, we will all continue to be committed to holding high expectations for all students, including emerging bilingual students, who will learn to leverage two languages and often two cultures with our encouragement and support.

For more information on making instruction comprehensible, check out these well-known experts in language acquisition and their resources:


By Wanda Perez, Managing Associate for CT3

Wanda is the former principal of DC Bilingual Public Charter School which ensures high academic achievement for all its emerging bilingual students, those learning Spanish or English as a second language while embracing all cultures.

Click here to read more about Wanda’s background as an educator.

Wanda also contributed to the Association of California School Administrators’ Leadership magazine’s Health and Wellness issue in January 2018. Click here to read her article sharing thoughtful and well-researched best practices for educators working with students affected by trauma.

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