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2 Chapter 2: Language Proficiency and Communicative Competence

Key Issues

  1. Language proficiency is multidimensional and entails linguistic, cognitive, and sociocultural factors.
  2. As students learn a second language, they progress at different rates along a continuum of predictable stages.
  3. CAN DO Descriptors depict what students can do with language at different levels of language proficiency.
  4. Communicative competence involves more than linguistic or grammatical competence.
  5. Native languages, cultures, and life experiences are resources to be tapped and provide a solid foundation for learning language and content.

As you read the scenario below, think about English language learners (ELLs) you may know. What are their language proficiency levels? How is instruction planned to address their different content and language needs? Reflect on how knowledge of their English language proficiency might help teachers better address their unique needs and tap their strengths.

Rudi Heinz’s head was swimming: state content standards, national content standards, state English language development standards, Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Inc. (TESOL) English language proficiency standards, WIDA[1]standards, district mandates, mandatory curriculum. It was becoming overwhelming to try to fit all of the different and sometimes conflicting objectives together into a coherent lesson.
“How can I possibly teach all of this? Why do I have to worry about English language development standards anyway?” moaned Rudi to himself. “That’s the English department’s job—or the ELL teacher’s job—not mine! I teach history!”
Suddenly the picture of a bumbling juggler (with himself in the lead role) trying to add one more item to his routine sprang into his mind. Like many others, Rudi was a creative guy with a passion for teaching. Sure, stress affected his ability to be creative, but he refused to give up. He drew courage, strength, and inspiration from the memory of the smiling and inquisitive faces of Roman, Marina, Yelena, Augusto, Faridah, and Kumar.
Rudi turned once again to the history and English language proficiency standards spread out before him. Each one of his English learners was a unique individual with specific strengths and weaknesses in both language and content. These diverse needs made lesson planning challenging, but his ELL kids were counting on him to find a way to communicate with them. Rudi was determined to do just that.


To assist you with the pronunciation of many foreign names, visit How to Say that Name.com. Many names are available with audio files by native speakers.


Think about the English learners you know. What information do you already have that would help to inform the strategies you can use to meet their instructional needs? What information do you still need to obtain?

Language Proficiency

Language proficiency can be defined as the ability to use language accurately and appropriately in its oral and written forms in a variety of settings (Cloud, Genesee, & Hamayan, 2000). Kern (2000) developed a broad conceptual framework for understanding language proficiency that includes three dimensions of academic literacy: linguistic, cognitive, and sociocultural. To be proficient in a language requires knowledge and skills using the linguistic components. It also requires background knowledge, critical thinking and metacognitive skills, as well as understanding and applying cultural nuances, beliefs, and practices in context. Finally, being proficient in a language requires skill in using appropriately the four language domains—listening, speaking, reading, and writing—for a variety of purposes, in a variety of situations, with a variety of audiences.

Language Domains

There are four language domains: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Although these four domains are interrelated, they can develop at different rates and independently of one another. These four domains can be classified as receptive or productive skills and as oral or written. The matrix in Figure 2.1 depicts the four language domains.

Receptive Productive
Oral Listening Speaking
Written Reading Writing

Figure 2.1 Language domains.
Receptive language refers to the information someone receives through listening or reading activities.
Listening. English learners process, understand, and respond to spoken language from a variety of speakers for a range of purposes in a variety of situations. Listening, however, is not a passive skill; it requires the active pursuit of meaning.
Reading. English learners process, interpret, and evaluate written words, symbols, and other visual cues used in texts to convey meaning. Learning to read in a second language may be hindered or enhanced by students’ levels of literacy in their native languages. Students who have strong reading foundations in their first languages bring with them literacy skills that can typically be transferred to the process of learning to read in English.
Productive language refers to the information produced to convey meaning. The very nature of productive language implies an audience, although not always an immediate audience, as in the case of writing a book or an e-mail.
Speaking. English learners engage in oral communication in a variety of situations for a variety of purposes and audiences in a wide array of social, cultural, and academic contexts. Contextual roles for getting and keeping the floor, turn taking, and the way in which children converse with adults are only a few examples.
Writing. English learners engage in written communication in a variety of forms for a variety of purposes and audiences. These forms include expressing meaning through drawing, symbols, and/or text. ELLs may come with writing styles and usages that are influenced by their home cultures.
Understanding the different demands of each language domain aids educators in addressing the language learning needs of their ELLs. Note that proficiency in a language may vary across the four basic language skills. For example, think about the times we have heard an adult language learner say, “I can read German, but I can’t speak it at all.” Likewise, some ELLs may have stronger listening and speaking skills, while others might be stronger writers but not as strong when it comes to speaking. When assessing the proficiency levels of ELLs, it is important to take into account an individual student’s performances in each domain.


Rudi Heinz has learned that his sixth-grade ELL student, Faridah, scored at a Level 2 on the state’s English language proficiency (ELP) exam. However, this information provides an incomplete and misleading picture of Faridah’s needs and abilities. To address her language needs effectively, to understand the impact of her language proficiencies in the content areas, and to build on her language strengths, Rudi must uncover Faridah’s individual scores in every language domain and in combinations of domains.
Faridah’s cumulative file holds a copy of the state’s language proficiency test, which she completed the previous spring. Here are the scores (on a scale from 1 to 4, with 4 being advanced proficiency):

Listening: 3 Reading: 2
Speaking: 1 Writing: 2

Rudi felt some degree of success at locating the language proficiency information, but he still wondered what to do next. How are these scores helpful? What do they mean in the real-life context of the busy classroom?

English Language Proficiency

As students learn a second, third, or fourth language, they move along a continuum of predictable stages. Careful observation of and interaction with individual students aids educators in identifying each student’s level of language proficiency. This information is pivotal when planning appropriate instruction for ELLs.
State English language proficiency (ELP) standards (e.g., Washington state ELPs at http://www.k12.wa.us/MigrantBilingual/ELD.aspx ) or multistate ELPs (e.g., TESOL’s 2006 PreK–12 English language proficiency Standards, or WIDA’s 2012 English language development standards at https://wida.wisc.edu/sites/default/files/resource/2012-ELD-Standards.pdf) provide helpful guidance for teaching content across the four language domains.
TESOL’s five preK–12 English language proficiency standards (see Figure 2.2) can guide teachers in helping ELs become proficient in English while, at the same time, achieving in the content areas.

Standard 1 English language learners communicate for social, intercultural, and instructional purposes within the school setting.
Standard 2 English language learners communicate information, ideas, and concepts necessary for academic success in the area of language arts.
Standard 3 English language learners communicate information, ideas, and concepts necessary for academic success in the area of mathematics.
Standard 4 English language learners communicate information, ideas, and concepts necessary for academic success in the area of science.
Standard 5 English language learners communicate information, ideas, and concepts necessary for academic success in the area of social studies.

Figure 2.2 PreK-12 Englis Language Proficiency Standards.
Source:PreK-12 English Language Proficiency Standards by TESOL. Copyright 2006 by Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Inc. (TESOL). Reprinted with permission.

English Language Proficiency Levels

Students progress through the stages of language proficiency at different rates: some acquire nativelike competency in 7 years, some may take 10 years, while others may never reach that level. Most students learning a second language follow a similar route; that is, certain linguistic forms and rules are acquired early, whereas others tend to be acquired late, as illustrated in Figure 2.3. In other words, while most students follow the same path in learning English, their pace and rate are different depending on a variety of factors, such as native language, familiarity with the Latin alphabet, competence in the native language, age, previous schooling experiences, aptitude, motivation, personality, and other social and psychological factors.

Typical Stages in the Acquisition of Negation

(1) “no want pizza”

(2) “me no want pizza”

(3) “I don’t want pizza”

Linguistic Features Acquired in the Early Stages

-/s/ plural                                         “Ken has many books.”

-ing verb ending                      “Sandi is playing ball.”

active sentences                      “Ronaldo built a big tower with blocks.”

Linguistic Features Acquired in the Later Stages

-/s/ possessive                                                                “That is Tamara’s coat.”

-/s/ third person singular                                 “Sasha plays with Leia.”

passive voice                                                         “A big tower with blocks was built by Lorca.”

Figure 2.3 Acquisition of English features
While many states have developed their own sets of standards and may use four, five, or six proficiency levels or apply different labels for each stage (e.g., beginning, early intermediate, intermediate, early advanced, and advanced), the standards outline the progression of English language development in the four domains of listening, speaking, reading, and writing through each of the different levels from novice to proficient.


Check examples of state English language proficiency standards for K–12 education on the website for the state of California at http://www.cde.ca.gov/be/st/ss/documents/englangdevstnd.pdf;
Illinois at https://www.isbe.net/Pages/English-Language-Learning-Standards.aspx;
and Texas at http://ipsi.utexas.edu/EST/files/standards/ELPS/ELPS.pdf
The English language proficiency (ELP) standards developed by TESOL provide a model of the process of language acquisition that can be adapted by districts and states within the context of their own language leveling system (see Figure 2.4 for these standards).

Stages of English Language Proficiency (ELP)
Level 1: Starting
Speaking/Listening At this level, students . . .

  • initially have limited or no understanding of English.
  • rarely use English for communication.
  • respond nonverbally to simple commands, statements, and questions.
  • begin to imitate the verbalizations of others by using single words or simple phrases.
  • often pass through a silent period, during which time the student may not speak English.
  • begin to use English spontaneously.
Reading/Writing At the earliest stage, learners . . .

  • construct meaning from text primarily through nonprint features (e.g., illustrations, graphs, maps, tables).
  • gradually construct meaning from the words themselves.
  • are able to generate simple texts that reflect their knowledge level of syntax.

Student-produced texts may include unconventional features such as . . .

  • invented spelling
  • grammatical inaccuracies
  • pictorial representations
  • words in the first language (L1)
  • surface features and rhetorical patterns of the native language (such as replication of ways of structuring text from native culture and language)
Level 2:  Emerging
Speaking/Listening At this level, students . . .

  • understand phrases and short sentences using familiar vocabulary.
  • communicate limited information in everyday and routine situations by using memorized phrases, groups of words, and formulas.
  • use selected simple structures correctly but still systematically make basic errors.
  • begin to use general academic vocabulary and familiar everyday expressions.
Reading/Writing Reading and writing proficiency may vary depending on students’ . . .

  • literacy development in their native language.
  • familiarity with the Latin alphabet.

At this level, students

  • read words and phrases.
  • locate specific, predictable information in simple everyday or environmental print.
  • approximate the spelling of words.
  • write for themselves to express their own personality and personal thoughts.

Errors in writing are present and often hinder communication.

Level 3:  Developing
Speaking/Listening At this level, students . . .

  • understand more complex speech.
  • still may require some repetition or a slower rate of speech.
  • acquire a vocabulary of stock words and phrases covering many daily situations.
  • use English spontaneously.
  • may have difficulty expressing all their thoughts due to a restricted vocabulary and a limited command of language structure.
  • speak in simple sentences that are comprehensible and appropriate but are frequently marked by grammatical errors.
  • may understand and use some specialized academic vocabulary.
  • still have some trouble comprehending and producing complex structures and academic language.
Reading/Writing Proficiency in reading may vary considerably depending on learners’ familiarity and prior experience with . . .

  • themes, concepts, genre, characters, and so on.

Students are most successful constructing meaning from texts for which they have background knowledge on which to build.

In writing, they are able to generate . . .

  • increasingly complex texts.
  • a wider variety of texts.
  • more coherent texts than beginners.
  • texts still containing a considerable number of unconventional features.
Level 4:  Expanding
Speaking/Listening At this level, students . . .

  • possess language skills that are generally adequate for most day-to-day communication needs.
  • occasionally make structural and lexical errors.
  • may have difficulty understanding and using some idioms, figures of speech, and words with multiple meanings.
  • communicate in English in new or unfamiliar settings.
  • have occasional difficulty with complex structures and abstract academic concepts.
Reading/Writing Students at this level . . .

  • may read with considerable fluency.
  • are able to locate and identify specific facts within the text.
  • may not understand texts in which the concepts are presented in isolation and without contextualized support, the sentence structure is complex, or the vocabulary is abstract or has multiple meanings.
  • encounter more difficulty with grade-level literacy than with oral language.
  • may read independently but may have occasional comprehension problems, especially when processing grade-level information.
  • may produce texts independently for personal and academic purposes.
  • produce texts that approximate the writing the structures, vocabulary, and overall organization of native speakers of English.
  • make errors in one or more domains that generally do not interfere with communication.
Level 5:  Bridging
Reading/Writing Students . . .

  • are able to work with grade-level material with some modification.
  • have a good command of technical and academic vocabulary as well of idiomatic expressions and colloquialisms.
  • can produce clear, smoothly flowing, well-structured texts of differing lengths and degrees of linguistic complexity.
  • make minimal errors that are difficult to spot or are generally corrected when they occur.

Figure 2.4 Levels of language proficiency
Source: PreK-12 English Language Proficiency Standards by TESOL. Copyright 2006 by Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Inc. (TESOL). Reprinted with permission.
The language proficiency levels are not necessarily connected to cognitive functions. Often students may be able to process advanced cognitive tasks and yet not be able to express those understandings in the second language. For example, Level 1 or Level 2 English language learners can still analyze and classify information if it is presented in small chunks and supported visually.


Take a moment to recall the information Rudi Heinz collected about Faridah’s English language proficiency test scores:

Listening: 3 Reading: 2
Speaking: 1 Writing: 2

Using the information presented in the preceding section, answer the following questions.

  1. What are Faridah’s strengths?
  2. How does this information help Rudi plan instruction for Faridah?
  3. What can Rudi reasonably expect Faridah to understand and do in his ancient history class?
  4. Is that all there is to learning a language?

Communicative Competence

Pike (1982), notes that “[l]anguage is not merely a set of unrelated sounds, clauses, rules, and meanings; it is a total coherent system of these integrating with each other, and with behavior, context, universe of discourse, and observer perspective” (p. 44). As early as the 1970s, Dell Hymes (1972) put forward a notion of linguistic competence to mean more than mastery of formal linguistic systems. Communication is not only about oral and written language. When we speak, our speech is often accompanied by nonverbal communications such as facial expressions, gestures, body movement, and sighs. The way we stand, the distance between our listeners and us, the looks on our faces, and our tone of voice all influence the manner and content of our communication.
While the ability to correctly form words, sentences, paragraphs, and larger bodies of text is an important expectation by schools and educators, the area of communicative competence can sometimes be overlooked. Briefly, the idea of communicative competence is the communicator’s comprehensive knowledge and appropriate application of a language in a specific context. This knowledge helps the communicator know what to communicate and, more important, how, when, and where to communicate something. For example, the following exchange between a principal and her middle school Honduran student includes appropriate grammatical features but much more information than needed:

Principal: Antonio, you’ve been absent for two days. Why?
Antonio: The first day I had to stay with my little sister because my cousin got sick and my mom took him to the doctor. You know, I can’t drive yet. I would have taken my cousin faster. They took the bus. My cousin will stay in the hospital for a few days. I don’t know what’s the problem; it’s something with his heart. He is a lot older than me.

While Antonio’s grammatical constructions are acceptable, in U.S. settings this may not be the response expected by a principal or teacher because it contains much more information than needed.


  1. Can you recall any conversations with English language learners and/or their families that are similar to the example involving Antonio above?
  2. What did you find inappropriate in the example(s) that you recalled?
  3. Why was that instance from your student (or from his or her family member) inappropriate? By whose standards?

Elements of Communicative Competence

Communicative competence does not apply only to oral language. Communicative competence means competence in all four language domains—both the productive and the receptive. When talking of communicative competence, we need to consider four important elements: grammatical or linguistic, sociolinguistic, discourse, and strategic. Each will be defined below. Examples are provided in Figure 2.6.

  1. Grammatical or linguistic competencies involve accuracy of language used (e.g., spelling, vocabulary, sentence formation, pronunciation).
  2. Sociolinguistic competencies entail the use of language in an appropriate manner or style in a given context. These competencies take into account a variety of factors such as rules and social conventions, the status of participants, and cultural norms.
  3. Discourse competencies involve the ability to connect correctly formed phrases and sentences into a coherent and cohesive message in a particular style. These competencies involve the ability to be a sender and receiver of messages and to appropriately alternate those roles in conversations or written language.
  4. Strategic competencies involve the development of strategies such as how to get into or out of conversation, break silences, hold the floor in conversations, and deal with strategies to continue communicating when faced with breakdown in communication.
Elements of Communicative Competence Examples
  • How do you spell ____?
  • I can’t remember the word!
  • Is the correct word order “I the dog see” or “I see the dog”?
  • Which words and phrases fit with this setting and topic?
  • How can I express a specific attitude (e.g., courtesy, authority, friendliness, respect) when I need to?
  • How do I know what attitude another person is expressing?
  • How are words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs put together to create cohesive and coherent communication (conversations, speeches, e-mail messages, reports, newspaper articles)?
  • How do I know when I’ve misunderstood someone or when someone has misunderstood me?
  • Can I think of another way to express my ideas if I can’t remember the right word? Maybe I could pantomime or draw a picture?

Figure 2.6 Elements and examples of communicative competence.


How can educators model and teach each facet of communicative competence while simultaneously teaching content? Think of specific examples.

The Role of Native Languages and Cultures

Native language is the primary or first language spoken by an individual. It is also called the mother tongue. The abbreviation L1 refers to someone’s native language. It is generally used in contrast to L2, the language a person is learning. Native culture is the term often used to refer to the culture acquired first in life by a person or the culture that this individual identifies with as a group member.
Norton (1997) claims that, “[t]he central questions teachers need to ask are not, ‘What is the learner’s mother tongue?’ and ‘Is the learner a native speaker of Punjabi?’ Rather the teacher should ask, ‘What is the learner’s linguistic repertoire? Is the learner’s relationship to these languages based on expertise, inheritance, affiliation, or a combination?’” (p. 418). There is an intimate relationship among language, culture, identity, and cognition. Educating ELLs includes not only focusing on language learning but also on building on students’ native languages, cultures, and experiences. Most English language learners are very familiar with at least one other language and have an intuitive understanding of how language and texts work. This knowledge of their first language (L1) will greatly enhance their opportunities to learn English. Research in this area indicates that full proficiency in the native language facilitates the development of the second language (L2) (August & Shanahan, 2017). Native language proficiency can also impact how students learn complex material, such as what is typically encountered in content-area classrooms (Ernst-Slavit & Slavit, 2007).
The key is to consider students’ first languages and cultures as resources to be tapped into and built upon. Thinking of our English learners as “having to start from scratch” is the equivalent of denying the many experiences that children have accumulated before coming to the United States and the vast amount of family and cultural knowledge and traditions that have been passed on to students from the moment they were born. The consequences of denying students’ first language can be far reaching because language, culture, and identity are inextricably linked.


For a useful article on the value of the native language and culture, see “The Home Language: An English Language Learner’s Most Valuable Resource” in ¡Colorín Colorado!, by Genesee (2012), at http://www.colorincolorado.org/article/home-language-english-language-learners-most-valuable-resource. For ideas about how to find out information about students’ cultures, see the section called “Background” in Chapter 3 of this text.


Translanguaging affords practitioners and academics alike a different way of conceptualizing bilingualism and multilingualism. This perspective views bilinguals and multilinguals not as possessing two or more autonomous language systems, but as users of a unitary linguistic repertoire where they sort and select whatever resources are needed to make meaning and to communicate with others.
The term translanguaging was initially used by Williams (1996) to refer to a pedagogical practice where Welsh students would receive information in one language (e.g., reading) and then use it another language (e.g., writing). Some years later, the use of the term was expanded in the United States by Ofelia Garcia (see, for example, García & Wei, 2014; García & Kleyn, 2016) to refer to the language practices of people who speak more than one language. Translanguaging is not code-switching; it is not just going from one language to another. The notion of code-switching assumes the alternation of separate languages in the context of a single conversation (e.g., “Maria forgot su bolsa,” where the child uses Spanish to mean “her bag”). According to Garcia (2011), rather than looking at two separate languages, translanguaging avows that “bilinguals have one linguistic repertoire from which they select diverse features strategically to communicate effectively” (Garcia, 2011). The following example by Ernst-Slavit (2018) showcases how demarcations of languages are difficult to make when several languages are used fluidly in one household:
If you attended a gathering at the home of a bilingual family, you might only use English while you were there. However, different family members might have used different languages for multiple purposes. For example, if you visit an Indian family (from southeast Asia), you might find grandma busy in the kitchen pulling pans out of the oven and reading recipes in Hindi while the kids are playing video games in English. Mom, Dad, and guests may be speaking mostly in English. However, when Dad speaks to the children he does so in Urdu. And then there is grandpa, watching a Bollywood movie in Urdu that includes regional variants such as Gujarati and Punjabi (p. 10).
The above example of translanguaging in action depicts a family using their many linguistic resources in their everyday lives. While Urdu was the home language mentioned in the census and in the children’s school records, in this household there is not one home language but a full range of language practices used fluidly according to the speaker, purpose, and context (Ernst-Slavit, 2018).
The use of translanguaging in educational contexts has brought a wealth of both interest and disagreement. Many educators working on issues of language education—the development of additional languages for all, as well as minoritized languages—have embraced translanguaging theory and pedagogy. Other educators are wary of the work on translanguaging. Some claim that translanguaging pedagogy pays too much attention to the students’ bilingualism; others worry that it could threaten the language separation traditionally posited as necessary for language maintenance and development (Vogel & Garcia, 2017).
For a study on translanguaging in a third grade classroom, read “Translanguaging and Protected Spaces in a Dual Language Classroom: Tensions Across Restrictionist Policies and Unrestricted Practice” by Kristen Pratt & Gisela Ernst-Slavit (in press).


While waiting in line for a hot lunch, Rafa, a new teacher in the school, overhears Mrs. Holton telling several native Russian-speaking immigrant students to speak only English. What can he say or do to advocate for the students while at the same time maintaining a good working relationship with Mrs. Holton?

Strategies for using the native language in the classroom

Given the wide variety of languages spoken by immigrant students in the United States today, teachers will not know all of the native languages of their students. Yet teachers can still promote the use of native languages in their classrooms. Below are selected approaches for supporting native language development in K–12 classrooms.

  1. Organize primary language clusters. Create opportunities for students to work in groups using their primary language. This can be helpful as they discuss new topics, clarify ideas, or review complex concepts.
  2. Label classroom objects in different languages. Labeling classroom items allows English learners to understand and begin to learn the names of objects around the classroom. Labels also assist educators and other students to learn words in different languages.
  3. Assign a bilingual buddy to your newcomer student. Having a buddy who speaks the child’s first language can be very helpful as the new student learns how to function in the new school and culture. This buddy provides comfort while at the same time guides the newcomer throughout different activities (e.g., calendar, circle time, journal writing) and settings (e.g., bus stop, science lab, cafeteria).
  4. Support the use of the native language by using classroom aides or volunteers. By using the preview-review approach (that is, the translation of key concepts before the lesson starts, followed by review of the new content), aides or volunteers can enhance the learning opportunities of ELLs.
  5. Encourage primary language development at home. In today’s diverse world, bilingualism is highly valued. If students can continue to develop their first language as they learn English, their opportunities as bilingual adults will be enhanced. In addition, when students continue to develop their native language, they can continue to communicate meaningfully in the first language with their parents and relatives.
  6. Use technology. English learners can benefit from using technology for multiple purposes. The availability of graphical, video and audio resources can provide amazing supports for students. For example, discussion boards can create platform for students to be actively engaged using both academic and everyday English in and outside the classroom context. Likewise, searching for cognates on particular content topics might help your students have a prior of understand of the content. While some students might not be ready to produce a well-crafted five paragraph argumentative essay, they might be able to produce an outstanding PowerPoint presentation. For more ideas about technology use in language learning, see the free OER resource CALL Principles and Practice by Egbert & Shahrokni (available from https://opentext.wsu.edu/call/).
  7. Use bilingual books. An abundance of bilingual books in a variety of languages has been published in the United States since the 1980s. These books provide an effective tool for raising students’ awareness about diversity but also for fostering literacy and biliteracy development. Figure 2.6 provides a list of strategies for using bilingual books in the classroom; the list was developed by Ernst-Slavit and Mulhern (2003).
Introducing a new topic Literature that relates thematically to a new unit or lesson can acquaint a beginning English language learner with the topic at hand.
Supporting transfer of reading in L1 to L2 Children who can read in their L1 and have learned some oral English benefit from taking turns with an English speaker in reading aloud a bilingual book.
Supporting independent reading A book in the native language can soothe feelings of frustration and exhaustion common among L2 learners.
Using L1 version as preview Students can read or have someone read to them the L1 version of a book in order to understand its content.
Using L1 version as review After a book has been read and discussed in the L2, students can use the L1 version to write about the topic, review issues discussed, or further their understanding.
Reading two versions for self-assessment Young ESL students enjoy finding out how much English they are learning by counting the words they understand before and after the book is read in the L1 and discussed in the L2.
Comparing and contrasting cognates Comparing and contrasting words in L1 with English words can contribute to increases in word recognition, vocabulary development, phonic analysis, and structural analysis.
Improving home–school connections Family members can be actively involved in the education of L2 students, even if their English skills are limited, when books in L1 are available.
Supporting family literacy programs A great way to start a family literacy program for parents of ESL students is by assisting them in locating books in the L1.
Raising all children’s awareness of multiculturalism Bilingual books and materials in languages other than English can raise all children’s awareness through exposure to different languages and scripts.
Helping teachers learn another language Bilingual books can help teachers and others learn some words in students’ native languages.
Encouraging reading for pleasure One way for students to obtain sufficient amounts of written input is through pleasure reading, whether in L1 or L2.

Figure 2.6 Strategies for using bilingual books in the classroom.
Adapted from “Bilingual books: Promoting literacy and biliteracy in the second-language and mainstream classroom” by G. Ernst-Slavit and M. Mulhern. Reading Online, 7(2). Copyright 2003 by the International Reading Association. Reproduced with permission.


Learning a first language is a complex and lengthy process. While learners follow a similar route in learning a second language, the rate in which they acquire the target language varies depending on a variety of linguistic, sociocultural, and cognitive factors. As students navigate through the process of becoming competent users of English, educators’ awareness of their location along the language learning continuum can help them better address the students’ needs and build on their strengths.


For Reflection

  1. Speaking a second or third language. Do you speak a second or third language? If you do not, do you have a friend who does? Do you or your friend have equal levels of competence across language domains? Think about why some language domains developed more than others.
  2. Types of writing systems. Look at some of the different alphabets and writing systems for different languages at Omniglot (http://www.omniglot.com/) or at any other website or text. Based on those writing systems, what language do you think would be easier for you to learn? Which one would be more difficult? Why?

For Action

  1. Linguistic diversity. What native languages other than English are spoken by students in your classroom? In your school, district, and state? Jot down a list of what you believe are the top languages in your area and compare it with information you can find about your school, district and state. (For information about the different languages spoken in your state and across the United States, visit the website for the Office of English Language Acquisition at http://www.ncela.gwu.edu/stats/3_bystate.htm).
  2. English language proficiency standards. Find the English language proficiency standards for your state. Then compare those with the 2006 TESOL PreK–12 English Language Proficiency Standards (https://sites.tesol.org/Bookstore/ItemDetail?iProductCode=318&Category=STANDARDS) or any set of language proficiency/development standards. What are some similarities? What are some differences?


    August, D., & Shanahan, T. (2017). Developing literacy in second-language learners: Report of the National Literacy Panel on language-minority children and youth. New York: Routledge.
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    Ernst-Slavit, G. (2018). Understanding Culture and Language in Education. In: Egbert, J. & Ernst-Slavit, G. (Eds.), Views from inside: Languages, cultures, and schooling for K-12 educators, pp. 3-24. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.
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  1. World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA) Consortium consists of 40 partner states, all using the same 2012 amplification of the English language development standards. You may find the list of WIDA states at https://wida.wisc.edu.


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Chapter 2: Language Proficiency and Communicative Competence by Gisela Ernst-Slavit and Joy Egbert is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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