Using Home Language as the Foundation for English Language Learning – A Win Win Situation

Home Language: The language to which children are exposed in their homes and communities; it is the language that they use as their primary means of communication, and identifies them with their community.

The benefits of English language instruction that builds on and encourages the development of a student’s Home Language are well documented. This sort of language instruction is based on the perspective of contrasting languages, rather than comparing languages. Why? Because contrasting languages acknowledges the differences and similarities between languages, while comparing languages may send the message of correct and incorrect usage of a language.


The following lesson ideas use both English and Home Language versions of Bill Martin Jr.’s book, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? illustrate how to bring Genesee’s research into practice.

First, have a listen to this engaging, highly predictable text.:

Brown Bear, Brown Bear is available as a big book, a student sized book, and in many online formats. The vocabulary includes many useful sight words used in a meaningful context that are well supported by Eric Carle’s beautiful and supportive illustrations. The structure of the book is built around a question-answer format that leads the reader from the beginning to the end and back to the beginning.

Brown Bear is short enough to be easily reproduced on chart paper or in electronic format in both English and Home Language. If you don’t share the students’ Home Language, invite a parent or community member with knowledge of the Home Language to help.

In this set of lesson ideas, Brown Bear is the anchor text for a variety of comprehension, grammar, and word work lessons. As children interact with both versions of the text, they “notice cognates, make educated inferences based on phrases and words they already know, access nuanced ideas, and navigate complex grammar and vocabulary from the start.” (Pillars 2017) Using a gradual release of responsibility model, teachers provide just enough support as students learn to use and build on their Home language to become more comfortable with English.

  1. Read Aloud: As an introduction to the story, read Brown Bear to the students. Read it first in the Home Language and then in English. Use the illustrations and colour blocks to link the animal names and colour words of two languages.
  2. Shared Reading: After the read aloud, encourage the students to read along with both versions as they feel comfortable. Point out animal names and colour words. Demonstrate the natural phrasing of each language.
  3. Create an “Our Languages Word Wall” to build a bilingual vocabulary. This word wall uses a double entry model. Words chosen for the word wall are presented in the Home Language and in English. Pictures supplement the words. For example, in the “L” section of the word wall, write the words lous* / bear and include an illustration. In the “B” section, write and illustrate word bear / lous. Note: After an example or two, break the class into small groups and assign two animals and two colour words for each group to illustrate and add to the word wall. (*lous is Haitian Creole for bear)
  4. Develop fluency with Readers’ Theater: To begin, create your own Readers Theatre, using the animal names and sounds. Each student has an image and picture of an animal, with a line of text, such as: The bear says GRRRRR, the bird says Tweet Tweet,  etc. As facility with the language increases, try a Readers’ Theater script such as One side of the class asks the questions, the other side of the class answers the questions. Repeat with the Home Language.
  5. Mini Lesson: Learning about the question-answer format. Draw the students’ attention to the word “what” and the as indicators of a question format. Throughout the day, highlight question words as they come up in conversation and contrast with the questioning structures of the Home Language. Samples can be placed in a “phrases” section on the Our Languages Word Wall.
  6. Sight Word Vocabulary: Brown Bear repeats several useful sight words (I, you, see, what, do, etc.), all presented in meaningful context. These words, can be located by students and added to Home Language / English double entry word walls or personal dictionaries.
  7. Phonological Awareness and Phonics: Teaching rhyme, segmenting, blending as well as letter sounds and blends is only meaningful when the student understands the word, so plan word work lessons that start with the known vocabulary of the Home Language and then link that knowledge to English.
  8. Linking oral language and art:  Art activities provide lots of opportunities for oral language development. In Brown Bear, Eric Carle’s masterful tissue paper collages provide lots of opportunity for contrasting the Home Language and English vocabulary of colour, shading, and shape. Provide students with pieces of tissue paper to overlap and hold up to the window and listen to their oral language develop.
  9. Linking Reading and Writing: The repetitive pattern of Brown Bear provides lots of support for students to write another question-answer book, perhaps using the names of their classmates as they search for different objects. To take this one step further, the use of quotation marks, not present in Brown Bear, Brown Bear, can be introduced and practiced.

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This entry was posted in Culturally Inclusive Classrooms, Educational Change, Home Language: the Foundation Of English Language Learning and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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