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Three best tips on how to teach dual language learners in upper elementary 

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If you are a dual language teacher wondering how you can best serve your students, you are not alone. Becoming a dual language teacher can be very daunting and isolating at first. There is just not a ton of information readily available to us. I remember being a brand new dual language teacher and wondering what strategies I could use in my own classroom to support my students’ learning. No matter how many hours I spent researching, I could not find exactly what I was looking for. Through experience (and a lot of trial and error), I finally feel like I have a clear picture of how to teach dual language learners and the best strategies to use in the dual language classroom. 

If you like these strategies, don’t forget to download my FREE guide with nine teaching strategies for dual language learners. The guide is completely FREE and packed with practical steps that will help you implement these strategies into your classroom immediately. 

What is a dual language learner?

Let’s start with what probably seems like an obvious question: What is a dual language learner? I am starting here because, although this seems like an obvious question, many people struggle to define it. 

Dual language learners are students who are learning a second language while simultaneously working to master their native language. The goal is for students in these programs to become bilingual and bi-literate. 

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These three dual language teaching strategies will transform your instruction and help you reach all learners in your classroom.

What are dual language/immersion programs? 

There are two types of dual language programs. 

  • Two-way immersion programs serve English learners as well as English native speakers who want to learn a second language (for example, Spanish.) The teacher introduces content in both languages to promote bilingualism and biliteracy.
  • One-way immersion programs serve a group of English learners who speak the same native language. The teacher introduces content in the students’ native language and in English to support bilingualism and biliteracy. 

How to teach dual language learners: Keep your eyes on the prize

Now that we have a more clear understanding of what a dual language learner is as well as the differences between one-way and two-way dual language programs, let’s discuss how to teach dual language learners. 

The job of a dual language teacher is to help students with developing two languages simultaneously. This can be difficult at times, especially considering how much time we have in the classroom. Not only are we expected to teach content, but we must do so while also developing linguistic skills in two languages. 

When coming up with a plan on how to teach dual language learners, we must remember that we teach content, not language. Let me explain what I mean. Language is the vehicle we use to teach the content. We are assessing students’ mastery of the content they are learning – which may or may not be related to language. As we use the language to teach content, our students develop language proficiency as well. 

So, how can we use language effectively so that our students can learn the content we are teaching and develop language proficiency? I have two words for you: comprehensible input! 

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Wondering how to teach dual language learners effectively? These three strategies will set you on the right track!

What is comprehensible input?

In the simplest terms, comprehensible input is a message the listener can understand. When we teach in the target language, we have to use strategies that will help our students understand the message we are sharing with them. 

According to Stephen Krashen, second language acquisition does not require repetitive activities that focus on rules. It should happen naturally as students learn to communicate messages in the target language. 

If we think about it, it makes perfect sense! When we have children, we don’t pull out the chalkboard and start teaching them grammar. Babies learn to talk because we talk to them. We make our message comprehensible to them with gestures and funny noises. The same applies to language learners.

I love this video of Krashen teaching a lesson in German. Krashen uses strategies that support comprehensible input, so people can understand his message. 

How to teach dual language learners: Three Strategies  

When I first became a dual language teacher, I was overwhelmed. I did not know how to teach dual language learners. How could I teach two languages in the same amount of time it took my colleagues to teach one? But I needed to change my thinking. I was still teaching content. I was just using a different vehicle to share that content with my students. 

It took some trial and error, but now I know how to teach dual language learners effectively. I finally have the tools that help me be successful in the classroom. I now understand the power of comprehensible input and the strategies I can use to make my message clear to my students. So, without any further ado, let me share with you three of my favorite strategies for dual language learners.

If you would like to learn even more about these and other dual language strategies, you can download my FREE guide. In this guide, I share nine teaching strategies for dual language teachers. 

Preview view review strategy 

The preview view review strategy is, in my opinion, the most effective tool for how to support dual language learners in the classroom. It is also very easy to implement once you develop a system that works for you and your students. 

To use this strategy, plan to spend a few minutes in the beginning and at the end of each lesson reviewing the content in the language opposite to the language of instruction for that day. 

For example, today in class we are learning about theme. Theme is a tough concept, and I want to make sure that all my students understand this concept. So although today is an “English day,” I will begin my lesson with a quick overview of theme in Spanish. This will give my Spanish speakers just enough information to understand the rest of the lesson. It will also help my English speakers learn some content-specific vocabulary (tier III.) 

At the end of the lesson, we will do a quick review in Spanish of what we just learned. This allows all students to engage with the content in their first language. 

To help my students understand the message I am sharing in their target language, I like to use anchor charts and interactive notebooks.  You can read more about how I use this strategy in my classroom by clicking here

Bilingual partners 

Bilingual partners are another great strategy to support dual language learners in the classroom. As teachers, we know the benefits of partner work. But we often determine those partnerships based on where students sit in the classroom or how they are performing academically. 

With bilingual partnerships, students are partnered based on their language of expertise. Determine which students are “stronger” in English and which students are “stronger” in the target language, and bring these students together. 

Bilingual partnerships are powerful because no matter what the task is, someone in the group will be able to offer language support. It also creates a sense of community and mutual respect. Each student is equally important to the partnership because they complement each other in their strengths and weaknesses. 

Don’t forget to grab the FREE teaching strategies guide where I am sharing nine teaching strategies for dual language teachers. You can thank me later! 

Total Physical Response (TPR)

Although this strategy can be used in any class, it is particularly helpful in the dual-language classroom because it helps students understand what is being said in their second language. As we have seen earlier, language is acquired when a message can be understood.

With this strategy, teachers and students incorporate movement to make sense of words, phrases, and sentences. These carefully planned out moves will help students understand what is being said in the target language while triggering memory and recall. 

This strategy has so many uses in the classroom. Use it to help students learn new vocabulary words, understand a story being read to them in the target language, or learn and remember content-specific concepts. After I started purposefully using this strategy in my classroom, my students soared. 

Learn more about this and eight other strategies by downloading the FREE guide here!

There you have it…

My three best tips on how to teach dual language learners. These strategies completely transformed my instruction by helping me use language effectively to teach content.  If you would like to learn even more strategies for dual language learners, don’t forget to download the FREE guide by clicking here. 

Happy teaching!  

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Hi, I'm Rebeca!

I help upper elementary dual language teachers with resources and ideas that promote bilingualism and biliteracy.  

Learn more about me and how I can help you here.

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