Knowing your students’ home languages will help you provide language access to families and look for resources that can support students in the classroom. Avoid making assumptions about which (or how many!) language students speak before gathering that information.


Principal Nathanial Provencio: A diverse population at Minnieville Elementary
ELD Director Rose Aldubaily: Using students' first language as a resource
Getting to know your ELLs and why it matters
Dr. Nancy Cloud: Native language literacy support
ELL specialist Manny Gomez: Why a Guatemalan student hid his Indigenous identity

More Resources

10 Things You Need to Learn About Your English Language Learners

10 Things You Need to Learn About Your English Language Learners

High school student talking wtih classmate

If you have English language learners (ELLs) in your class, you may have questions about how best to teach and support them. Learning about ELLs — their strengths, challenges, and background experiences — is a critical step that can help you respond with the right support and instruction. Find out how to get started with these ideas!

If you have English language learners (ELLs) in your class, you may have questions about how best to teach and support them, especially if they’re struggling. You already understand the importance of getting to know your students. But learning about ELLs — their strengths, challenges, and background experiences — is especially important. Knowing these things will help you respond with the right support.

Read on to learn about the most important information to gather. Then, use this printable form from SupportEd to write down the information you learn all in one place.

Personal and Family Information

1. Student’s Name

The first piece of information to gather is the correct spelling and pronunciation of a student’s name. You can do this at the beginning of the school year by asking all students and their families for their formal name and the name they prefer to be called in school.

Keep in mind:

  • In Spanish-speaking countries, children may have two given names and the surname of the father and mother. Or the family may choose to use just the mother’s names or father’s names. Keep this in mind when you use students’ names in the classroom or see the names on forms. For instance, a child whose name is Juan Carlos would not be called “Juan.”
  • Parents may use different spellings of English names, like Jhonny or Yessica. Use those names exactly as they’re spelled and refrain from assigning a new, “American” name to a student on a form or in conversation.

With this information, you can make sure that forms and records from your school’s front office include the right spelling, punctuation, and order of the students’ names. Why is this so important? According to research, incorrect entries can lead to multiple entries for a student in a database. This makes it more likely for students to have incomplete records. That can impact a student’s eligibility for services such as English language or special education.

Just as important, pronouncing a student’s name correctly is a point of pride. It affirms the student’s identity. This set of naming conventions guides for multiple languages can help you. Plus, learn more about strategies for getting students’ names right.

2. Country of Birth

Knowing where your students were born can give you important information about them as learners, including:

  • Providing clues about what kinds of situations the student has experienced
  • Sparking ideas for making the student feel welcome
  • Making culturally responsive connections between students and classroom content

At the same time, it’s equally as important not to make assumptions about a student based on country of origin. In particular, avoid assumptions about a student’s religion, immigration status, socioeconomic status, or cultural affiliation. Each family’s situation is unique.

Many students and families will happily provide that information. They may welcome the chance to share information about their home countries. Others may be more reluctant to discuss this if they have endured trauma or if they are concerned about immigration issues.

If you have a relationship with the family, you may feel comfortable asking this question. You can explain that you’d like to get to know them better to support their child. Make clear that they don’t have to answer questions they don’t feel comfortable with.

If you don’t know the family well, keep in mind that asking where someone comes from can be off-putting. It might send the message that they don’t belong here. In this case, you can ask your school’s family liaison or English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher whether they know the student’s country of origin.

Remember: Never ask students about their immigration status. All students have the right to a free, public K–12 education, regardless of their immigration status, that of their parents, or where they were born.

3. Family Background

Who your students live with, what languages their caregivers speak, and any possible instance of family separation can be sensitive and difficult information to gather. However, knowing these facts can also provide insights on a student’s social-emotional health and progress toward meeting developmental milestones.

Start by speaking with a family liaison or counselor (ideally one who has established relationships with families of ELLs) if you have questions about this information. Keep an eye out for clues that indicate changes in a student’s living situation, such as a change in routine or indications of food insecurity, a lack of daily care, absenteeism, excessive tiredness, or the need for medical care.

4. Home Language

When students’ families fill out forms to register for school, they’re typically asked to complete a home language survey. Your school or district may have its own policy for how that information is stored and who can access it. (You can learn more about these home language surveys and view a sample survey from the English Learner Tool Kit from the U.S. Department of Education.)

The home language survey may only ask about the student’s primary language. In that case, you may want to ask students and families for additional information, including:

  • Whether the student speaks multiple languages and which languages are spoken
  • What language(s) the student and family use at home and with whom
  • At what age the student started speaking the home language
  • Whether they want their child to maintain and grow their home language

You can use this information to learn more about a student’s linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Keep in mind that some families’ number-one priority may be that their children learn English. But you can gently share some information about the benefits of being bilingual as time goes on.


Academic and Language Skills

5. Educational Experiences

It’s important to know how much time your English language learners have spent in U.S. schools, what their educational experiences were in their home country (if not the United States), and if there were any interruptions in their schooling. You may be able to find out this information from your school’s family interview or home language survey.

Refugees or students with interrupted schooling may have big gaps in educational skills or content knowledge. Migrant students may have moved frequently from school to school with limited record-keeping. (Students from military families encounter similar challenges.) These gaps should be taken into consideration when reviewing their data.

Yet ELLs, including those with gaps in their education, bring important experiences and background knowledge to the classroom. Identifying those “funds of knowledge” is an excellent way to build rapport, increase student engagement, and identify their strengths.

6. Reading and Writing Skills in Home Language

Your school district may conduct a family interview when an ELL first enrolls in your school. A person who speaks the family’s first language will typically be part of that interview. Interviewers usually ask the family about the student’s ability to read and write in the home language. Your school’s ESL teacher may be present for the interview and able to share this information.

One informal way to get a better sense of your student’s home language literacy is by providing a picture prompt. Ask the student to write a story based on the prompt. Invite your school’s ESL teacher or a bilingual staff member to help you read the student’s writing. In the process, the student will create an artifact that you can refer to if a special education referral is later needed. This will help you determine if the student can write in the home language, and if those writing skills seem to correspond with the number of years of schooling.

You may also wish to ask the student’s family questions about literacy activities at home, such as:

  • Does the child have a favorite book?
  • Does the child read the book or is the book read to her or him? In what languages?
  • Does the child talk about what happens in the book?

These questions provide insight into the print-rich environment at home and typical vocabulary-rich experiences that can be used in the classroom.

7. English Language Proficiency (ELP) Level

English language learners must develop proficiency in the four domains of language: speaking, reading, listening, and writing. Every state has its own set of English language proficiency (ELP) standards and assessments. The standards describe what a student should be able to do in English in each of the four domains and at each level of English proficiency.

Remember that most of the time, schools only measure how much English the students know—not how literate they are in their native language. Some students will come fully literate in their native language, while others may come with limited literacy skills or interrupted formal education.

You can learn more about the standards used in your state from Colorín Colorado’s ELL Resources by State guide. The names of these levels will vary depending on your state but will look something like this, moving from most basic to most advanced:

  • Starting/Beginning/Entering
  • Emerging
  • Developing
  • Expanding
  • Bridging
  • Reaching

Talk with your school’s ESL teacher to find out your English language learner’s level of proficiency. Then, collaborate with that teacher to find out ways to support your students at their level of language proficiency.

8. English Language Proficiency Scores

English language learners typically take two types of assessments. These are aligned to a state’s ELP standards:

  • Screener assessments: A “screener” is an assessment tool that helps to determine whether a student is eligible for English language development services. It usually includes both an oral component and a literacy component. But it may also include assessments of all four domains of language. Students can take the assessment online or on paper at any time of the school year.
  • Annual English language proficiency (ELP) assessments: Federal law requires all ELLs in grades 1–12 to take an annual assessment of English proficiency in the four domains of language. This assessment is used to determine what language services they’ll receive and at what level. These assessments are often given during a specific window of time determined at the district level.

Work with your school’s ESL teacher to access and interpret the results.

  • Look at the composite (total) score of the annual ELP assessment. This will tell you how the student performed across all four domains.
  • Analyze how the scores compare across the four domains. There may be some differences. Perhaps the student is stronger in comprehension (reading and listening) than expression (speaking and writing). This data can be powerful information for planning lessons. It can also help you understand why a student might be struggling in a content area. ESL teachers have many strategies you can use to target instruction in each of these areas.

Strengths and Interests

9. Student Interests

Getting to know students’ interests is one of the most important ways to fuel your connection with students and inform your instruction. You can learn about student interests by asking students and families to complete these questionnaires (either in writing or in conversation), available in both English and Spanish.

For students with limited English and/or students who have learning and thinking differences, make time to meet with them individually. Allow them to share information about themselves by showing photos, drawing pictures, sharing in their first language, or sitting together and sharing a snack.

10. Plans or Goals

Ask your students and their families their plans or goals for the future. Without knowing those goals, you won’t be able to help students achieve them. Provide encouragement and maintain a positive attitude. ELLs and immigrant students—including those who learn and think differently—can thrive when they receive support from their teachers.

Use these sentence starters as prompts, making sure to allow students and families multiple means to express themselves. For instance, some students and families may prefer to speak than to write. Other students may prefer to draw.

  • By the end of the year, I want to _____.
  • After I finish high school, I want to _____.

The Benefits of Information Collection

It may seem like a lot of work to gather this information about a student, but you just have to do it once. You can also share information you learn with colleagues and even pass it on to the student’s teachers the following school year.

The benefits can pay off throughout the school year for you and, most importantly, for the student. This information can also give you a more complete picture of the students to help inform conversations if they struggle with academics or behavior. Together with your colleagues, you can develop a shared understanding of how best to support the ELLs in your classroom.


This article originally appeared on Understood as part of a partnership between Colorín Colorado and Understood. ©2019 Understood For All, Inc.


For any reprint requests, please contact the author or publisher listed.

The Home Language: An English Language Learner's Most Valuable Resource

The Home Language: An English Language Learner's Most Valuable Resource


In this article written for Colorín Colorado, Dr. Fred Genesee discusses the research supporting the importance of a child's home language. In addition, Dr. Genesee explores the question of why an approach that is well-supported by research has been largely ignored in the era of "research-based" policy.


Webcast: ELLs and Reading

Learn more about using the home language to support ELLs' reading instruction in our Teaching ELLs to Read webcast featuring Dr. Genesee!

The education of English language learners (ELLs) is one of the most important issues facing U.S. educators. ELLs are a large and growing proportion of the school-age population — according to National Center for Educational Statistics, in 2007, about 10.8 million (or 20%) school-aged children in the U.S. spoke a language other than English at home (Planty, Hussar, Snyder, Kena, Kewal Ramani, Kemp, Bianco, & Dinkes, 2009). This situation is not likely to change because ELLs are currently the fastest growing population in U.S. schools (National Center for Education Statistics, 2004), with the number of ELLs expected to increase another 50% by 2025 (Passel & Cohn, 2008).

The importance of the issues goes beyond the sheer number of ELLs, however. It has been shown in numerous national studies and surveys that, on average, ELLs under achieve in comparison to their English-speaking peers in academic domains and that the achievement gap tends to increase the higher the grade level (e.g., Fry, 2007; Rumberger, 2007; McNeil et al., 2008). As we consider ways to help ELLs increase their academic achievement, then, it is clear that educators need all the resources at their disposal to meet these challenges.

Policy and Home Language

Until recently, significant efforts were made to enhance the educational outcomes of ELLs by offering alternative forms of education that incorporate use of ELLs' home language (Genesee, 1999, for a review). These programs were justified on the grounds that educating ELLs in English only posed a triple threat to their educational success since it would require that they simultaneously:

  • learn academic English to high levels,
  • master challenging academic skills and content taught through English,
  • adopt new social skills that would permit them to integrate with their English-speaking classmates and teachers.

However, in recent years, recent political and legislative initiatives that disfavor bilingual education have made these educational options difficult to access, despite evidence of their success (Goldenberg, 2009). Along with these politically-motivated changes, it would appear that educators and policy-makers no longer recognize the native language skills of ELLs as an important educational resource and, indeed, it would even appear that they discredit it having any role in the education of ELLs.

What does the research say?

At the same time that the role of the home language is diminishing in public education policy, there have been growing political and legislative expectations that educational policies and classroom practices be backed up by scientific, empirical evidence. With respect to ELLs, there is undeniable and growing evidence that the home language of ELLs is of considerable benefit to their overall academic success. There are multiple sources of such evidence. First, recent meta-analyses have shown that educational programs that systematically incorporate use of ELLs' home language result in levels of academic success, including achievement in literacy and other academic subjects, that are as high as and often better than that of ELLs in English-only programs (Genesee & Lindholm-Leary, in press). In a review of these meta-analyses, Goldenberg (2008) notes "Readers should understand how unusual it is to have five meta-analyses on the same issue conducted by five independent researchers or groups of researchers with diverse perspectives. The fact that they all reached essentially the same conclusion is worth noting. No other area in educational research with which I am familiar can claim five independent meta-analyses based on experimental studies — much less five that converge on the same basic finding." (p. 15).

Second, in a study of ELLs in two-way immersion programs, Lindholm and Aclan (1991) found a significant positive relationship between individual student's level of bilingual proficiency and their achievement in math and reading in English. Furthermore, the students who were classified as "high bilinguals" were able to attain grade level results by fourth grade in English reading and by third grade in English math.

Third, a growing body of evidence from researchers around the world has shown that bilingual children exhibit significant cognitive advantages in comparison to monolingual children (e.g., Bialystok 2006; Chin & Wigglesworth, 2007; Kovaacs & Mehler, 2009). These advantages have been demonstrated in executive control processes related to selective attention and inhibition and monitoring of attention when, for example, children are engaged in problem solving.

Fourth, and finally, extensive research, again from around the world, has found that children who are learning to read in a second language are able to transfer many skills and knowledge from their first language to facilitate their acquisition of reading skills in the second language. The best evidence of this comes from studies showing that students with strong reading skills in the home language also have strong reading skills in their second language. Much of this work has been done on ELLs in the U.S. (August & Shanahan, 2006; Riches & Genesee, 2006).

What we see in the U.S., then, is a push for research-based policy but the creation of policies that contradict the research. Debate concerning the value of using ELLs' home language in specially-designed programs, such as two-way immersion, will undoubtedly continue, and so it should since it makes little educational sense to diminish U.S. students' opportunities to become bilingual in an increasingly globalized community.

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Home Language in the Classroom

In the meantime, teachers and students can't wait for these policy debates to be settled before deciding how or whether to draw upon ELLs' home language. The question arises how can schools and teachers, even those who are monolingual, act on evidence that clearly shows the personal, cognitive, linguistic and educational value of using the linguistic resources that ELLs bring to school. There is no simple or single answer to this question, but a number of options are worth exploring that, at the moment, are often overlooked and discounted. Cloud, Genesee, and Hamayan (2009, Chapter 3) offer a number of suggestions:

  • To encourage students to see connections between their languages and, thus, to better understand how languages are structured and organized, talk to ELLs about their home language — ask them:
    • How is the home language the same and how it is different from English?
    • Are there words in the home language that sound the same and mean the same thing in both languages?
    • Are there words in the home language and English that sound the same but mean different things?
  • As part of phonological and metalinguistic awareness exercises to facilitate reading acquisition, ask students:
    • to say words that start with the same sound(s) in English or the L1.
  • how words are changed and formed in the home language — singular and plural forms, present tense and past tense forms of verbs — to enhance their word knowledge
  • who are new to your class, to read books in their home language to show you what they know about reading.

By using the collective skills and knowledge of all students (both ELL and English-L1 students) in the classroom, even a monolingual teacher can tap into these valuable language resources that ELLs have and do so with the confidence that these methods will promote their language development — in English as well as the home language.

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Education for All

A hallmark of public education in the U.S. is respect for and appreciation of the individual skills and backgrounds of students as a foundation for furthering their education. Taking advantage of ELLs' home language resources is asking no more than the same respect and appreciation for this group of learners. At the same time, parents, teachers, educational leaders in local school districts, and politicians should discuss how best to provide all students in the U.S. with high quality educational programs that promote competence in additional languages. At stake is not only the competitiveness of individual students once they enter the work force but, indeed, the ability of the U.S. itself to compete in an increasingly multilingual and multicultural world.

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Video: Using the Home Language as a Resource

Dearborn Public Schools ELD Director Rose Aldubaily discusses the value of using students' home language as a resource.

About the Author

Fred Genesee is Professor in the Psychology Department at McGill University, Montreal. He has conducted extensive research on alternative forms of bilingual and immersion education for language minority and language majority students. His current research interests also include language acquisition in pre-school bilingual children, internationally-adopted children, second language reading acquisition, and the language and academic development of students at-risk in bilingual programs. He is the recipient of the Canadian Psychological Associate Award for Distinguished Contributions to Community or Public Service and the 2-Way CABE Award of Promoting Bilingualism. Publications include:

Genesee, F., Paradis, J., & Crago (Eds.) (2010). Dual Language Development and Disorders: A Handbook on Bilingualism and Second Language Learning, 2nd Edition. Baltimore, Maryland: Brookes Publishing.

Cloud, N., Genesee, F., and Hamayan, E. (2009). Literacy Instruction for English Language Learners: A Teacher's Guide to Research-Based Practices. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

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Our policy section is made possible by a generous grant from the Carnegie Corporation. The statements and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.


August, D., & Shanahan, T. (Eds.) (2006). Developing literacy in second language learners. Report of the national literacy panel on minority-language children and youth. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Bialystok, E. (2006). The impact of bilingualism on language and literacy development. In Bhatia, T.K., & W.E. Ritchie (Eds.) The handbook of bilingualism (pp. 577-601). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Chin, N.B., & Wigglesworth, G. (2007). Bilingualism: An advanced resource book. London: Routledge.

Cloud, N., Genesee, F., & Hamayan, E. (2009). Literacy Instruction for English Language Learners. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Fry, R. (2007). How far behind in math and reading are English language learners? Washington, D.C.: Report of the Pew Hispanic Center.

Genesee, F. (1999). Program alternatives for linguistically diverse students. Educational Practice Report #1. Santa Cruz, CA: Center for Research on Education, Diversity and Excellence.

Genesee, F., & Lindholm-Leary, K. (in press). The education of English language learners. In K. Harris, S. Graham, & T. Urdan (Eds), APA Handbook of Educational Psychology. Washington DC: APA Books.

Goldenberg, C. (2008). Teaching English language learners: What the research does — and does not — say. American Educator, 32, 8-23, 42-44.

Kovacs, A.M., & J. Mehler, J. (2009). Cognitive gains in 7-month-old infants. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(16), 6556-6550.

Lindholm, K.J., & Aclan, Z. (1991). Bilingual proficiency as a bridge to academic achievement: Results from bilingual/immersion programs. Journal of Education 173, 99-113.

McNeil, L., Coppola, E., Radigan, J., & Vasquez-Heilig, J. (2008).Avoidable losses: High-stakes accountability and the dropout crisis. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 16(3):

National Center for Education Statistics (2004). Language minority learners and their labor market indicators: Recent trends.

Passel, J.S., & Cohn, D. (2008). U.S. Population Projections: 2005-2050. Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center: Social and Demographic Trends.

Planty, M., Hussar, W., Snyder, T., Kena, G., Kewal Ramani, A., Kemp, J., Bianco, K., & Dinkes, R. (2009). The Condition of Education 2009 (NCES 2009-081). Washington, DC.: National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

Riches, C., & Genesee, F. (2006). Cross-linguistic and cross-modal aspects of literacy development. In F. Genesee, K. Lindholm-Leary, W. Saunders, & D. Christian, D. Educating English language learners: A synthesis of research evidence (pp. 64-108). NY: Cambridge University Press.

Rumberger, R. (2007). Lagging behind: Linguistic minorities' education progress during elementary school. University of California Linguistic Minority Research Institute Newsletter, 16(2), 1-3


You are welcome to print copies or republish materials for non-commercial use as long as credit is given to Colorín Colorado and the author(s). For commercial use, please contact

Supporting Indigenous Latinx Students' Success in U.S. Schools

Supporting Indigenous Latinx Students' Success in U.S. Schools

Children dance in Antigua in Guatemala in Central America

Learn more about the ways that schools can better identify and partner with Indigenous students from Latin America who speak languages other than Spanish and bring diverse educational experiences with them.

Latinx are the largest minority group in the United States. Although this population is often classified as homogenous, the reality is that the Latinx community represents the rich, heterogeneous mosaic of diversity found through Latin America. Within the Latinx community, we can find individuals representing a wide range of groups, including:

  • Afro-Latinx
  • Asian-Latinx
  • European-Latinx
  • Middle Eastern-Latinx
  • Indigenous-Latinx.

However, when immigrants from Latin America arrive in the United States, their diversity is often assimilated into common traits.

For example, it is often assumed they only speak Spanish. In U.S. schools, educators may assume that students from a particular region or country have all had similar educational experiences. These misconceptions mean that educators may be missing out on important opportunities to tap into students' cultural and linguistic assets, as well as their personal experiences, in order to support their learning.

Indigenous communities in Latin America

Unaccompanied children

Many of the unaccompanied children arriving at the U.S. border are Indigenous and speak Indigenous languages.

For more on this student population, see Unaccompanied Children in Schools: What You Need to Know.

This is particularly true for Latinx Indigenous students. Presently, Latin America is home to over 800 different Indigenous groups, representing a total population of over 45 million people (CEPAL, 2014). In some countries, like Bolivia and Guatemala, it is estimated that over half of their population are Indigenous and/or speak Indigenous languages. There are also many Indigenous languages still spoken in Mexico, and immigrants from Mexico may speak an Indigenous language as their primary language rather than Spanish.

In recent years, the number of Indigenous students from Latin America arriving in U.S. classrooms has steadily been increasing. One key indicator of this increase is the latest report from the U.S. Department of Justice, which shows a healthy growth of Mayan languages being used in immigration court cases.

In the Fiscal Year (FY) 2018, the list from the Department of Justice's top 25 languages used for translation included Mam, Quiche, Konjobal, and Akateko, all Mayan languages primarily spoken in Guatemala, placing ninth, eleventh, fourteenth, and twenty-first places on the list, respectively. Yet, the silence surrounding the increase of Indigenous Latinx populations in the U.S. shows that we have much work to do in recognizing the diversity of incoming Indigenous student populations.

Although there are many challenges facing Indigenous Latinx students today, in this article, I will focus on the impacts of misconceptions about students' language background and educational background. I also propose practical solutions teachers and administrators can use to create a welcoming school environment for their Indigenous Latinx students and serve these students more effectively based on my teaching experience and subsequent research.

Setting the Stage: Indigenous Latinx Students and Formal Schooling

In order to provide more effective instruction for Indigenous Latinx students, it is helpful to understand more about their educational background. In many cases, newcomer Indigenous Latinx students have some form of limited or interrupted formal education. This is due to the fact that in many Latin American countries, Indigenous populations continue to receive substandard education, through no fault of their own.

During my time as a high school teacher, I learned about my Indigenous students' unique formal education experiences through the stories they shared with me. For example, in some places in Guatemala, Indigenous students in primary schools learn content (i.e., science, history) using their Indigenous languages for speaking and listening, but use Spanish to read and write the information in their notebooks.

Because of budgetary reasons, in those poor, rural areas, some teachers are not adequately trained in intercultural bilingual education — a model used in Central and South American countries, see Pentón Herrera (2017) — while others may not know how to speak the students' Indigenous language. As a result, many learners complete primary school using their Indigenous language to talk and listen to information, but read and write in Spanish with various levels of print literacy in both their Indigenous and Spanish languages.

When some Indigenous students arrive in our classrooms, they may not be fully literate in all four language domains in either language (their Indigenous language or Spanish) (see Pentón Herrera, 2019a). At the same time, they may not know how to read or write at grade level in Spanish because copying from the board and memorizing lines from textbooks during primary school years is not enough to foster independent reading and writing skills.

The importance of visibility

At the same time, it is critical for us as educators to acknowledge the ways in which the U.S. educational system has engaged in practices that have contributed to Indigenous people's invisibilization and omission, including Indigenous Latinx populations (Barillas-Chón, 2018).

This invisibility has had a few different impacts in the formal K-12 school setting, including a knowledge gap about Indigenous Latinx student populations':

  • experiences, languages, and ways of knowing of these groups in favor of their non-Indigenous Spanish-speaking counterparts
  • cultural, linguistic, and schooling backgrounds.

As a result, this invisibility in the U.S. school system can introduce additional barriers to Indigenous students' academic success, such as the following:

  • Teachers, especially those in middle and high school, may not be adequately trained to teach initial literacy to adolescent students (Custodio & O’Loughlin, 2017; DeCapua, Marshall, & Tang, 2020; Pentón Herrera, 2018).
  • If newcomers' formal schooling and first language literacy are left unaddressed during intake screenings, teachers will not be informed that students may need additional literacy support, which can delay academic progress.
  • Due to a lack of visibility and knowledge about Indigenous populations from Latin America, teachers often assume using Spanish is the best approach to teach literacy and English to this population of English learners.
  • Students' languages, cultures, literacies, and identities may be marginalized within the school community.

Improving the Intake Process

When newcomer Indigenous Latinx students are misclassified as Spanish speakers and considered to have the same formal schooling background as their Spanish-speaking counterparts, this may be a result of the intake screening process that schools use.

These processes for newcomers often do not:

  • take Indigenous languages into account
  • evaluate newcomers' formal schooling background
  • assess literacy in the students' home language(s)

As schools are considering how to better serve their Indigenous students, one important step schools can take is to include detailed intake screening processes where newcomers are asked about their prior formal schooling and their native language(s) — instead of assuming a language based on geographical data. I also recommend that students are evaluated in print literacy in their native languages — these are suggestions can be looked at through the lens of Lau v. Nichols (1974).

Asking students about formal schooling background and assessing their print literacy in their native languages is particularly important for high school students as they arrive with limited time to acquire literacy, English, academic vocabulary, and graduate from high school. (Some states allow students to enroll until they are 21, but this policy varies from state to state. You can learn more about how graduation rates are calcuated and the impact of four-year graduation rates on ELLs in this paper from the Migration Policy Institute.)

At the same time, keep in mind that arriving families may have low levels of print literacy or little previous exposure to print in their native or any other language. Even in cases where families read their Indigenous language and/or Spanish, the level in which they are able to read may be different from that provided in school materials. For this reason, having in your school full-time staff individuals who are able to communicate orally in the Indigenous families' languages is increasingly important.

Note: Sometimes Indigenous students are automatically enrolled in bilingual Spanish-English programs without further investigation into their language backgrounds. Such a placement is not appropriate without a thorough, culturally sensitive review of students' language backgrounds and educational experiences.

Overcoming stigma

At this juncture, it is necessary to underscore that newcomer students and their parents/guardians may not wish to disclose that they are Indigenous or that they speak an Indigenous language as a first language. They do this not to deceive school personnel and the institution, but as a practice for self-preservation. In many cases, arriving Indigenous populations of students are escaping persecution, stigma, and dangers caused by the mere fact that they are Indigenous and speak an Indigenous language.

As Dr. Luis Urrieta, Jr. shares, many Indigenous communities from Latin America are survivors of "bio–psycho–social–cultural–spiritual intergenerational trauma" (Urrieta, Jr., 2019, p. 1); as such, many may not feel comfortable or safe to disclose right away their Indigenous ethnicity and language.

Video: Partnering with families who speak indigenous languages

Dr. Karen Woodson shares some valuable lessons she learned about partnering with families from Guatemala who speak indigenous languages.

How are we welcoming students?

To help Indigenous students and families overcome this uncertainty and unease about disclosing their ethnicity and native language, school welcoming centers need to think very carefully about how they can earn their families' trust. In working with schools that serve indigenous students, this is the piece of advice that surfaces most frequently. Bilingual staff, family members, or community members can play a key role in this process, as described below.

In addition, there are some welcoming tools they can use to emphasize students' safety and security in this new environment. Some questions school counties and school welcoming centers can think about:

  • How are we reflecting that we are welcoming Indigenous newcomer students and parents/guardians into this new environment?
  • What visuals (i.e., pictures, flyers, flags, messages in Indigenous languages, etc.) do we have for Indigenous students and parents/guardians to see as they walk into our offices or school?
  • How are we emphasizing and sharing the benefits/services Indigenous students can receive if they speak an Indigenous language?
  • Do we even have these services and benefits? If the answer to this question is no, I highly encourage newcomer centers and schools to work on offering these services and benefits to students as required by Lau v. Nichols (1974).
  • What Indigenous Latinx organizations have we partnered up within our community to support our Indigenous students and parents/guardians?
  • Do we have pamphlets about these organizations supporting Indigenous communities in our city/state available for incoming Indigenous students and parents/guardians?
  • Do we have employees in our offices and schools who speak Indigenous languages from Latin America who can support this incoming population in their native language?
  • What diagnostic assessments do we have in Indigenous languages to evaluate students' literacy?

In addition to asking the questions shared above, I strongly encourage schools to:

  • incorporate diagnostic assessments in different Indigenous languages. Ask incoming students and parents to choose the language of the test from the list provided. In some cases, providing a list of languages available for testing (i.e., students and parents can visibly see their Indigenous language represented in a piece of paper) instead of asking a direct question of "Do you speak an Indigenous language?" may prove a useful tool to help students and parents feel more comfortable in disclosing their native language.
  • create detailed academic plans to support students' literacy and English language growth. For example, incoming middle and high school learners with limited or interrupted schooling will benefit from intensive, sheltered classes focused on all four language domains to expedite their academic progress.
  • create programs or courses tailored to support these students, at least, during their first 2-3 years of school. This can be particularly impactful depending on the number of arriving Indigenous Latinx students.

I also recommend readers become familiar with the work of Brenda Custodio (2011) noted in the references, specifically chapter five, for more information about literacy-based sheltered courses for newcomers. 

Language Support for Instruction and Translation

Although some newcomer Indigenous Latinx students speak an Indigenous language in addition to Spanish, others do not speak Spanish at all. For this reason, it is crucial for schools to keep a record of their student population's native languages and ensure appropriate language support is given to all students during instruction time and to parents in school meetings. It is also critical to build a team that can figure out how to best address students' language needs, including ESL educators and speakers of students' languages.

In my experience, students may be shy to request or ask for support in their Indigenous languages or do not even know this is a possibility, but they do benefit from it. This shyness of asking for assistance in their Indigenous mother tongue is a consequence of growing up in Latin American societies that associate being fluent in Spanish with being educated and holding societal prestige while devaluing Indigenous cultures and languages associating them with illiteracy and poverty.

The sudden growth of Mayan-speaking immigrants in the United States has made translation services a particular topic of interest in recent years (Nolan, 2019). The growing demand for Mayan language translators in immigration court cases and educational institutions are signs that our students need and are entitled by law to receive translation services and academic accommodations in their Indigenous languages, not Spanish. You can learn more about these trends from the articles below:

Special education evaluation

For Indigenous Latinx students, appropriate language support in their native language, not Spanish, is essential to academic literacy acquisition, language learning, and suitable accommodations.

An example of how using Spanish instead of the student's Indigenous language may prove harmful is in evaluations for special education accommodations. Schools often use Spanish to evaluate Latinx English learners who are suspected of having special learning needs. Using Spanish may hinder communication or may create misunderstandings, which yields inaccurate results in the special education evaluation and may result in inappropriate or harmful, accommodations.

In my experience, when using Spanish in special education evaluations, Indigenous Latinx students who do not understand will not request Indigenous language support but will feel guilty of not understanding Spanish and will blame him/herself for this. Also, they may use abstract or short phrases in Spanish (Sí, no, no sé – yes, no, I don’t know) to answer the questions in Spanish, but these short answers often reflect their language level in Spanish, not their special education needs.

Video: Discovering a hidden language in our school

To learn more about a school that discovered that many of their families spoke Mixtec after noticing some surprising special education data, take a look at these videos from Principal Mark Gaither and special education teacher Katrina Kickbush. Mr. Gaither and Ms. Kickbush also share strategies they used to create a positive culture around Mixtec in the school.

Providing appropriate language support

An additional instance of where using appropriate language support in schools is essential is in English language classrooms. Although some Spanish words have been incorporated in some Mayan languages, the reality is Mayan languages are distinct from Spanish. For example, most Mayan languages do not have the sounds /b/, /d/, /g/ or /z/, which will require English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) teachers to plan differently to teach these sounds in English from a Mayan-speaking perspective, not Spanish.

Another interesting fact about Mayan languages is that they have few to no prepositions, and, in some cases, articles are used as additive elements to nouns instead of being written as independent words, like in English and Spanish. The grammatical intricacies of Mayan languages are different from English or Spanish, and only through appropriate, differentiated language support, Indigenous students can expeditiously and effectively learn English. Efforts made to understand how students' languages work will have a significant impact on understanding the way they are expressing themselves in English, as described by Mr. Gaither and Ms. Kickbush above.

Language Resources in the Community

In the U.S., schools have the power to play a significant role in shifting to an asset-based mindset while also appropriately supporting the language needs of Indigenous newcomers. How can we do this? By looking into our communities and universities to incorporate Indigenous languages as academic support for Indigenous Latinx newcomers and by using translation services in the students' and parents' Indigenous languages.

The Guatemalan Ministry of Education includes some resources in six Indigenous Mayan languages that can be incorporated into our literacy and English classrooms to support our students. Other resources can be found on Pentón Herrera (2019b), on pages 172-174. For translation services, groups such as Maya Interpreters, Mayan Language Immigration Law, and Asociacion Mayab offer translation services in different Mayan languages across the United States.

Other Indigenous organizations such as Comunidades Indigenas en Liderazgo (CIELO), Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim, and Kichwa Hatari offer services, advocacy, language support, and additional information about the Indigenous Latinx communities they serve in the United States.

Importantly, school counties should also consider hiring Indigenous translators and parents/guardians as county-wide translators and full-time school personnel (paraprofessionals, administrative support, teaching support and staff, etc.) when possible. Indigenous translators and parents bring rich cultural and linguistic experiences that benefit the school county as a whole. However, many times translators and parents cannot use their language to support their communities because, although there is an increasing need for Indigenous language and translation services in schools, there are limited opportunities for full-time employment currently available for them.

Language resources at the university level 

Indigenous languages from Latin American are also becoming increasingly visible in universities across the United States. Below I share some programs that school counties and teachers can further explore. Most of these university programs are housed within the institution's Center for Latin American Studies, Department of Anthropology, or Department of Linguistics. Whenever possible, a partnership with higher education institutions and Indigenous language experts should be established for the benefit of Indigenous students.

Networking with other educators

Finally, it is important to learn from other educators doing this important work. You may be able to find educators or school leaders in your district, region, state, or other regions of the country who are serving similar communities. Ask your professional networks what they are doing, what lessons they have learned, and what resources have been most helpful in this work.

Lesson plans

You may be able to find curriculum resources that draw in Indigenous students' cultures as well. For example, the Smithonian National Museum of the American Indian offers a Math in Action: Maya Numbers virtual field trip.

Video: Family Engagement with Indigenous Families from Guatemala

Manuel Gomez Portillo is an ESOL resource teacher in Fairfax County, Virginia who is currently pursuing his doctorate from Shenandoah University. His areas of research include family engagement with Indigenous families from Guatemala and his dissertation focuses on family engagement perceptions, experiences, and factors among Indigenous Guatemalan families living in the United States, many of whom speak Ixil and Mam.

Closing Thoughts

When schools become more familiar with all of their students' linguistic and cultural assets, they can tap into those assets to create stronger partnerships with students and families. They also create a more welcoming environment and establish a network that can support additional families in the community.

For Indigenous students, that process may not be linear, and it may take additional time and effort. Yet when schools see the kinds of success and engagement that are possible, the results will speak for themselves. I wish all of you well on this important journey of discovery and collaboration on behalf of your Indigenous Latinx students.

About the Author

Dr. Luis Javier Pentón Herrera has taught Spanish and English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) at the K-12 and university levels. He currently serves as a Dissertation Core Faculty at American College of Education and as Adjunct Professor at two universities — University of Maryland, Global Campus, and The George Washington University. Previously, Luis earned the rank of Sergeant while serving in the United States Marine Corps (USMC) as well as worked in administrative and legal roles for both the USMC and the Department of Defense.

He holds three master’s degrees and earned a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership: Reading, Language, and Literacy. Recently, TESOL International Association acknowledged Pentón Herrera as an emerging leader (30 Up and Coming) of the next generation in research, teaching, publishing, and leadership.

During his time as a language teacher, Dr. Pentón Herrera was privileged to learn from his Maya and Kichwa students in K-12 and at the university level. Since then, he has devoted his efforts and scholarship to advocate for Indigenous students and communities from Latin American in the United States.


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