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Providing Greater Cognitive and Social Connections

by Roberto Vargas Tapia

Growing up in California as an emergent bilingual had its challenges and as well as its triumphs. The biggest triumph was having the opportunity to gain a positive learning experience acquiring English as a second language. My journey started when I was eight years old at James Monroe Elementary in Santa Rosa, California. There, I met the most wonderful English as as second language teacher, Mrs. Lawson, who practiced what I consider valuable aspects when teaching English to emergent bilinguals. Her approach of teaching fostered a space for students to use our first language as well as to our celebrate cultures. During writing, we were allowed to write as much as possible in English but were also welcome to use Spanish. Every year, during Cinco de Mayo we would practice traditional Mexican dances and would perform for our school as well as for local universities. Having had the wonder experience to learn English through this pedagogical method of students using their first language and celebrating their culture has instilled in me to do the same now that I have earned my Master’s of Education in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) at the elementary level as well with adults.

I believe all educators should consider establishing a safe space in which students can share their upbringing in the language that best supports their understanding of a second language.

Recent research affirms the various benefit enabling students who are learning a second language to use their first language to help them make greater cognitive and social connections in and outside of school. All emergent bilinguals have a different story and having so, makes them special in their own way. A family’s background and reasons to come to America could range from pleasure to cases for survival. TESOL teachers must identify a family’s background to best support a student’s learning experience of acquiring a second language. Accessing prior knowledge and background can be of great benefit for an emergent bilingual and teacher. Students are more prone to strengthen all English domains when they make connections to the content. Not only does it help students use their repertoire of skills (García & Wei, 2014), but it also increases motivation to learn which essentially removes some of Krashen’s (2003) descriptors of the affective filter which inhibit second language acquisition. I can affirm this to be true with a a very specific memory during writing time. The specific writing prompt I remember is the one about how my family and I had gone to the “pulga” an outside flea market. I can clearly remember how through the use of “translanguaging” ( García & Wei, 2014), an opportunity to use my entire language repertoire of both English and Spanish, I was motivated to be curious about learning a second language and looking forward to learning how to translate the word “la pulga.” This is further backed up by García and DeNicolo (2016) suggesting to teachers the importance of implementing background knowledge (Fránquiz & Reyes, 1998; DeNicolo & Fránquiz, 2006).

In addition to the level of motivation, students are more apt to use their cultural and linguistic resource to support comprehension; this creates the opportunity for you to observe language use in the home language and English across all domains. Children’s literature that is relevant to student’ lives serve as a vehicle to promote student identification of critical encounters in text, events in the story that have a high level of importance or impact on students, leading to longer discussions with periods of extended discourse. (p. 96)

By implementing background knowledge, we are breaking from the misconception that all students must and should know what an English teacher is talking about. English holds many connotations and register meanings and by accessing a student’s background knowledge one can identify the extent of familiarity students have to any specific topic which can lead to a lesson’s failure or success.

Recognizing a student’s talents as individual learners is critical while teaching emergent bilinguals. Often, teachers discriminate and stereotype students for their background. Here, I am referring to treating students for who they are and not because of their background. Educators must have an open mind to understand that not all cultures believe in the same values as Americans. Gibbons (2015) addresses the misconception that everyone enjoys reading by writing, “For example, not all cultures value reading for relaxation or interest, and others may place great importance on the value of reading religious texts” (p. 142). This further ties to the difference in customs. Some students don’t look at you in the eye or only respond when they are told to respond. To add, teachers must not believe, students are disrespectful when they use their first language because all the emergent bilingual is trying to do is make sense of his or her situation.

As educators, we must believe that students do not attend school as an empty vessel instead they arrive with a set of funds of knowledge (Vélez-Ibáñez & Greenberg, 1992). Having knowledge can derive from life experiences. Gonzalez, Moll, & Amanti (2005) address such knowledge by stating, “People are competent, they have the knowledge, and their life experiences have given them that knowledge” (preface, ix-x). Such funds of knowledge are important resources that can come from their home and communities that can be used for concept and skill development. Ways in which a teacher can access the funds of knowledge is through interviews, observations of students in their element, using student assignments that require students to share about their community, home, and family. In connection to the funds of knowledge, interviews can also identify some of Gardner’s eight bits of intelligences: linguistic, musical, spatial, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic. In a qualitative approach Moll, Amanti, Neff, and González (2005) connect homes and classrooms highlighting the importance of acquiring funds of knowledge by writing, “This relationship can become the basis for the exchange of knowledge about family or school matters, reducing the insularity of classrooms, and contributing to the academic content and lessons” (p. 85). Life experiences such as house duties are learning opportunities that fosters knowledge, strengthen identity, and aid in learning a second language. Culture plays a vital role in learning a second language; therefore, teachers must have an open mind to connect with parents, understand their customs, gain information through the use of background knowledge, and teach students using their strengths and not in cultural judgment.


Ascenzi-Moreno L. (2018). Translanguaging and Responsive Assessment Adaptations: Emergent Bilingual Readers through the Lens of Possibility. Language Arts, 95 (6), 355- 369.

García G. E., & DeNicolo C. P. (2016). Improving the Language and Literacy Assessment of Emergent Bilinguals. In Lori Helman Literacy Development with English Learners: Research-Based Instruction in Grade K-6 (2ed., pp. 78-108). Helman.

García, O., & Wei, L. (2014). Translanguaging Language Builingualism and Education. Palgrave MacMillan.

Gibbons P. (2015). Scaffolding Language, Scaffolding Learning (2nd ed.). Heinemann.

González, N., Moll, L. C., & Amanti C. (2005). Funds of Knowledge Theorizing Practices in Households, Communities, and Classrooms. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, New Jersey.

Krashen, Stephen D. (2003). “Principles of Language Acquisition.” Explorations in Language Acquisition and Use. Heinemann.

Vélez-Ibáñez, C., & Greenberg, J. (1992). Formation and Transformation of Funds of Knowledge Among U.S. Mexican Households. “Anthropology and Eudation Quarterly,” 23(4), 313-335.


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