Action 1

Capitalize on the resources and experiences that ELLs bring to school to build and enrich their academic language.

Students are the centerpiece of an educational system and the nation’s future. Teaching and learning should revolve around who ELLs are, what they can do, and how everyone can benefit from the tremendous assets they bring to school. When the sociocultural contexts students encounter in their schools are in concert with those of their home and community and when the students can recognize their linguistic and cultural identities represented in their school, they feel respected as members and contributors to their learning environment. Therefore, every attempt should be made to incorporate the backgrounds of the students into curriculum design, such as in the selection of topics or themes of units and the genres or text types of materials. Equally important, instructional tasks and activities should provide students with opportunities to take on a variety of identities and social roles to promote more linguistically and culturally responsive instructional practices. As a result of having more positive and connected experiences with schooling, students will more likely acquire and use grade-level academic language in relevant and meaningful contexts.


A wealth of linguistic and cultural knowledge exists in local households in diverse communities around the country. These community-based resources can shape a pedagogy that connects to students’ life experiences and engages them academically. By using students’ “funds of knowledge,” we are mobilizing their cultural resources for teaching and learning (Gonzalez, Moll, & Amanti, 2005; Moll, 1992).
By using students “funds of knowledge,” we are mobilizing their cultural resources for teaching and learning (Gonzalez, Moll, & Amanti, 2005; Moll, 1992).
The complex socio-cognitive processes of meaning making that we use to understand and produce text and talk are embedded within social practices of everyday life (Pérez, 2004). Students acquire these resources in their homes and communities. Empirical studies have shown that ELLs with rich experiences in their home language develop literacy faster in a second language. As educators, we need to nurture dynamic bilingualism by fostering students’ exploration of their linguistic identities and their development across languages (Escamilla & Hopewell, 2010, Garcia & Kleifgen, 2010; Hornberger, 2003, among others). For too long, schools have underestimated the contribution of language development at home (Zentella, 2005), envisioning ELLs functioning in two separate worlds rather than realizing that they learn in and across both. Academic language includes multiple literacies (Gee, 2008) and being able to tap two or more languages as the basis for academic language development enriches all students.


ELLs are central to WIDA’s standards-referenced system. Language development standards help frame curriculum, instruction, and assessment while stimulating professional development and research, however, ELLs must always be visible in the overall system. Systemic consideration of ELLs in planning, implementing, evaluating, and refining any and all aspects of education will help ensure their equitable and fair treatment.
WIDA’s Can Do Philosophy brings the strengths of ELLs to the forefront of the educational system. As 21st century knowledge and skills take center stage in today’s standards-referenced arena, teachers and school leaders of ELLs must step up and act on the positive contributions that these students make to the U.S. educational enterprise. By taking action toward improving educational opportunities and academic outcomes of this fastest-growing student population, educators will help pave the way for ELLs’ academic language success.


By Marylin Low and Emily Lam, Honolulu, HI
ELLs have diverse language and cultural backgrounds, learning styles, and life experiences that are often different from those of their peers. When teachers build on these diverse assets through intentionally designed learning plans, ELLs’ academic performance is enhanced (Ladson-Billings, 1995; González, Moll, & Amanti, 2005). Below is an example of how Kimi, an elementary teacher in Hawai’i, capitalizes on the resources and experiences of the ELLs in her classroom.
Kimi is co-planning a project-based unit on the topic of weather.6 Students will learn about the water cycle, weather elements, measuring changes in weather, and data collection through a variety of interactive activities. The culminating product will be an event, planned by students, to teach the school community about what they have learned. Kimi has different images of Pacific weather patterns she wants to display and use to activate prior knowledge about weather.
Capitalizing on the varying kinesthetic, visual, and oral learning styles of her students, Kimi wants the final event to be performed for the community—a performance with a message. Knowing that some parents of her ELLs are fishers, Kimi invites them as guest speakers and, with assistance from interpreters at school, they share with her class the methods they have used to forecast weather and determine the impact of weather on their livelihood. A group of students is intrigued by the idea of predicting the weather. They list important terms such as water, wind, and rain in the languages of their group members. They seek clarification of local meanings from the community and family and decide to teach each other the words in context. They discuss their ideas in more than one language. Soon this group is ready to connect words to music and begin animating the deep meaning of the multilingual lyrics.
6 See Kindergarten–Grade 5 Integrated Strand on weather on pp. 18–19 of the 2012 Amplification of the English Language Development Standards, Kindergarten–Grade 12.


The questions below provide an opportunity to consider how to apply the ideas from Action 1 to practice.

  1. How do the resources and experiences of students impact their engagement with the curriculum and their learning?
  2. What might you do to learn more about students’ resources and experiences?
  3. What are some examples of how you might incorporate students’ resources and experiences into the curriculum?

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