Common misconception #1: Good teaching for native speakers is good teaching for non-native learners

Good teaching – one that provides learners with ultimate learning experience – is naturally appreciated by all students. Nevertheless, non-native learners may have very different linguistic and cultural characteristics and needs, which “plain” good teaching fails to accommodate. This is why we need linguistically sensitive teachers.

Not all learners learn the language of schooling in the same way

Learners who speak the language of schooling as a second or additional language may follow a different developmental trajectory and rate in literacy in the new language than native speakers (1). Firstly, reading skills and strategies developed in student’s first language can transfer to the second language, though this may not occur automatically. Furthermore, learners’ home languages and writing systems (e.g., alphabetic, syllabic, logographic) can differ considerably from the language of schooling. In this case, students may need targeted instruction and extended practice. This might mean, for example, building on readers’ existing word-recognition skills or on their knowledge of cognates or, for learners who are literate in nonalphabetic languages (such as Chinese), giving greater attention to developing letter–sound associations.

How can teachers be linguistically sensitive?

Non-native learners do not have the same intuitions regarding what sounds “right” or “best” in the language of schooling that native speakers have, which is why they need more explicit language instruction. Consequently, teachers must have enough knowledge of second language acquisition to anticipate potential barriers to students’ comprehension and expression and provide appropriate scaffolding techniques,, such as models of texts or visuals. It is also crucial to point out the importance of teachers’ knowledge of the structure of the language of schooling. If students are to develop a sophisticated and accurate language in different contexts, teachers should provide them with clarifying and constructive feedback rather than ignore their errors (2).

Students should maintain their home languages

Several studies suggest that effective instruction for non-native learners includes the use of their home language(s) (3). Proficiencies that develop in one language can be transferred to another language, provided there is adequate motivation and exposure to both languages. The continued growth or maintenance in first language will be beneficial for the development of other languages. Furthermore, it will allow students to see their home language skills as an added value rather than an obstacle to their academic achievement.

It has become obvious that specific attention should be paid to language learners in class if they are to succeed and fully develop their multilingual and academic capacities. By becoming linguistically sensitive, teachers will not only acknowledge that, but also learn how to cope with and explore the potential of linguistically and culturally diverse classes.

(1) Harper, C., & de Jong, E. (2004). Misconceptions about teaching English language learners. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 48:2, pp. 152-162. Available on:
(2) See reference 1.
(3) Cummins, J. (2008). BICS and CALP: Empirical and theoretical status of the distinction. In B. Street & N. H. Hornberger (Eds.), Literacy: Vol. 2. Encyclopedia of language and education (2nd ed., pp. 71–83). New York, NY: Springer Science + Business Media LLC. Available on:; Garcia, O. (2009) Bilingual Education in the 21st century: A Global Perspective. Malden, MA and Oxford: Basil/Blackwell.; American Institutes for Research. (2010). Common assumptions vs. the evidence: English learners in the United States, a reference guide. Washington, DC: American Institutes for Research. Available on:

The misconception series is written by Listiac ResearcherTjaša Dražnik (University of Ljubljana).

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