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Language instruction through an asset-based approach: Understanding what students can do with languages


by Lorena Mancilla, PhD, Director of WIDA Early Years

Language is intricately tied to our identity. However, far too often multilingual students are subjected to implicit, and at times explicit, messages that devalue their home language and/or language practices. Such deficit-based messages can be detrimental to a student’s identity and can negatively impact their learning and language development.

In her seminal work on borderland identity, Gloria Anzaldúa (1987) wrote, “So, if you want to really hurt me, talk badly about my language. Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity—I am my language. Until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself.” Recognizing that language and identity go hand-in-hand calls for an asset-based approach to language instruction. Such an approach highlights what students can do with language, and by extension, it highlights what educators can do to support multilingual students. WIDA develops tools through an asset-based lens that support the success of K-12 multilingual students learning English and Spanish. The philosophy that drives our work, however, can be applied to the teaching and learning of other languages.

Our beliefs about language and diverse language practices (e.g., translanguaging), if left unchecked, can hinder students’ success. Therefore, educators must first reflect on language ideologies that drive approaches to language instruction. Stubbs (2002) argues that our attitudes and beliefs about language can perpetuate negative stereotypes. “It is difficult to overestimate the importance of people's attitudes and beliefs about language. It is almost impossible, for example, to hear someone speak without immediately drawing conclusions, possibly very accurate, about his social class background, level of education and what part of the country he comes from.  We hear language through a powerful filter of social values and stereotypes.” What do our filters tell us about the multilingual students we serve? In other words, what conclusions do we draw about students when we hear them, or their families, speak?

WIDA is a project of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the University of Wisconsin—Madison. Our mission is to advance the academic language development and academic achievement for children and youth who are culturally and linguistically diverse through high quality standards, assessments, research, and professional learning for educators.

The WIDA International School Consortium includes 250 schools in 75 different countries. This global network of leading international schools provides reciprocal professional learning and program development through an asset-based approach to serving multilingual learners. Find out more at www.wisc.wceps.org

As we help students become successful, or help them on their path toward becoming global citizens, what do we hope they sound like when they speak, and why? Motha (2014), on the other hand, draws attention to the need for reflection on the race and power relations that are deeply rooted in the teaching of the English language: “Racialization is inevitably salient in language teaching. It is important that the racial roots of English language teaching be clear and visible to teachers if they are to carve out pedagogies that are well informed and conscious of the consequences of their practice.” To begin reflecting on race and power relations, it is essential to have a critical awareness of one’s own racial and linguistic identity, as well as the privileges that come with such an identity. The questions listed below were adapted from Motha’s work and can help educators initiate reflection on race and power relations within the teaching of English:

  • Am I perceived to be a native English speaker because of my race?
  • What prestige or privilege is associated to the form of English I speak?
  • How does my English compare to the English spoken by my students?

The teaching of language is not a neutral act. Our beliefs and attitudes about language have the power to drive policy and practice. As international educators, we must create space for reflection on our language ideologies and we must be willing to critically examine race and power relations present within language instruction.

So, what does an asset-based approach to language instruction look like? At the core is a focus on what multilingual students can do with language versus what they cannot do. Such a focus is foundational to The WIDA Can Do Philosophy (2014), a key component of the WIDA Standards Framework. The Can Do Philosophy drives our work at WIDA. Everything we do begins with articulating examples of students’ assets, such as their cultural and linguistic assets. We believe the assets multilingual students bring to their school communities have the potential to enrich all learners and educators, especially in today’s globalized world.

“By focusing on what language learners can do, we send a powerful message that students from diverse linguistic, cultural, and experiential backgrounds contribute to the vibrancy of our early childhood programs and K–12 schools.” (WIDA, 2014)

Our tools are designed to highlight these assets. For instance, the Receptive and Expressive Performance Definitions for K-12 define the language criteria students can be expected to process or produce, with the appropriate support for language, across the different WIDA levels of English language proficiency. One way that international educators can use the Performance Definitions is as a tool to help design instruction and assessment that allows students to engage meaningfully at every level of English language proficiency. To help educators further interpret the English language proficiency levels, WIDA developed the Can Do Descriptors, a series of tools that provide examples of what students can do with language for academic purposes. The Can Do Descriptors support collaboration and communication among educators that serve multilingual students learning English.

These are just a few examples of the resources WIDA offers that support an asset-based approach to English language instruction. The Can Do Philosophy can be applied in classrooms where languages other than English or Spanish are taught.  We encourage educators to identify the assets students bring, the contributions these assets make to the learning community, and the potential they have to enrich the experiences of all students and educators. We also encourage educators to reflect on the language used in practice and policy to talk about language learning and development. Is the language we use asset-based? If not, what can we change?

According to Ofelia García (2009), “Language plays a vital role in today’s globalized world, and it is more important than ever in education.” An asset-based approach to language instruction can help educators promote positive linguistic identities—­­­which are essential for navigating our global landscape—­­by focusing on what students can do with language. As the linguistic diversity present in our schools shifts and changes, so must our thinking about the assets multilingual students bring to their education.

Lorena Mancilla, PhD is the Director of WIDA Early Years. She joined WIDA in 2010 and has expertise in language development, bilingual education, professional development, and family engagement. You can get in touch with her at lorena.mancilla@wisc.edu. To download our resources, or to learn more about WIDA, please visit our website at www.wida.us.


References and Further Reading:

  • Anzaldúa, G. (1987). Borderlands/la frontera: The new mestiza (2nd Ed.). San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.
  • García, O. (2009). Bilingual education in the 21st century: A global perspective. Malden, MA and Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Motha, S.  (2014).  Race, empire, and English language teaching: Creating responsible and ethical anti-racist practice. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
  • Stubbs, M.  (2002). Some basic sociolinguistics concepts.  In L. Delpit & J. Kilgour Dowdy (Eds.), The skin that we speak: Thoughts on language and culture in the classroom (pp. 63-85).  New York: The New Press.
  • WIDA. (2014). The WIDA Can Do Philosophy. Board of Regents at the University of Wisconsin System. Retrieved from: www.wida.us/aboutUs/AcademicLanguage/
Posted by CIS on Monday June, 5

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