three strategies to incorporate cross-linguistic connections

August 22, 2023

By: Stacey VandenBosch

If you’re wondering how best to incorporate cross-linguistic connections into your instructional practice, this blog post is for you. First, I’ll explain what they are and why they’re important. Next I’ll share potential consequences to watch out for when considering some cross-linguistic instructional practices. And finally, I’ll outline three alternative strategies to promote higher levels of biliteracy.

What are cross-linguistic connections and why are they important?

Over the past two decades, we’ve observed in Language First classrooms what researchers also describe when explaining dual language learner characteristics. Students in Spanish dual language immersion programs, especially those in early elementary grades, don’t always recognize similarities between Spanish and English such as cognates or parts in words that have the same meaning. That means students miss opportunities to use their knowledge of BOTH languages to expand their reading and writing skills. 

Let me give you an example. Think about the meaning of the simple word, mal, in Spanish (bad/evil). If we explicitly teach students to infer the meaning of new academic vocabulary in English by applying their knowledge of words (or parts of words) in Spanish, then they will understand that malpractice, malign, and malicious all have to do with something “bad.” Pretty great, right?  

In fact, according to research, bringing students’ attention to the similarities and also the differences between Spanish and English —in everything from word order, vocabulary, genre, punctuation, spelling patterns, sociolinguistic appropriateness, and idioms— enhances metalinguistic awareness. Because metalinguistic awareness or the ability to identify, analyze and manipulate language forms, sounds, grammar, etc. is key to literacy development, it is important for instruction to include cross-linguistic connections (Tedick & Lyster, 2020).

What are the unintended consequences of some cross-linguistic instructional practices?

Over the years, researchers and practitioners alike have developed theories and written articles and books about how to help students access their language capabilities holistically. While all agree that instruction including cross-linguistic connections is important for biliteracy development, not everyone agrees about the approach. What adds to the varying opinions and how they are interpreted by teachers is the fact that different contexts require different approaches. In a 2022 blog post, Dr. Ana Mendoza points out the importance of context and explains that certain practices such as translanguaging and the use of L1 as a scaffold may be more appropriate for older students in content language integrated learning contexts. 

I completely agree. As dual language educators, we have to proceed with caution, recognizing that certain cross-linguistic instructional practices can inadvertently undermine the importance of Spanish language development. For example, “bridge” lessons that incorporate side-by-side anchor charts can lead to direct translation in which Spanish becomes a tool to accomplish an academic goal in English. Or, as noted by Hamman (2018) creating bilingual spaces that encourage students to translanguage can lead to “further inequities by allowing English – and English speakers – to dominate the classroom” (p. 19). This dynamic often means that students’ ability to handle complex content in Spanish decreases over time.

Three ways to make cross-linguistic connections part of your instructional practice.

Here’s what you can do, trusting that it is part of the Language First approach followed by dual language teachers in a variety of dual language contexts.

1. Make building a strong foundation in Spanish literacy skills a priority from day one. 

Teachers implementing the Language First approach model the importance of Spanish in academic contexts by following a spiraling scope and sequence with accompanying mini-lessons that help develop students’ in depth knowledge of word features and grammar structures. Link here to learn about our Spanish language frameworks.  By exploring how language works during guiding reading groups, writing lessons, and content area instruction, teachers develop students’ ability to notice and analyze language. Besides increasing the likelihood of students being able to navigate more difficult content in Spanish, explicitly teaching about the Spanish language in fun and engaging ways, increases metalinguistic awareness. And that means students are more likely to make cross-linguistic connections or catch on quickly with guidance from the teacher.  Most importantly, however, it conveys the important message that acquiring Spanish can be valuable in and of itself and is just as much a “language of school” as English is.  

2. Plan cross-linguistic connection lessons during English instructional time to protect Spanish. To protect Spanish instructional time, invite students to make cross-linguistic connections and use Spanish during English instructional time. In the Language First approach, teachers use a resource that highlights cross-linguistic connections related to aspects of the English language that don’t readily transfer from Spanish. It works like this. During Spanish instructional time, students learn how to identify nouns (with their articles), recognize gender and number agreement and understand their ”job” in a sentence. During English instructional time, teachers ask students about what they’ve learned about nouns in Spanish. They then guide students to identify what is the same (their role/function in a sentence, spelling change to show plurality) and what is different (gender/number agreement with articles and adjectives, irregular plural spelling changes, etc.) By ensuring students learn about grammar and parts in words in Spanish first and then helping students rely on that knowledge to make connections to English, teachers send the message that Spanish is vital to acquiring new knowledge. Though subtle, inviting Spanish into English instructional time helps balance the societal power differential between the two languages. 

3. Encourage students (particularly those who are English-dominant) to remain in the language of instruction when making spontaneous cross-linguistic connections during Spanish instructional time. Many researchers discuss how important it is for students to use their L1 when making cross-linguistic connections to their L2. But studies in this area are conducted with students whose first language is NOT English. Language First classrooms take a different approach. Whether students make connections spontaneously or are prompted by the teacher, they remain in Spanish, even when drawing on their knowledge of English. I remember one such moment in particular. During a second grade lesson in Spanish exploring the “silent h,” the teacher prompted students to think about a word beginning with the letter “h” in English. She then asked students to share any connections they were making. One student raised her hand and explained (in Spanish) that the English “h” sounded like the letter “j.” Though drawing on her first language knowledge (English in this case), the student described the connection she was making in her second language (Spanish). Students making connections in the language of instruction, particularly in Spanish or other minority languages, provide them with opportunities to expand their academic capacity in that language. It also sends the message that Spanish can be used to talk about English.

To learn more about Language First resources that can guide you when incorporating cross-linguistic connections into your instructional practice, visit our website – link here


Tedick, D. J., & Lyster, R. (2020). Scaffolding language development in Immersion and Dual Language Classrooms. Routledge. 

Hamman, Laura. (2018) Translanguaging and positioning in two-way dual language classrooms: a case for criticality, Language and Education, 32:1, 21-42, DOI: 10.1080/09500782.2017.1384006 

Blog post from Dr. Ana Mendoza –