Dual Language SchoolsDual Language Teaching and the Brain!

Author Photo: Kathleen Leos

By: Kathleen Leos

President and CEO of The Global Institute for Language and Literacy Development, LLC, (GILD)

Photo for: Dual Language Teaching and the Brain!

A recently published article in Education Week, analyzing evidence-based and neuroscience research, pertaining to the decades long reading wars, is a wonderful review. Missing is a discussion of the first principles of learning, rooted in establishing brain architecture through universal language development which forms the neurological foundation for reading and learning.

Twenty-first century neuroscience reading researchers aptly state that “the key to learning is language and language is the key to reading.” Bilingual neuro-researchers add that “learning to read in two languages increases cognitive capacity which enhances executive function for every learner.”(1)

Education neuroscientists who study bilingual or dual language development and reading agree that proficient readers learning to read in two languages, academically, outperform their monolingual peers.(2)

Language brain processing is universal. Every typical learner develops language the same way. Therefore, it is important to understand that “second language acquisition” is not different, unique, “additive,” or restrictive. Language and dual or multiple language acquisition is fundamental to learning regardless of age, race, ethnicity, language background, class, or socioeconomic status. Reading and understanding content in more than one language are the academic and economic EQUALIZER for all students worldwide!



According to education neuro-findings, there are two aspects to acquiring knowledge: learning language and content simultaneously. They are inextricably intertwined. The challenge for educators is to organize instruction which targets each one separately yet integrates them to teach.



Begin by teaching phonological processing or the discreet articulation of sounds. Students have to clearly hear and articulate each sound within a language system. Dual language learners must be able to distinguish sound differences between the primary and any other language being developed. One fun way to expedite the process is using small fun noodles or swimming floaters. Cut the noodles in half or thirds depending on the age range and size of the learner. Have the student hold one end of the fun noodle to their ear and you or their peer articulate the sound of the letter or language system into the other end of the noodle. The student repeats what they hear. Students take turns until all the sounds in the language system have been introduced. The technique is face-to-face and in-person which captures and holds the attention of the learner. All learners are language learners and benefit from using this strategy.

If possible, repeat the process using two languages, such as Spanish and English, which allows the student to hear and compare differences between language sound systems. If the activity is difficult to accomplish in the classroom, teach parents the strategy and ask them to practice primary language sound development at home. Next, solidify sound recognition by attaching the sounds to specific letters, blends, and words. This expedites forming strong literacy skills; hearing each sound and their distinct differences reinforces accurate reading and writing, “if you can hear it, you can read it; if you can read it, you can spell it.”


In 2012, researchers at Georgetown University discovered three audio brain-pathways sounds travel to configure language. The pathways are anatomically universal, indicating that every individual typically hears and shapes sounds into language exactly the same way. The process is not influenced by race, language, or culture. It is unique to a primate’s ability to communicate.(3)

The pathways are the “what, where and how” of sound/language development. “What” identifies what you hear. This seems simple but is tricky. It is not only the immediate sounds that arrest our attention, but all background sounds or noises as well. “Where” recognizes from which direction the sound originated? Finally, “how” is a pathway along which sound travels, which changes disorganized noise into a system of hearing and speaking for effective communication. Why is this important? Understanding how language is organized in the brain encourages educators to facilitate language development through sound identification, which connects sound to comprehension and visual imaging to neurologically develop reading.


Take a walk. Have students identify what they hear, from where the sounds originate, and how they visualize what is happening based on the sounds they hear in the classroom or community. Learners need to identify and distinguish sounds. The activity helps them understand the importance of listening, hearing, repeating, and synthesizing sounds to form images. Sounds leave a visual imprint on the brain which translates into language, reading, and understanding concepts.


Explicit teaching and learning language and content simultaneously is difficult. It is often referred to as “teaching language through content” or making content comprehensible. Educators have to first know what standards-based concepts they are expected to teach, then choose language instruction strategies that support access to understanding the content in each academic area at every grade-level for diverse levels of language learners. No easy task!



First, analyze what the content area standards require you to teach, specific to your discipline.

Next, review the language standards in each of the four linguistic domains: reading, writing, speaking, and listening to understand how the student will demonstrate content comprehension at each language level using each domain. Understand that how students illustrate what they know and can do (output), will determine your instructional strategies (input).

Then, align or match the language instruction to the language demand required by the content. Students need to understand the concepts identified within each content standard. Use the four language domains and emphasize the form, content and use of the language within each specific content area using both languages.

DO NOT MODIFY grade-level academic content but select instructional strategies that facilitate access to grade-level content for diverse levels of language learners. State academic content standards across all content areas are process standards: inferring, analyzing, examining, evaluating, interpreting, predicting, organizing. Educators must teach the “process of learning,” or how the brain acquires knowledge and thinks by integrating language that equals or matches the content’s conceptual demand. Differentiate instruction by designing lesson plans that teach language and content simultaneously for diverse levels of language learners.



Example of aligning content with language standards illustrated below.

Photo for: Dual Language Teaching and the Brain!

Brain-based, simultaneous language and content acquisition, or teaching how to think, is facilitated by project-based learning, team teaching, collaborative learning, visual support, videos, script writing, thinking maps, and facilitative technology. The benefits are endless, which empirical neuroscience research illustrates. Teach how the brain learns! Enjoy the journey!

1) Bialystok, E., Craik, F. I. M., Green, D. W., & Gollan, T. H. (2009). “Bilingual minds.” Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 10(3), 89-129.http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1529100610387084

2) Berens, M. S., Kovelman, I., & Petitto, L. A. (2013). “Should bilingual children learn reading in two languages at the same time or in sequence?” Bilingual research journal, 36(1), 35–60. doi:10.1080/15235882.2013.779618

3) M. Chevillet, M. Riesenhuber, J. P. Rauschecker. “Functional Correlates of the Anterolateral Processing Hierarchy in Human Auditory Cortex.” Journal of Neuroscience, 2011; 31 (25): 9345 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1448-11.2011

4) Sparks, Sarah. & Schwartz, Sarah. (2019) “How Do Kids Learn to Read? What the Science Says.” Education Week. October 4, 2019.

Kathleen Leos: https://eduneuroscience.com 202-731-0391