Have you ever spent your entire professional life working in a field, only to realise its potential extends so much further than you thought?

Well, that’s what happened to me in the last two years. Since moving back to Italy, I have been involved in various projects in which I have been asked to use my expertise in language education and second language acquisition to develop training materials … for school teachers of any subject.

When I was first asked, my initial reaction was shock, followed by a bout of the good old impostor syndrome: how was I going to pull it off? I had only ever worked with language teachers, most of the time with English language teachers only: how exactly was I going to be able to help teachers of maths, geography or technology … without getting laughed at, that is?



Fast-forward two years and I have run two teacher development programmes and given invited talks at various events. And, amazingly, teachers did not laugh in my face!

So, in this blog post, I would like to share with you all the lessons I have learned from this work, and my thoughts on how some basic knowledge of language education and Second Language Acquisition (SLA) can offer insights into teaching in other subjects. So, whether you are a language teacher and you would like to inform your non-language teacher colleagues about some important and transferrable SLA facts, or you are a teacher of a non-linguistic subject and have multilingual students in your classes, I hope you find it useful.


1. It helps dispel damaging urban myths

I have already talked about neuromyths and common misconceptions about language learning, so it’s time to turn our attention to how an understanding of key concepts in SLA can really help debunk some widespread ideas that can be harmful to school students, especially multilingual ones. For instance, have you ever heard of the old recommendation to speak to children only in the target language, i.e. the school language, rather than the heritage or family language? In truth, there is no evidence suggesting that being multilingual is harmful to learning – in fact, the opposite is true!




If you want to find out more about common urban myths about second language acquisition, have a look at Myths and Realities of Learning a Second Language (a talk summary), or for a more in-depth yet accessible analysis, take a look at An Introduction to Evidence-based Teaching in the English Language Classroom by Pavilion Publishing and Media (2021).


2. It highlights the value of collaborative work

Although pair and group work are common to other subjects, non-language teachers may be mostly familiar with the cognitive, social and emotional advantages of collaborative work. However, working in pairs and groups also has great potential for the acquisition of a second language: if a student who is not yet proficient in the school language collaborates with other students, processes such as negotiation of meaning, production of output and provision of feedback will occur naturally and provide them with excellent opportunity for acquisition.


students in classroom


3. It provides a new perspective on errors

Are errors in a second/foreign language always bad? Should they always be corrected? We as language teachers may know this is not the case, but non-language teachers might spend lots of time correcting multilingual speakers’ errors. In reality, language learners use an ‘interlanguage’, i.e. a language system that displays features of the target language but also of the learner’s first language. Errors are a natural part of this interlanguage and they are actually evidence that the learner is making an effort to test some hypotheses they have about the language. So, rather than looking at errors as ‘What is the learner doing wrong?’, we should look at them as ‘What is the learner trying to do?’


4. It helps us get why learners sometimes do not understand and what we can do about it

As language teachers, we know that comprehension is built from the bottom up (i.e. starting with sounds or letters and building up to syllables and words) and from the top down (i.e. using our knowledge to interpret sentences or utterances). We also know that many factors can hinder comprehension, including vocabulary, syntax, tasks, topic and concentration. In the case of oral comprehension, there are also issues to do with accent, spontaneous speech and noise. Finally, we know that language learners have a double challenge: understanding the texts they read/listen to and learning language from them (including subject-specific language).

In my work with school teachers, I found that an awareness of these issues helped them see more clearly what their multilingual learners struggled with. We also discussed some little modifications they could introduce in their classes to enhance comprehension, such as activating prior knowledge, generating interest and expectations before working on a text, integrating the audio and graphic channel (for example, by using Microsoft Immersive Reader) and verifying comprehension. I will never forget the story shared by one of the teachers: she had done a whole history lesson set in BC years. It was only at the end of the lesson that one of her multilingual learners raised their hand and asked: but what does Christ mean? Verifying comprehension, for example through concept check questions, can help address these issues.


student with hand up


Have you got any colleagues at your school that might benefit from this article? Feel free to share it with them and let us know what they think in the comments section.

And if the holidays are coming up where you live, I would like to wish you all the best for this festive season! See you next year.