Stepping into school in the states, my brothers and I were all labeled ESOL, English for Speakers of Other Languages. My older brother had nine years of formal schooling in Spanish; my younger brother spoke Spanglish, a blend of Spanish and English; and I was learning to read and write in Spanish at home. The now outdated term ESOL, along with newer terms like ELL and ESL, are rooted in the idea that English is the only language that matters. These terms don't account for the many students, like my brother and I, who are using and developing other languages outside of school. Cue the term multilingual learner. Used by WIDA—an organization that provides educators with key resources and instructional tools to support multilingual learners—the term multilingual learner acknowledges that students come in with linguistic experiences and assets and are becoming bilingual, sometimes even multilingual.
What Is a Multilingual Learner?
Multilingual learners (MLLs or MLs) are students who have been consistently exposed to multiple languages and who are developing proficiency in multiple languages. This term includes students who are referred to as English language learners (ELL), dual language learners, as well as long-term English learners.
Multilingual Learners vs. English Language Learners
The term multilingual learner considers that students may not only be learning English. Many students are practicing and learning other languages elsewhere. Using multilingual learner breaks away from an English-only mindset found in the term English language learner.
Moving towards more inclusive and asset-based language can allow for translanguaging in the classroom. Through translanguaging, students use all linguistic and cognitive resources, including the other languages they speak, to make sense of the academic content being delivered in the language they’re learning. This fluid approach to language honors students' linguistic repertoire and encourages students to use any languages they know. For example, a multilingual learner studying character traits can express, "I like este libro [this book] because la protagonista [the protagonist] is brave y inteligente [and intelligent]." Translanguaging, therefore, validates ML's learning processes and bridges the family and classroom communities.
Misconceptions about Multilingual Learners
Multilingual learners are not a monolithic population. MLs come from a range of cultural, linguistic, and educational backgrounds. Some multilingual learners come in with formal schooling in another language, while other learners may be stepping into a classroom for the first time. Some students may also have recently moved to the U.S., while others may have been living in the states for years. Instruction should therefore be differentiated to meet each learners’ unique needs.
Unfortunately, current multilingual instruction and accommodations may discount where students are coming from and what students know. It may be a misconception that MLs are critically behind; as a result they may be unfairly placed in foundational classes. The reality is plenty of multilingual learners are gifted students and need to be challenged but are not given the opportunity. Schools should work with families and community liaisons to provide screening in other languages in order to learn more about students’ backgrounds, educational experiences, and academic skills before placing them in classes.
Strategies for Teaching MLL Students
Help multilingual learners achieve language proficiency with the following instructional strategies.
Build on Background Knowledge
Connect with students’ own experiences by activating their prior knowledge before a lesson. Use a graphic organizer like a KWL chart to lead a discussion on what students know and want to know. Once students have shared their knowledge, build on to that and explain information they may come across, like historical or cultural references, vocabulary, or figurative language. Allow them to express themselves in their preferred language or through multimodal forms of communication like drawing or gestures.
Help MLLs develop vocabulary by previewing and teaching academic vocabulary as well as unfamiliar vocabulary prior to a lesson. Use graphic organizers, like word maps, to help multilingual learners make connections between words. Then provide opportunities to practice using the new words in different contexts.
Engage in Conversations
In the traditional ELA classroom, multilingual learners may only spend 2% of the school day speaking. MLs need additional time for oral language practice to build oral proficiency. Provide multilingual learners clear speaking prompts using graphic organizers, sentence frames, or more academically rigorous response frames for oral language practice. Before using prompts, model how to use them so students can see and hear an example of how they can use these tools to express themselves.
Check for Comprehension
When reading, be sure to ask questions that check comprehension. This can be asking students to summarize what was read or asking students to apply a skill, like cause and effect. Understanding the basic plot and key language within a story will help students with the analysis that follows. Graphic organizers, like flow charts and Venn diagrams, help students organize their thoughts and use higher-order thinking skills.
Collaborative learning is a powerful tool that allows for students to learn from each other. Group or partner students for peer-to-peer activities like think-pair-share. This gives multilingual students the opportunity to communicate beyond yes or no questions and engage in language practice. Plus, all students will be able to share ideas and generate questions together, which creates a sense of classroom community.
Use the following checklist to support multilingual students in the classroom.
Welcoming Multilingual Learners
As our understanding of how people learn language evolves, terms like multilingual learner emphasize that students learning English bring with them rich linguistic and cultural backgrounds and require teachers to acknowledge the assets MLLs already bring to their learning. To make students feel at home, create a welcoming learning environment where they feel empowered to share what they know and to not be afraid to explore what they don’t.
Download our free guide to using response frames with multilingual learners.
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