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Working With Multilingual Learners

multilingual classroom

In our increasingly diverse society, many students who enter our classrooms are multilingual. We use the term “multilingual” because children often know multiple languages, not just one or two. Sometimes, depending on where different kids are in their journey, it can be challenging for teachers who have not been trained in working with language development to provide effective instruction. To reach every student in the classroom, the suggestions below provide a solid place to start.

Differentiate between conversational and academic language skills.

Appearances can be deceiving, and so can conversation. Students who speak fluently in casual interchanges may still struggle with what is known as “academic language.” In essence, building the pieces of vocabulary and syntax so that students become well-versed in all language domains is a complex process, and not one that can be determined through verbal interaction. Instead, carefully analyzing student language output in both writing and speaking to ensure that they meet grade-level appropriate standards is a necessary component of bridging the gap between a less formal mode of communication to more rigorous expectations. For example, if we ask students questions that can be answered only with “yes” or “no,” we are not doing anything to build their academic language. However, if we pose open-ended queries and insist on elaboration, students are held to a higher standard.

Provide scaffolds in a variety of forms.

While all students should work toward meeting the grade-level standard, getting there often requires scaffolding. For example, it is fairly common practice to provide language learners with visual images to help aid their understanding of less familiar vocabulary. In terms of writing, we can also provide sentence frames or starters to help spur thinking and support the process of structuring ideas. The idea behind using scaffolds is not that students continue to use them forever, but rather that they have these options until they experience growth and no longer need the same kind of support. It is also good practice to present instructional materials in a variety of forms and modalities, such as ensuring that students have paper copies of any given resource along with any digital materials. We all learn differently, and having more choices that scaffold learning increases the likelihood that students will succeed.

Identify daily language objectives.

Most teachers use daily learning objectives that are geared toward acquiring a specific skill toward a standard. A classic example might be that students will be able to engage in a higher-order thinking process, such as comparing and contrasting. However, multilingual learners also benefit from the “how” behind reaching the objective in terms of language production. To achieve the objective, will students be reading, writing, listening, or speaking? If the teacher identifies this information explicitly for kids, it helps them understand how they will be learning on any particular day. Suppose students are comparing the life cycle of a bee to the life cycle of a dog, for example. The language objective for that learning goal might be: “Students will write a paragraph that compares the two life cycles.” If the teacher wants to focus on another language domain, it might be that students will do an oral presentation instead. Either way, the language objective supports the content goal so that students have clear avenues for expressing their ideas.

Build opportunities for collaboration.

When students interact with one another, they learn more. Not surprisingly, they also build better language skills through increased communication. In this post-pandemic era, it can be harder to get kids to talk, but specific strategies will increase their level of participation. Furthermore, talking is not necessarily the only ingredient that comes into play when people work together. Working across the language domains, we can provide students with a range of tasks that require them to listen to each other, to record written ideas, or to read a specific chunk of text together. If we spend most of our time leading the learning rather than letting kids take responsibility with collaborative work, we miss an opportunity to build their language skills.

Seek out the knowledge of expert colleagues.

In each school building, there are many experts who can act as resources when we need help. Specifically, colleagues with knowledge about language development are usually happy to help with questions or materials. The odds are that anything we need already exists, and it has also likely been done well by someone with specialized knowledge. For example, instead of creating some of the scaffolds mentioned above, first check and see if a fellow teacher already has anything available. That way, we get the double benefit of saving time and collaborating with a colleague to elevate our practice.

Become a culturally responsive teacher.

Kids have experiences that go well beyond what they demonstrate in class. Without giving them the burden of explaining their cultural norms or encouraging tokenism, it helps when teachers take it upon themselves to learn more about where students are coming from, both literally and figuratively. While many people engage in more surface-level explorations of culture such as learning about holidays or foods, it is more meaningful to pursue knowledge about deeper levels of culture, such as social norms and expectations. For example, many of the behaviors that are considered to be desirable in dominant American culture are either undesirable or downright rude in others. If we misinterpret how students react to us because we know little about their own viewpoints, we are doing them a disservice.

Understand the power of context.

Context is everything, especially when it comes to feeling like we understand the world around us. When we recognize that students come to us with background knowledge, we can use that to the advantage of the whole class as we introduce new skills and concepts. For example, if a student happens to be a soccer fan, they might be able to read an article that is above grade-level with more complex words and phrases because they have a deeper understanding of the content, which helps to bolster their reading skills. 

Even when students do not yet have an outside interest that connects to what we are teaching, we can provide an accessible entry point at the start of the class for building context. Suppose the class is learning about photosynthesis. The teacher could begin class with an activating question by focusing on an essential work like “fuel” and then ask, “What kinds of foods best fuel your body? What fuel is not as helpful, and why?” Then, students will have more context to understand the concept of fuel and why plants need energy to survive just like people. Like many of the tools provided here, ensuring that students have context for their learning is a practice that benefits not just multilingual learners, but all kids.

Having strategies in our toolboxes is important, but it is their consistent application that makes the biggest impact. While it may be intimidating to try all the practices detailed above at once, trying out one at a time can gradually build strong habits for serving our multilingual learners to the best of our ability. As more students enter our classrooms who have differentiated language learning needs, incorporating practices that encourage growth is not just a good idea—it is non-negotiable.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam Plotinsky is an instructional specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has taught and led for more than 20 years. She is the author of Teach More, Hover Less, Lead Like a Teacher and Writing Their Future Selves. She is also a National Board-Certified Teacher with additional certification in administration and supervision. She can be reached at or via Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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