English Learners (ELs), also known as multilingual learners and emergent bilinguals, enrich classrooms with their skills and strengths by giving their peers a chance to learn about their languages, cultures, and experiences. But they also face unique challenges. They’re expected to meet the same content standards as their native English-speaking peers while simultaneously learning a new language.
Equity advocate Dr. José Medina champions a mindset shift toward an asset-based approach to teaching ELs. “Students do not have achievement gaps we need to fill,” he said. “They have gifts we need to leverage.”
Here are five ways you can empower your multilingual learners to reach their highest aspirations.
1. Celebrate Diversity and Multilingualism
Diverse classrooms help students learn about other cultures and traditions and broaden students’ minds. “That’s what education is for,” said Jamie Cooper, former fifth grade teacher who is now an assistant principal in Mississippi. “To learn about the people and places around you and expand your knowledge. Diversity opens doors of possibilities for students down the road. It’s a beautiful thing to have a diverse classroom.”
2. Embrace Imperfection
Learning a new language doesn’t happen overnight. It takes practice. And no one, no matter how diligent, can speak a new language perfectly right away. But not trying for fear of making a mistake will only hold students back. “Mistakes are a critical part of learning,” said Jamie. “Sometimes I would get students who came in and didn’t speak a word of English. They were scared to death.” But he also put himself in their shoes. “My Spanish is no bueno,” he’d often say. When his students saw him struggling to speak their language, they would say, “Mr. Cooper is messing up all day long, but at least he’s trying.” That’s all he wanted them to do. Try.
3. Support Language Learning for All
Although some students may not be learning a new language, they’re all in school for the same reason—to learn. Academic language is a new language for all students, not just ELs. Anne Barbour, a third grade teacher in Rhode Island, said, “No matter who you are or where you’re from, all students are hearing new words like multiplication, division, and fractions for the first time. When I ask students to draw parallel lines, they might draw subway tracks, but not everyone may have seen them.” Others might draw a fence or telephone wire. This gives students a chance to discuss their unique experiences.
4. Tap into Technology
If technology is dynamic, it can be a great equalizer for multilingual learners. Interactive lessons that track student progress are engaging, particularly when customized to individual needs. Visuals and multimedia can help teach new vocabulary words in engaging and accessible ways, and strategic scaffolding instead of a one-size-fits-all approach gives all students the customized support they need to progress. Some programs have resources for families in multiple languages so they can take part in their student’s academic journey. Technology that lets students build on their knowledge, acquire more complex skills as they grow, and measure progress ultimately builds independence.
5. Focus on Social and Emotional Development
Native English-speaking students can help their multilingual peers learn their language. But teaching goes both ways—they also teach native English speakers new languages, perspectives, and so much more. “Having a diverse group of students who speak different languages teaches empathy and compassion—a great trait to learn at an early age,” said Amanda Arevalo, a second grade teacher in Idaho.
Lisa Goodman, a Grades K–5 school psychologist in Massachusetts, added, “Our EL students learn to advocate for themselves. They are taught to raise their hand and ask what words mean if they’re not sure. This benefits all students because they see others being vulnerable, and it’s great modeling.”
With one in four of today’s students being multilingual learners and Latinos expected to make up a third of US students by 2030, empowering your multilingual learners to achieve their best while appreciating the value they provide is not just important for today, it’s the way of the future.
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