Noteworthy Voices 2-MIN. READ

Six Tips for Teaching Reading to Multilingual Learners

These tips will help your multilingual learners develop their reading skills.
A young boy reads aloud while he sits at his desk.

By 2025, more than half of the students in our education system will be multilingual learners. Some will be born in the United States, and others will be born abroad. Some will speak Spanish, Arabic, Mandarin, and other home languages, while others will be nonstandard English speakers communicating in African American Vernacular English (AAVE), Spanglish (a combination of English and Spanish), or other forms of nonstandard English.

No matter a student’s background, there are specific strategies you can use to educate these multilingual students in your classroom and enhance their reading skills. 

Here are six tips that can help. 

1. Recognize That a Pronunciation Error Isn’t a Reading Error

Multilingual learners and students who speak nonstandard English may mispronounce words when reading—it’s expected—but a pronunciation error isn’t a reading error.

Focusing more on student pronunciation than comprehension can skew our understanding of what students know. If they read a word and their dialect or primary language makes it sound different than what you expect, you don’t want to discredit their understanding. This can lower their confidence and impact how you view and teach them, leading to my next tip. 

2. Recognize That Language Doesn’t Determine Intelligence

I use the word “y’all” all the time because it is commonly used in Houston, where I have lived for almost 10 years. Yet, my use of nonstandard English in no way determines my intelligence. The same is true for multilingual students.

Students who speak nonstandard forms of English often develop their own grammatical structure. Speak to any linguist, and they’ll tell you there are sounds in AAVE that don’t exist in English, and it can impact their pronunciation of standard English sounds. However, you want to avoid equating your students’ dialect with their intelligence or ability to understand what you teach them. Instead, allow your students to be themselves in the classroom without being subjected to any bias we might develop based on their speech. Other methods of evaluating prosody and pronunciation include things like asking students to pretend to be a teacher or a professional speaker when reading a passage.

3. Allow Students to Contextualize

Multilingual learners need to build context before reading a story. That’s why contextualizing is crucial to building comprehension and confidence. For example, if your student is reading a story about a girl walking to school on the sidewalk and the word “sidewalk” isn’t in their vocabulary, they might spend more time confused by the word than focusing on the story. 

However, taking a few moments before reading to build context about the setting can reduce confusion and allow students to understand the events. Giving multilingual learners time and space to process their learning and build knowledge in these areas can increase their reading comprehension, confidence, and enjoyment. 

4. Remember Your Cognates

Cognates are words that have almost the same spelling, sound nearly identical, and have the same meaning in different languages as they do in English. For example, equal/igual and identify/identificar are English/Spanish cognates. 

Teaching cognates is a great way for multilingual learners to learn English—especially if you teach math and science. In fact, approximately 90 percent of Spanish cognates have the same meaning in English, and many of the words relate to the academic language they need in school.

5. Provide Opportunities for Discourse

Before students learn to read and write, they learn to listen and speak, and that’s equally important in a school setting. If you want your students to read, you must allow them and encourage them to speak—in small groups, in front of the class, and one on one. The more practice, the better. 

Try incorporating academic discourse throughout the school day by using learning tools such as sentence frames with students. Over time, multilingual learners will begin to understand letter-sound patterns and connect what they hear to what they see on paper. 

6. Allow Productive Struggle

Interrupting a student while they’re reading aloud breaks their thought process. No one can practice and process simultaneously, and this is particularly true of multilingual learners. So, the next time your students read aloud, resist the urge to correct mistakes the moment they happen. Instead, allow them to complete the sentence first because emerging readers need to practice, but they also need to build their confidence. 

When students become low-level readers, it may be because they’re constantly interrupted, and they need more reading practice to become fluent. Allow productive struggle and encourage consistent practice, which will ultimately lead to stronger and more confident readers.

Learning to read is a process that can be challenging for everyone, even native speakers. I hope these tips prove useful in your classroom and help your multilingual learners thrive. 

For more on Glendaliz, check out this Extraordinary Educators™ Podcast. To learn more about teaching reading, check out our Science of Reading webinar series.