Supporting Multilingual Learners (An Overview)

With all the nuanced terms surfacing, it can be difficult to discuss how to best help learners whose home language is not English. Whether you refer to them as Multilingual Learners (MLs), English Language Learners (ELLs), English Second Language (ESLs), Dual Language Learners (DLLs), or Emergent Bilinguals (EBs), it is likely we are all talking about the same set of students who need extra support as they learn a new language simultaneous to learning ELA or STEM content (in a new language).

Equitable Content

I have virtually attended a few seminars lately, often about the “reading wars,” and almost all of them have mentioned the need for greater efforts in English Language Learners’ supportive content. Even state standards have emphasized a push to maintain equitable support for these learners, because when English Language Learners don’t get the support they need, it’s easy for them to feel overwhelmed and unmotivated to learn.

“English Language Learners” can refer to learners of all ages with varying experiences, which makes creating supportive content difficult since it must account for a wide set of experiences and languages. The content often can’t specialize support for each individual need, but it can provide the teachers with routines and practices that can be scaffolded as needed and encourage connections to learners’ culture, home language, and experiences.

Oral Development

One challenge for early learners is that they are not only orally learning a new language but also learning how to read and sound out letters of the new language. There has been a lot of controversy about best practices for how to support English Language Learners at this level, especially in line with the reading wars and how applicable the science of reading is for English Language Learners. Many experts state that the instruction should be the same as traditional ELA approaches, but scaffolded with extra support, since not only are they learning how to read, but also learning new alphabetical rules and developing their vocabulary without the auditory support at home.

Oral development generally occurs naturally, which means native speakers have the advantage of hearing and using many of the high-frequency words and vocabulary words they are learning how to read. English Language Learners do not have the innate oral support when it comes to high-frequency and vocabulary words, which is why supports often connect those words to the learner’s home language—to provide context with words they already know. For example, an English Language Learner may know the word perro (“dog” in Spanish) and already know what a dog looks like and acts like, but when they learn the word dog at school, they may not be able to make the connection to what they know without support. For this reason, picture dictionaries, gestures, and connections to words in their home language can support English Language Learners. Similarly, sentence frames that incorporate high-frequency words can help reiterate the meaning of those words and provide common patterns in which they are used.

Writing and Speaking Development

Support for English Language Learners who know how to read in their home language has a different goal. Instead of learning how to read from scratch, supports should provide instruction on how to read sounds and follow grammar and syntax strategies that are different from their home language. Teachers need to be given tools for how to make connections between languages with cognates, letters, and sounds in home languages. Often English Language Learners have the knowledge and background to answer questions or respond to prompts; however, they may have difficulty understanding the questions or prompts. 

Writing and speaking activities should be padded with extra time, since students often must first understand the words in the task’s prompt, next comprehend the goal of the task, then generate ideas for how to respond to the task, and finally tackle setting that response in English. For many English Language Learners, it can be disheartening and overwhelming when little support is provided for writing and speaking tasks, which often can affect their motivation and success. Providing extra time to process, having “turn and talks” where students of the same home language or mixed proficiencies discuss ideas before transcribing or presenting them, displaying models, and giving paragraph frames can build English Language Learners’ confidence to take on any writing and speaking task.

At CSA Education, we work with language acquisition experts to ensure that content created to support English Language Learners is considerate, comprehensive, and inclusive of all learners at all proficiency levels.