Image: “A Daughter Migrates Toward the Mother Earth” (2017), Philadelphia, created by Jess X Snow
Looking around our two states, depending on where you live, you may have already noticed: towns across the Upper Valley are welcoming more and more families from outside the U.S. into their communities. Recently, many of these families are coming as refugees from Afghanistan and Ukraine. With recent devastation, continued violence, and the effects of climate change across the globe, we can anticipate more families, and their children, to be looking for a new place to call home, especially from Turkey, Syria, Haiti, and across Central America. Wherever they are from or however families arrive in the Upper Valley, as educators, we should make no distinction between those with official or legal refugee status and other immigrants, documented or otherwise. They will all bring with them a bright patchwork of history, culture, and language to our area.
As schools welcome multilingual students into their classrooms, all educators have key roles to play. If we all collaborate we can embrace this work to better educate our multilingual students and better serve their families.
School-aged children in these families present a special opportunity, and challenge, for school districts. While some may come already speaking English fluently, among other languages, others may come with limited English skills. These students are most commonly referred to as English Language Learners (ELLs). Educators and researchers in the field have started to shift towards the term Multilingual Learners (MLLs), as a way to recognize that many of these students already know more than one language (including, potentially, indigenous languages or dialects), to uplift their diverse linguistic backgrounds and the cultural and linguistic assets that these students bring, and to recognize the importance of multilingualism and multiculturalism in the world we live in. In our writing below, you will find that we use both terms. This is purposeful and reflective of two things: 1) since ELLs are considered a subset of MLLs, some practices specifically and almost universally apply to ELLs but may not apply to all MLLs; and b) there are legal definitions and corresponding responsibilities that schools and educators have when working with ELLs.
As schools welcome multilingual students into their classrooms, all educators – administrators, ESL teachers, classroom teachers, and others – have key roles to play. Below, you can find some key research-based strategies and practices that we recommend. These steps should not fall on the shoulders of any single individual, rather, if we all collaborate we can embrace this work to better educate our multilingual students and better serve their families.
Six Steps for Educators Working with Multilingual Students
1. Push through your assumptions
2. Partner with Families
3. Scaffold instruction: amplify, don’t simplify
4. Create culturally and linguistically responsive learning environments
5. Assess students’ language proficiency regularly, and collaborate to move them forward
6. Create a plan for newcomers
Step 1: Push through your assumptions
One thing that often stands out for educators new to working with MLLs is that they can be anywhere on the spectrum of learning a language, simply because so many factors affect how quickly they may learn a new language. Regardless of their language proficiency, it is crucial to understand that multilingual learners are very capable of understanding content and engaging in deep, critical thinking. They bring their own content and background knowledge with them into your classroom; it just might happen to be in another language. And, they may even bring some level of proficiency in English already, or may have already learned several languages, even at a young age. Building on this knowledge requires a lot of getting to know the student and their families, pushing through language barriers so that we can engage them in dialogue.
Step 2: Partner with families
When it comes to partnering with families, small shows of effort can make a huge difference, and open them up to taking bigger risks in partnering with their classroom teacher and the school. Using an online platform to translate newsletters or emails, or using a translation tool like Language Line for phone calls and meetings can support these first steps of communication. Work to seek out resources in your school/district/community for communicating across language barriers.
It is important not to make assumptions about the language needs of students and families. Especially for older students, even if they aren’t identified as ELLs but may come from a multilingual or multicultural background, we can ask what language families prefer to communicate in.
We can also be aware that some families will interact with teachers differently depending on their background. The way schools are run in the U.S., and even in this region, may be different from the student’s parents’ schooling experience. Clear communication around school policies and procedures that we may take for granted can go a long way in ensuring families can engage with their students’ learning.
Multilingual families in general are very invested in their child’s education. They want to know how they are doing in academics but also in their English development. They should be updated as often as any other parent and have as clear of an understanding of their child’s learning. Teachers can ask parents and their students what their goals are, and then incorporate these goals into a program of instruction to support their goals, meet students’ needs, and expand their possibilities. Finally, understanding home literacies can support teachers in understanding how to connect with families and how to build on students’ strengths. Many cultures foster oral traditions, in which history and knowledge are passed down through oral storytelling, conversations, and songs. Educators should acknowledge this oral literacy as literacy and seek to incorporate it into their work with students and families.
Step 3: Scaffold instruction- amplify, don’t simplify!
Multilingual learners will achieve at higher levels if they receive English Language Development coupled with exposure to grade-level content. During instruction, we can create activities that engage students’ intellectual curiosity, about content and language, by providing scaffolding that amplifies, rather than simplifies, the language demands. This includes building upon and continuing to develop students’ background knowledge; pre-teaching vocabulary and then providing opportunities for practice in context; “engineering” texts by breaking them into smaller chunks and adding supports such as visuals and headings; and creating time for meaningful conversations and collaboration with peers.
Any English Language Development instruction should serve the purpose of supporting students in accessing grade level content, especially content knowledge students may have in their first language. We want to continue to instruct and challenge them at their intellectual level.
Step 4: Create culturally and linguistically responsive learning environments
When you first meet a new student: smile, learn how to pronounce their name correctly, and ensure other students and staff do the same. After that, it’s all about ongoing effort. Encourage and provide opportunities for them to continue to develop and use all of the languages they know, no matter their proficiency, to engage in conversation, learn the content, and negotiate meaning. Be curious and don’t assume anything, for example, we can’t assume that a kid knows what Halloween is, and we also can’t assume they don’t know. We can, however, check in with them when we have something coming up that feels traditional in the U.S. context. This is true whether or not the student has grown up in the U.S. because their experience might be different than the non-immigrant student sitting next to them.
Be a learner along with your students and furthermore, be an ally. Consider their needs, advocate for them, and support them in advocating for themselves.
Step 5: Assess students’ language proficiency regularly, and collaborate to move them forward
Both Vermont and New Hampshire use WIDA’s ACCESS for ELLs to assess ELLs’ English Proficiency Level. This assessment is generally administered January-March, and score reports are sent to schools several months later. It is crucial for classroom teachers to discuss their students’ score reports with the ESL teacher in order to understand what students are capable of doing in different language domains (listening, speaking, reading, and writing), and how to support their continued development. When setting goals, consider the roles of both the classroom teacher and the ESL teacher for each goal. Throughout the year, they should be checking in as often as possible. The student will grow and develop in their proficiency; what they are able to do will change.
Having a system where classroom teachers are developing their capacity to meet the specific needs of MLLs is ideal. Schools can create time for collaboration, and explore coteaching opportunities between ESL and classroom teachers.
Step 6: Create a plan for newcomers
Newcomers are generally considered those who have arrived in the U.S. within the last year. Just like any other Multilingual Learner, newcomers are diverse in terms of where they come from, their literacy in their first language, what and how many languages they speak, and their proficiency in English. However, they generally are unfamiliar with American culture and schooling in particular.
Every school system, even if they only have a couple of multilingual learners, should have a newcomer plan. How will you get students and families oriented to the school transportation system so that students can get to school each day? What are the important documents and paperwork and is there a way to have it translated? What calendar can you provide that is easy to read/understand? What things do we take for granted (i.e. snow days) that might need to be explained? What additional paperwork (health insurance, etc?) might you be able to support newcomer families in completing? How will you assist students in learning their teachers’ and students’ names?
What comes next?
UVEI educators are continuing to fine-tune their research and findings in this area. Did you find value, inspiration, challenge, or encouragement in these ideas? If you would like to view a more extensive summary of our current recommendations, stay informed and/or be part of the conversation, please email email@example.com.
Monica Nachemja-Bunton, MS, is a faculty member for degree and licensure programs at UVEI. Monica’s teaching experience has focused primarily on multilingual education, including dual language learners and ELL students. Monica has also served as an instructional coach and program coordinator in the Philadelphia (PA) school district. Amy DeMatteo, MEd, is an ESL teacher with the Hartford School District in Hartford, VT and is in her second year of UVEI’s Literacy Educators Program. Prior to her work in the Upper Valley, she spent time as an ELL educator in Seattle, and worked as a director of ELL instruction in Boston Public Schools. Monica and Amy each have over a decade of experience and joy in working with multilingual students, families, and educators.