Oct. 13, 2021
The start of the 2021-22 school year brought with it many questions about how schools and educators planned to close the opportunity gaps that seemed to have multiplied during remote schooling. Of particular concern are the roughly 5 million English learners (ELs) who have been among those affected the most—both at home and in the classroom. Higher than average absentee rates understandably led to many of these students falling behind academically, which means educators will have a lot of ground to cover. However, as education moved online during the pandemic, it quickly became obvious that most “mainstream” teachers were not prepared to support linguistically diverse students, an issue that predates COVID-19 but nevertheless was exacerbated by it.
In a timely move, Early Edge California and American Institutes for Research (AIR) released the Multilingual Learning Toolkit last month, an online hub of research-and evidence-based instructional resources and strategies on how to best-support multilingual learners (MLs), a broad term used to encompass both dual language learners (DLLs) and ELs, in grades PreK–3. This one-stop-shop is the product of a collaborative effort between local and national practitioners, researchers, and advocates committed to improving educational opportunities for MLs in early grades where a higher percentage of children are identified as ELs compared to upper grades.
A user’s journey on the platform begins with a starter guide, equipped with key definitions, and most importantly, the four foundational principles underpinning the toolkit:
Once practitioners familiarize themselves with these principles and the most common language models used with MLs, users finally arrive at the toolkit’s core instructional resources which are organized into 11 key categories that were identified as the essential elements of what teachers and administrators need to know to best serve MLs, including language and literacy development, bilingual and English language development strategies, content learning and more.
Although the toolkit emphasizes the interconnectedness and interdependence of all 11 elements, the following four categories stand out as game changing in terms of the awareness they can create and the doors they can open for MLs in the classroom:
The toolkit boasts strategies that can be used to foster frequent two-way communication with families and encourage ongoing communication that is responsive to the ML and their family. Evidence-based resources and strategies do not require the teacher to speak the ML’s home language and include:
- How to gather information about a child’s language and cultural background upon enrollment;
- How to engage families on their child’s bilingual development and provide information on its benefits; and
- How to create opportunities for families to visit the classroom to share their language and classroom with the other students.
Socio-emotional Health and Development
Feeling comfortable, included, and having access to meaningful learning opportunities are universal features that should be present in all students’ education. However, for multilingual learners, social-emotional competence is intrinsically linked to the degree to which their home language is integrated into their educational environment, particularly for younger students. The toolkit calls for teachers to create space for MLs to utilize full-range of expression, whether it be verbal or non-verbal, and foster self confidence and pride in their background in order to create an affirming learning environment for MLs. The toolkit encourages teachers to do so by:
- Taking time to build trust, respect, and strong relationships with ML students and their families;
- Ensuring ML students can fully participate in group learning settings by creating opportunities for them to have a role in small and large groups; and
- Providing opportunities for ML children who speak the same home language to serve as peer support for each other.
Home Language Development
A shortage of bilingual teachers and the linguistic diversity among DLL and EL students means that the likelihood of having a lead teacher who shares their home language is fairly low. Even so, teachers can foster a welcoming classroom environment by learning key words in the target language and creating opportunities for students to hear their home language. In doing so, MLs can learn to feel valued, and English-only speaking children can learn to be excited about language diversity. Practices that can help ensure each child and their language feels value include:
- Use cognates to emphasize connections between languages (i.e. in English and Spanish art/arte, computer/computadora) if applicable to their home language;
- Invite children to be experts and share their home language; and
- Introduce key vocabulary words in the home language that are related to the content being taught prior to teaching them in English.
Since MLs’ language and content skills may be distributed across English and another language, it is recommended that these students be assessed in both languages. Regular assessment that is linguistically, culturally, developmentally appropriate should be implemented to the extent possible in order to get an adequate picture of what they can do and what they know. Teachers can do so by:
- Learning about second language acquisition to help assess and monitor MLs’ progress in language development;
- Using assessments to inform instruction based on student English language development progress and strategic grouping and small group instruction; and
- Drawing from a variety of formative assessment tools (i.e., observation of oral language, portfolios of written work, comprehension-focused questions or tasks).
The hub features ‘user guides’ tailored to teachers, administrators and PD providers, and teacher education faculty, in hopes of reaching all educators, regardless of where they sit in the education spectrum. “There is a belief that you have to be bilingual to help DLLs, and that isn’t true. You can be inclusive, even if you don’t speak the same language”, said Patricia Lozano executive director for Early Edge California. And the hub was created because according to Carolyne Crolotte, director of dual language learner (DLL) programs at Early Edge, teachers were struggling to find high-quality materials and concrete examples of how to support their multilingual students.
Both Crolotte and Lozano believe it is every teacher’s job to support ML students. However, standing in the way of this goal is the fact that many future educators are not required to learn how to support MLs in early education settings. This means that many school districts have to start from zero as they prepare newly hired teachers on how to support DLLs. But first, school districts have to believe that it matters, and Lozano believes this hub will be the launching point many school districts need as they learn about how to best support linguistically diverse students.
“This is just the beginning and is not a one-time thing, this will be a continuous process”, says Lozano as the hub will need to be updated to add more resources. These updates will include tools in other languages to be more representative of the diversity among multilingual learners. In the end, though, the hub alone will not provide results in the classroom and will need to be supplemented with professional learning and coaching. That being said, the designers hope the open-access tools will equip teachers with strategies and knowledge to help support MLs' bilingualism and encourage an asset oriented approach to ML instruction/education—an approach bound to positively affect all students.
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