Six Insights for Teaching Multilingual Learners [Research]

Young latina girl writing with pencil

Every achievement has its beginning. This holds true when it comes to learning. For example, to successfully write a school report, a child must learn how to write; and learning how to write involves learning how to read. An important foundation for achievement in learning is literacy. Although literacy is core to students’ educational and career success, it can be one of the most challenging things for students to develop.

Literacy is an issue that stretches from the USA to Uganda, from Asia to Australia and everywhere in between. This issue is compounded when students are taken out of their traditional classrooms in which instruction is in their primary language, and placed in a new situation with a language and practices that are not familiar to them. In the USA alone, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 4.4 million public school students (a little over 9 percent) were English language learners (ELLs) in the 2011-12 school year. This means that almost 1 in 10 students was learning the English language at the same time he or she was learning the academic subjects. Students who are culturally and linguistically diverse are all over the world, and in our interconnected, global society, these multilingual learners face real challenges as they strive to learn rigorous academic content and prepare for college and careers.

Multilingual Learner book coverIn our book, Multilingual Learners and Academic Literacies: Sociocultural Contexts of Literacy Development in Adolescents, my colleagues and I move beyond a focus on the linguistic features of academic language as the benchmark of language learning to one on academic literacies and implications of the emphasis on academic literacy practices for classroom instruction, research, and policy. The notion of academic literacies presented in our book is intended to apply in particular to multilingual adolescents.

While the contributing authors provide different perspectives and definitions of academic literacies, it generally includes knowledge and skills needed to read and write, as well as competencies and understandings of language, its contexts, and its uses. Academic literacies involves making meaning from interactions and engagement a given situation. These knowledge, skills, competencies, and understandings are the ones we want to work on developing, rather than simply focusing on discrete features of language and addressing language in a distinct or disjointed manner from academic content.

Multilingual learners are learning the language of instruction at the same time they are learning rigorous academic content. An example would be: An ELL student is learning algebra, and Algebra is being taught in English by an English-speaking teacher. This situation is challenging for the ELL student because English is not the student’s primary language, so it is difficult for the student to understand instruction as well as the content being taught. The instruction includes language specific to algebra — for example, words like ratio and variable, and sentences structures such as, “If X is greater than Y, and…then…” — as well as ways of communicating and engaging with the content that may be unfamiliar to the student. These all pose challenges to someone learning the English language while working to achieve academically.

So, as a teacher, what can you be doing to help your multilingual learners develop academic literacies and achieve academically? We compiled a few helpful tips below.

  1. Recognize that all students bring something to the learning situation and that multilingual learners have knowledge, skills, competencies, and understandings that can be leveraged and built upon
  2. Remember that the development of academic literacies and learning depend on all four modalities of listening, speaking, reading, and writing; so, provide opportunities for students to practice and use these language modalities while learning academic content
  3. Interactions help students make meaning, so provide regular opportunities for student-teacher and peer interactions that have a clear purpose related to specific learning goals
  4. Practice is important; so provide regular opportunities for students to practice and develop both their language and their understanding of the content. Such practice could be an individual activity or with peers. And, such practice should have clear goals and feedback that will help student learning and achievement
  5. Provide examples that give students the opportunity to engage with and understand both content and language. Examples include real-world examples that are language rich and reflect relevant content, as well as media-based examples (e.g., blogs, videos).
  6. Recognize that errors can provide useful information — understand patterns of errors that reflect general challenges or issues for students

Want help specifically for multilingual writing students? Check out this presentation on opportunities and challenges in the classroom.

Interested in purchasing our book, Multilingual Learners and Academic Literacies: Sociocultural Contexts of Literacy Development in Adolescents? Get a discount with this exclusive flier here.


About the Author
Edynn Sato, Ph.D.

Edynn Sato, Ph.D.

Edynn Sato, Ph.D., principal research scientist, works across pan-Pearson, focusing her research and innovation efforts on addressing issues affecting the learning and achievement of English language learners and students with disabilities in our U.S. schools as well as internationally. Her expertise and experience includes providing research-supported technical assistance to educators in areas related to the implementation of standards and assessment, as well as accountability and systems of support for diverse learners.

Prior to joining Pearson, Dr. Sato worked in various academic, nonprofit, small for-profit, Fortune 500, and Internet-based organizations. Her previous roles include Associate Director of the Assessment and Standards Development program at WestEd, where she contributed to general leadership of the program and oversaw its research agenda; Director of Special Populations for the Assessment and Accountability Comprehensive Center and Co-Director of Special Populations for the Standards and Assessment Implementation Comprehensive Center, national federally-designated centers charged with providing technical assistance to states; and a researcher at UCLA’s Center for the Study of Evaluation/CRESST, involved in various evaluation projects and in the research and development of performance-based assessments, as well as assessments related to language development. Dr. Sato received her Masters’s degree and Ph.D. in Education from the University of California, Los Angeles.