English Language Learners

4 Practical Ways to Make Instruction Accessible for Multilingual Learners

Teachers can make small changes to amplify language opportunities that create pathways toward success for English learners.

February 28, 2022
FatCamera / iStock

Designing instruction that is accessible to English learners (ELs), or multilingual learners, is of the utmost importance. It’s simply not enough to make content available to learners. That’s like being given a car but no keys to use it. Equitable instruction is instruction that provides every learner with what they need for academic success.

In recent years, there has been a positive shift in the way educators view and teach multilingual learners—recognizing the linguistic, academic, and cultural assets they bring. The reality is that multilingual learners enter our classrooms with unique lived experiences and traditions that add value to instruction. Teachers face the challenge of ensuring that multilingual learners are gaining content and developing language without falling behind in either. Multilingual learners who experience grade-level instruction with additional linguistic support tend to do better in school and have a greater chance of mastery.

But how does that happen when we have mountains of content to cover and grades to gather? How do we create lessons that are accessible and meaningful for multilingual learners? What does that look like in the lesson plans and in instructional practice?

Methods That Make Instruction Accessible to ELs 

1. Infuse instruction with peer-to-peer discussion and exploration. This student-centered practice allows multilingual learners to build their listening and speaking vocabularies as they negotiate meaning. There may be much content to cover, but hiding it behind a lecture that multilingual learners may not comprehend does little good. It’s important for multilingual learners to uncover their understanding through interacting with peers.

When I began carving out more space for student talk, despite the fact that quiet classrooms were encouraged by colleagues and some administrators, it was challenging for a few reasons:

  • Multilingual learners weren’t talking even when I asked them to. Lack of linguistic support, uncertainty about expectations, fear or anxiety about speaking in a new language, and other factors seemed to contribute to their silence.
  • Sometimes the talk was uncontrollably loud.
  • Conversations often seemed to stray from the topic.

You may be experiencing similar struggles. I found that structuring the peer discussion alleviated these problems and created an environment that controlled the chaos and provided routines and expectations that my students needed. My multilingual learners’ voices were being amplified, and it began to surface in their confidence, comfort, and writing, so I knew we were on the right track. Most of the challenges that seemed to keep multilingual learners from participating in speaking with peers were eliminated by my intentional and planned routines for speaking, such as these:

  • Using open-ended questions and posting them for students to see.
  • Providing sentence stems for responses.
  • Intentionally pairing students for discussion and modeling the routine.

2. Offer adapted or engineered texts when reading materials are dense. As multilingual learners get older, a common challenge is that content and reading selections become more complex. You can adapt or engineer texts, chunking them into pieces with annotations and synonyms, and even use a multilingual learner’s first language. Sometimes, adapting a text looks like providing a side-by-side of the original text:

  • Provide a similar text in the student’s first language.
  • Do a side-by-side of the original text and an audio version.
  • Give them a side-by-side of the original text and a text a few reading levels lower.

3. Provide daily opportunities for written expression in all content areas with the use of scaffolds and accommodations. Daily writing can be brief, such as quick pieces that are about 3 minutes or sketch notes using visuals and words. Multilingual learners benefit from seeing teachers model writing expectations and examples at various levels of proficiency.

Other scaffolds and accommodations for writing include offering sentence starters or paragraph frames and encouraging drawing, labeling, and use of the first language. Multilingual learners at beginning levels of English proficiency pull from all of their language repertoires to access their knowledge and demonstrate what they understand and can do.

Students will perform at different levels. It took me a while to realize that my students’ products didn’t have to be the same. I remember expecting all my students to write lengthy essays. One of my newly arrived multilingual learners could do that, but not in English yet. He wrote his first essay primarily in his language. Stepping outside of my comfort zone was at first a challenge. How was I going to assess writing that I was unable to read? Through collaboration with colleagues who could read the language, I was able to assess my student’s writing. Some teachers in similar situations have used apps to translate students’ writing.

4. Utilize classroom resources. Resources such as word walls, anchor charts, and translation dictionaries can enhance multilingual learners’ understanding of concepts, especially when they include pictorial or visual support. The most effective resources act as co-teachers when we’re unable to assist multilingual learners as they work independently. But even this doesn’t happen by magic.

Teachers can directly teach students how to use these resources by referring to word walls, anchor charts, and dictionaries:

  • When modeling academic language and effective communication, use words from the word wall.
  • When reading aloud, use and point to a strategy from a reading anchor chart.
  • When modeling writing, show how to use a translation dictionary, thesaurus or other dictionary.

When we model for learners how to use resources and remind them that they can use them too, they are more likely to do it independently.

Sometimes my husband (who is quite a bit taller than I am) drives my car, and when I get back into the driver’s seat, I silently thank the car designers for their efforts in assuring that I’m able to adjust the mirrors, move the seat up and forward, and even move the steering wheel—I need to see the road ahead of me. Everyone does. This analogy is how I visualize us as lesson designers for multilingual learners who need to see and have access to their grade-level curriculum. We design the lessons, and we can provide the access.

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