George Lucas Educational Foundation
English Language Learners

How School Librarians Can Support ELLs

Here are eight ways librarians can nurture English language learners’ literacy skills in both their home language and English.

March 15, 2024
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In November 2023, the Biden-Harris administration launched the Being Bilingual Is a Superpower initiative to “promote multilingual education and bolster high-quality language programs and a diverse multilingual educator workforce across the country.” While this sounds promising, it’s necessary to recognize that every stakeholder in education needs to play a role in order for the initiative to succeed. Librarians are an integral part of this ambitious plan, and there are a number of paths they can take to support multilingualism in schools and bolster literacy rates of English learners. Regardless of funding, there are countless ways school librarians can support the literacy skills of English language learners (ELLs) and multilingual students. Here are some ideas. 

8 Ways librarians Promote English Language Learners’ Literacy Skills 

1. Provide authentic texts written in the native languages of ELLs: Authentic texts are important because they’re usually related to the country and culture of the ELL—not just translated into the native language of the ELL but written with the heart of a native speaker. 

2. Have translated texts of popular titles: These books, including graphic novels, can help ELLs connect to other cultures and history while being accessible in their native language.

3. Offer bilingual texts at the middle and high school levels: With these, students can view their native language along with English. They also promote the inclusion and development of the native language. 

4. Provide English for specific purposes (ESP) texts: Students can choose these to read in their free time. Research the jobs that students are interested in or are currently working in, and offer books related to vocabulary development in those areas. These could be useful and of immediate interest to ELLs, as they need that vocabulary for their daily lives outside of school. This supports and encourages them to use texts to learn and to explore future options.

5. Provide easy reader texts related to the curriculum: Include texts with visuals as well, like graphic novels. Texts that supplement what students are learning in their history and science classes may be most accessible. For example, nonfiction chapter books about American presidents and famous figures in history like Anne Frank or Thomas Edison can help ELLs develop background knowledge (a series I use has these easy readers translated into Spanish with a large font and numerous illustrations). Students can leaf through these and discuss the visuals with their ELL teacher or tutor. 

6. Have easy readers that are about age-appropriate topics: Instead of children’s books that are geared toward first-grade students, for example, have nonfiction titles with illustrations that may appeal to a teenage reader but with language that’s accessible. Sometimes we get students who are 17 years old, for example, but have a second-grade reading level in their native language. You want them to still be able to access text that’s appropriate for their age but readable for their skill level. Similarly, offer easy readers that have simple English but are intellectually engaging for a teenager. 

Texts at varying proficiency levels, including graphic novels, should be relevant to the experiences or lives of the population of students. 

7. Put the texts on display: Make sure they’re easily viewable by all students; try to integrate them in displays of varying topics and themes. Normalize multilingual texts throughout the library. In addition to having them in one section or one display, integrate them in other displays. Introduce new ELLs to the selections; give a tour of the multilingual texts of the library at the start of every school year—pull texts out, explain what’s available, include a translator or ELL teacher for support. Invite ELL teachers to bring their ELLs to the library for an activity designed just for them. Invite students in world language classes to also view and check out the multilingual texts. 

8. Create school community peer programs to promote literacy: Invite multilingual learners (MLLs)—including ELLs and fully bilingual MLLs—to share book reviews or any presentation in English and their other language in the library as a bilingual public presentation. For example, Multilingual Mondays: Every Monday after school, MLLs give short bilingual presentations about a book or poem they’ve read, or have a multilingual poetry read aloud. Collaborate with English language arts, world language, or ELL teachers for this. Invite parents, guardians, and school staff to view presentations. 

If sufficient funding for a rich library of texts specifically to support MLLs is lacking, consider getting a subscription to a website like Reading A–Z, which has printable easy readers, including bilingual texts in varying languages. 

Librarians play a critical role in promoting biliteracy, advocating for students’ native language development, and promoting a welcoming diverse community. Displaying an abundant offering of texts in the students’ native language sends the school community the message that multilingualism is relevant and important.

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Filed Under

  • English Language Learners
  • Literacy
  • School Libraries
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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