How Peer Teaching Assistants Can Support Multilingual Learners
Consistent interaction with fellow students who know what it’s like to learn a new language can offer multilingual learners essential support.
When the American Indian Model Schools (AIMS) College Prep Middle School reopened in Oakland, California, in fall 2021, English Language Development coordinator Adria Banihashemi knew it would be difficult to support all her English learners (ELs) at once. During the pandemic, students’ English language growth slowed, and their rates of reclassification—the process by which they were deemed fully proficient in English—dropped significantly. As a result, there were more ELs with a wider range of language needs than she could serve at once.
Without additional staffing, she wondered if some bilingual and former EL students might be willing and able to facilitate regular conversations and otherwise support the language development of her current ELs.
So, at the start of the 2021–22 school year, Banihashemi launched a peer-learning program, allowing bilingual and former EL students to be teaching assistants (TAs) for EL classes. Since then, the TA program has taken off, with EL students receiving support two to five times a week during the middle school’s 30-minute flex period.
A Replicable and Effective Strategy
The number of ELs in the United States has increased from 8.1 percent of total enrollment in 2000 to 10.4 percent of total enrollment in 2019, representing a growth of more than 1.3 million students. Research shows that these students have enormous potential, particularly when they have access to academic settings that integrate their linguistic, academic, and social development.
However, ESL (English as a second language) instruction—the default language instructional model in the U.S.—often happens in classrooms or small groups in hallways. This model pulls out EL students, separating them from the rest of the school community, particularly their English-dominant peers. Moreover, this model can make it difficult for these students to benefit from what researchers call “peer effects,” where students benefit and learn from the diverse strengths of their peers—in this case, their peers’ English language abilities.
Through her TA program approach, Banihashemi has alleviated some of the inequities that ELs face in segregated classrooms.
A Thorough Selection Process
Banihashemi has implemented careful selection process screens to ensure that TAs can provide a welcoming environment for ELs. It begins with a sign-up sheet at the beginning of the school year. Next, students who express interest complete an application form outlining the program’s basic rules, like wearing a hall pass and using school-appropriate language. Following the application, “job interviews” occur where Banihashemi asks prospective TAs questions like “Have you worked with any of our English learner students in your regular classes before?” and “Do you speak more than one language?” Finally, a select group of students are offered TA positions following final-stage interviews.
If they accept the offer, Banihashemi sends out a “teacher permission form” to their teachers. This form requests permission from the TAs’ classroom teachers to allow students to spend their 30-minute flex period supporting ELs. Once their teachers approve this, students are officially TAs for the school year. There is some flexibility for TAs who may need to get back on track with their own schoolwork. When they are no longer struggling and are in good academic standing, they can go back to being a TA. If a student violates the terms of being a TA, they are no longer allowed to go to the EL classroom during the flex period and will have to stay in their originally scheduled class.
How the TA Program Functions
TAs support Banihashemi by providing more individualized attention to the ELs. At any particular moment, the EL classrooms have about 15–20 students, with one volunteer TA for every three ELs daily. In practice, times vary. Sometimes, TAs will work with the whole group for the entire 30 minutes, and sometimes a TA may spend more time with a student who is earlier in their English-acquisition journey.
A significant portion of TAs’ time is spent working one-on-one with ELs at three learning stations: Commonplace Book, Reading Partners, and Verbal Language Practice.
Commonplace Book Station: At this station, ELs practice writing and handwriting using everyday objects. First, they choose an object—from magazine pictures to candy wrappers—and document what they see. Next, TAs guide ELs to the English translation of a word they know in their native language and turn it into accurate writing in English.
Reading Partners Station: Here, ELs choose a novel suited to their reading level, and TAs read it with them. Then, when an EL faces a challenging word or sentence, TAs help them work through it until they can read and understand it independently.
Verbal Language Practice Station: At this final station, ELs practice their spoken pronunciation of words. The words range from academic vocabulary to simpler sight words. TAs help by pronouncing words shown on flash cards and having ELs repeat them until the ELs can pronounce the word correctly on their own.
These individualized station supports run Monday through Thursday for TAs in the EL program, but Friday is a different story. That’s when AIMS College Prep opens its language lounge. This 30-minute social period reverses roles and allows EL students to help their TAs learn and practice a new language.
During the language lounge, ELs generate a stronger sense of identity—viewing their language as an asset as they help non-ELs become more fluent in a different language. In addition, the language lounge promotes bilingualism while also allowing TAs to gain empathy as they learn and practice new languages like Spanish, Arabic, Cantonese, and Mongolian.
Why the AIMS TA Model Works
Linguistic integration, with ELs and non-ELs learning together in a classroom, is critical to most successful language instruction programs, especially when ELs can develop their native languages and learn English simultaneously. The support of this linguistic integration is evident in the rising popularity of dual language immersion programs. More than 2,000 have opened in the U.S. in the past 20 years.
While some schools may not be able to offer a dual language program, this TA program shows that they can pursue linguistic integration to secure similar benefits for students.
With predominantly former ELs and other bilingual students as TAs, ELs can receive some scaffolding in their native language as they learn English. This practice is consistent with growing evidence that shows how strengthening ELs’ native language benefits their English acquisition and overall academic success. According to Banihashemi, the TA program “has led to the development of some really awesome cross-cultural friendships.”