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Early Childhood Education

Supporting Multilingual Students in the Early Grades

Five ways teachers can celebrate and extend the linguistic expertise of young students who speak two or more languages.

December 2, 2020
Pre-school children sitting on rug in classroom
Bob Ebbesen / Alamy

Many children in the U.S. live their lives in two or more languages: A child of Guatemalan descent may read bedtime stories in Spanish with their parents and learn in English at school—and perhaps speak K’iche’ with their grandparents. Research has shown that these multilingual children may have strong math skills, conflict resolution skills, and executive function skills.

By welcoming the whole multilingual child, including their linguistic practices, we send a powerful message that children from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds contribute to the vibrancy of our early childhood programs.

Multilingualism is an asset to be nurtured in our classrooms, and the following five strategies can help teachers strategically and intentionally celebrate and extend multilingual children’s existing linguistic expertise as well as their participation in learning activities both in person and virtually.

Incorporate Children’s Home Languages

All multilingual children are experts in their home language practices and come with a wealth of knowledge that should be respected. Provide space and time for multilingual children to use all of their languages to think and express themselves.

For example, during partner work, invite children to use their home languages to share what they know. All multilingual learners, whether they’re new to English or completely fluent, will benefit from talking with a partner who speaks the same home language. Thinking and sharing in both of their languages solidifies their learning.

In addition, encouraging multilingual learners to make connections between new English terms and words or concepts they already know will support language acquisition. You can invite children to share their linguistic expertise by sharing how to say a new word in their home language. If your class is studying nourishing foods, you might show a pineapple and invite children to share the words they know for it in their home languages, if they feel comfortable doing so.

Teach Anchor Words

Keep in mind that anxiety and self-doubt greatly interfere with the process of acquiring a second language. These negative feelings become a barrier between the speaker and the listener that reduces the amount of language the listener is able to understand. This is called the “affective filter.” It’s important to keep the affective filter low so that language learners can be successful.

One way to reduce anxiety for multilingual learners is to preview some foundational concepts so that, at a minimum, they have an idea of what is being discussed and, at best, they are confident about what is being taught. Anchor words are vocabulary words such as “farm” or “eat” that activate children’s background knowledge from their home language and give them a context for learning a new language.

Most children who speak English at home will not need direct instruction to learn these terms, but for children who are very new to the English language, these words will be absolutely essential. Make a list of relevant thematic words and preteach them to your multilingual learners.

Provide Sentence Stems

“I like...” and “I learned...” are two examples of sentence stems or sentence starters that expand new English learners’ comprehension skills as well as oral language development. They provide a framework for children’s oral responses when listening to stories or having group discussions.

Sentence stems provide an effective language model and help children to respond in the form of a complete sentence. Stems also provide scaffolding for children to focus on what they want to say rather than thinking about how to formulate their response. Teach a few stems and use them consistently.

Because of the other barriers that exist in the virtual classroom (e.g., kids needing to unmute themselves, feeling nervous sharing with the whole group, being camera shy), this strategy is particularly useful during the pandemic.

Incorporate Visuals

New English learners find themselves in a sea of language that can be tough to navigate. Visuals are a terrific tool for supporting comprehension. Use realia (concrete objects) if you are teaching in person or pictures if teaching virtually so children can “see” the terms you are using.

Try acting out new vocabulary words. If you’re teaching children the difference between “washing” and “scrubbing,” dramatize it by modeling the actions and then invite children to join you. Another way to incorporate visuals is to point or gesture at what you are referring to: If you’re reading a book and referring to an illustration of a horse, point to the horse; when you’re describing your thinking, point to your temple.

Use Layered Questioning

When you interact with children, how can you ensure that they all understand and participate, regardless of their stage of language development? One way is to use a strategy called “layered questioning,” which means varying the type of questions you ask children based on their language proficiency.

You can ask a question that requires children to gesture in response (“Will you point to the pineapple?”). You can ask a question that requires a child to respond with either a “yes” or a “no” (Do you like to eat pineapples?”). You can ask a question that gives children an either/or choice (“Do you like to eat pineapples for breakfast or for lunch?”). You can also ask open-ended questions so children can share their thinking (“How would you describe this pineapple?”).

When you vary your questions based on what you know about your children, it empowers them to express their thinking, extend their content knowledge, and be active members of the classroom community.

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Filed Under

  • Culturally Responsive Teaching
  • Differentiated Instruction
  • English-Language Learners
  • Teaching Strategies
  • Prekindergarten
  • K-2 Primary

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