George Lucas Educational Foundation
English Language Learners

Tapping Into English Language Learners’ Strengths

Focusing on these students’ experiences and skills can contribute to their academic success and foster an inclusive classroom environment.

November 8, 2021
High school teacher speaking to students in classroom
FatCamera / iStock

Equity in education is the personalized assurance that all students receive the resources they need to thrive in the academic setting. One way to do that in a class with English language learners, or multilingual students, is to leverage culturally sustaining practices, which stem from the belief that multilingual learners possess a diverse array of experiences and skills that contribute to the dynamics of the learning environment and their own academic success.

We can provide multilingual students with opportunities to actively engage in translanguaging, the practice of students having opportunities to engage in the learning process by using their linguistic repertoire to support linguistic growth in their target language.

As a monolingual educator, I use the existing knowledge of my multilingual students to bridge learning gaps by connecting what they know in their primary language to new learning. For example, while studying poetic devices such as alliteration, I will introduce the concept of tongue twisters to my students and then lean on them to educate me on the existence of tongue twisters in their primary languages.

My Spanish-speaking students will frequently recall the “tres tigres” expression and retain the meaning of alliteration by remembering those three tigers as well as the time their teacher struggled to say it quickly. This models for students that their lingual plurality is not only something they should be proud of but a skill that can allow them to access new knowledge.

Educators of multilingual students can develop learning communities that serve to maintain students’ use of the primary language while using it as the basis for new academic learning, as well as a tool for building their cultural and social knowledge of the larger world around them.

Supporting Multilingual Students

Building bridges between the classroom and students’ families: Over the past two years, I have committed to offering families a bilingual version of my open house presentation. As educators know, the successful open house event communicates to families our expectations for the upcoming year and the impact a teacher will have on the lives of their students.

By taking the extra steps to provide my families with a multilingual experience, what I am trying to demonstrate is that involvement matters and that I care about the education of their children and their participation in it. When multilingual families see such efforts, they are more inclined to invest their time and resources into the learning community.

Support students’ learning about school culture and traditions: Another vital pathway to consider is students’ linguistic accessibility to school culture and traditions. Students arrive in our classrooms unfamiliar with school-related social events such as homecoming and prom, as well as activities such as student leadership and interest groups.

In a similar approach to the open house presentation, instructional leaders and coaches can bridge gaps by offering multilingual communications about other social settings and dynamics. Initiatives from this vantage point could involve designing and posting bilingual recruitment flyers, providing closed captioning in languages other than English for campus news productions, and producing brochures about senior year festivities in alternative languages.

Use student leadership to increase multilingual students’ participation in school activities: One innovative approach I have used in closing involvement gaps for my students is to leverage the power of existing student leadership. I invite student school leaders into my sheltered multilingual classrooms during a homeroom class period or during the opening weeks of a school year to share their experiences within a club, sport, or organization. I ask the school leaders to invite my students to attend an info session or meeting later.

As multilingual student participation rates increase, the next phase of this plan is to leverage the linguistic brokering skills of these students to return the favor by visiting other sheltered classroom settings themselves, to extend the same opportunities to new students that were extended to them. When students see themselves represented in these spaces, their confidence and willingness to engage increase.

Introduce and contextualize diverse literature: Multilingual learners benefit from reading diverse literature not only because it can help them access familiar content for greater comprehension, but also because it can provide them with opportunities to establish deep connections between their culture and the cultures of the works they are engaging. What I’ve found to be successful is utilizing the heritage month systems to introduce students to figures of diverse backgrounds who have made significant contributions within the core content areas.

For instance, during Black History Month, I created a mini-unit titled “Black History Concurrent,” a calendar of brief videos and articles that not only provided students with the cultural contributions of African Americans under the age of 40 but specifically dedicated many of its entries to teens and younger adults. Not only were my students introduced to experiences that were unique and intriguing, but also they were able to see alternative educational and professional pathways that they had not previously been able to perceive.

In a similar vein, mathematics, science, and history educators can use the heritage month systems as springboards to introduce multilingual learners to the contributions of American and global figures within their content-related industries.

Student greatness can only happen when stakeholders within the learning community take the initiative to invest in their success through dynamic innovation and love. This dynamism is implemented through a respect for the assets originating from student backgrounds, as well as an understanding of the inequities and challenges that multilingual learners face and that keep them from fully engaging and seeing themselves represented in the culture and curriculum.

These practical solutions aim to change the narrative of deficit thinking with respect to these students and close the equity gaps that exist for them.

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Filed Under

  • English Language Learners
  • Culturally Responsive Teaching
  • Education Equity
  • 9-12 High School

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George Lucas Educational Foundation