Tips for Teachers to Support Multilingual Learners 

As per the findings, more than half of the world's population uses two or more languages in their everyday lives. A large body of research highlights the benefits of multilingualism. However, languages other than the medium of instruction in many classrooms today are still a major concern.

Even schools in countries generally considered multilingual often have their language policies, insisting on the use of 'one language of instruction only when having students of diverse cultures and languages is more common in many classrooms today. However, it is undeniable that multilingualism's scepticism still exists today and can be traced back to the first half of the 20th century.

Supporting multilingualism in the classroom can be a valuable pedagogical practice with positive effects on students' academic performance and social and emotional well-being. Whether in a passive way by allowing students to use their home language or a more playful way by implementing teaching and learning practices that draw on more than one language ("translanguaging" is one such pedagogy, see, e.g. CUNY-NYSIEB), it is essential to view all students' languages as resources rather than unwanted baggage on the way to "language of instruction only."

This example is extracted from a CREDE research observation. Kisho, a 4-year-old boy who recently moved from Japan to Hawaiʻi, used mashed-up berries for painting with his teacher, Ms Rheta Cody, a four-year kid. Since he was new to Hawai'i, he asked things like, "What is in here?" while pointing out the berry dye and "Can you eat it? in Japanese. Ms Rheta, who knew Japanese, answered his questions in English and Japanese while also gesturing, pointing, and showing pictures on her camera. Later, Cody said, "Do not eat", and repeated the Japanese word for "cannot eat" that Kisho had used.

The example shows how inclusive practices can benefit multilingual children and their peers: multilingual children have more opportunities to engage in learning, and peers discover many ways to portray the world. Like Cody, peers often enjoy hearing and learning a new word. Translanguage in their conversation created opportunities for the two children for conceptual and linguistic development, but they were essential for Kisho. He could ask questions in his mother tongue and be interested in the concepts of nature and art long before mastering English. His engagement grew, and he heard a new vocabulary used meaningfully.

Aside from these, several research reports claim that multilingual children are likely to have strong mathematicalconflict resolution, and executive skills. For instance, PBS explored that bilingual students solve math problems differently; they found that they solved word problems and all types of math problems uniquely. Unlike students who spoke only one language, bilingual students used their brains' visual and spatial portions to resolve problems. Scientists continue to speculate on the causes of this situation. One theory explains that students visualize the elements of the problems in their heads (in other words, they are creating pictures to represent multiplying apples or two trains leaving a station at different speeds).

Another old report by the New York Times depict bilingual students have a host of advantages in education, including focusing on demanding tasks and solving difficult kinds of puzzles. Through dynamic language practices, teachers can assist students in making the most of their bilingual strengths.

A 2011 study found that allowing bilingual students to use both languages for discussion and problem-solving increased students' mathematical productivity. The flexibility showed by bilingual students in the transition from one language to another also allows them to increase their creativity and solve problems that can improve their education in mathematics.

Additionally, research on Portugal highlighting the linguistics concerns detected a variety of strategies that teachers applied as responses to linguistic diversity, i.e., promoting Portuguese. Without involving students' languages, using English as a mediation language between students' languages and Portuguese, and using students' languages in the teaching-learning process.

These strategies were not exclusive to each other; in fact, teachers in their everyday lives might have applied one or another as they prioritized Portuguese language development, communicating with students or affirming students' linguistic identities. These main aims (developing language of schooling, connecting with students, valuing students' identities) have been present in teachers' practices in an intertwined way that shows teachers' awareness of the multiple aims of education and that they somewhat tried to satisfy curricular, social, and students' needs between the monolingual policy setting and the multilingual classroom reality. Throughout these dynamics, they developed several strategies that were seen as negotiating mechanisms developed in human interaction (McCarty, 20042011Shohamy, 2006) between teachers, students, and curricula; and that revealed possible fruitful starting points even in contexts primarily affected by monolingual policies (Hélot, 2010Bonacina-Pugh, 2017Mary and Young, 2018).

Now, the question arises, how can you support multilingual learners in your classroom? To help you out, we have enlisted some of the best tips recommended by the experts.


Identify a Language Barrier

Checking up on your students and identifying the language barrier should be done first. Then, try asking their language, using visuals, or rewording the task to be more student-friendly with tier 1 words to ensure they understand what they are asked to do. If the task becomes more accessible, it is a language barrier. If the task is more complex or stays the same, it is both.

Acknowledge your Students

Consider each learner as a unique, complex and multifaceted individual who brings their knowledge, skills and cultural understanding to the learning situation. Refrain from implementing a one-size-fits-all approach as it may be ineffective in a multilingual environment. Also, always be kind, supportive and learn and value all the languages of every learner in the class. Offer clear and realistic learning objectives and ensure that learners understand them. You can do this by using available language resources (virtual or physical).

Accept Diverse Educational Backgrounds

Not all students can understand a written piece or an assignment due to cultural reasons, including a lack of basic background knowledge or variance in assumptions. Many education systems fail to focus on critical thinking, a new skill for some students. In lectures or tutorials, it is helpful to model the kind of analysis you want students to do and give them a chance to practice it orally before writing.

Keep in mind that many students come in English as their third or fourth language, which is more difficult for many people than a second language.

Value Multilingualism in Your Classroom

Develop a list of lesson ideas and activities that demonstrate respect and value for different languages in class.

For starters, have your multilingual students teach their classmates a greeting in their home language. Make a routine whereby you greet your students in the school language and then in each of their home languages, with the whole class responding to the series of greetings accordingly. You may also do the same, at the end of the course, to say goodbye in the student's native language.

Furthermore, tag the features of your classroom such as the blackboard, door or window in both the common language and your student's home language. Or create a word wall in your classroom by posting valuable words and expressions in your students' home languages, inviting them to introduce new words in their home language, and making peers learn the same.

Support the Home Culture

Use "culturally responsive teaching" strategies to cater for the needs of the young learners in your classroom hailing from diverse cultural backgrounds, which means tailoring your teaching to the children's home cultures, just as you might tailoring it to their abilities and interests.

One way to do that is to discover the culture of the families and children in your class and include them in your children's learning experiences, as mentioned earlier. Ask students to share stories and lessons in person instead of writing about their mother tongue and culture. This will support and build upon the classroom learning experience.

Another way, incorporate storybooks, pictures, music, and toys that involve various cultures, especially those represented by the children in your class. Additionally, your curriculum can include thematic units that are culturally relevant, with topics familiar to the children, such as holidays, stories, and foods.

Address their Needs

Adjust work to emerging needs as the project progresses rather than following a pre-defined sequence. However, never lose sight of the original objective, which can be achieved differently. In addition, propose significant tasks connected to the world outside the school. In doing so, learners will participate in activities that will foster learning.

Determine what tools can be made available to students to help them become learners and users of autonomous languages. Teachers do not need to provide all the solutions; learners can be resourceful and incredibly useful when confident. Resources may be available in the learners' language of origin and linked to their culture.

Interact with Family Members for Clarity

In class with learners from various cultures and languages, students can read and write well in their native language and have no idea what has been put in front of them. This makes it necessary to interact with parents or caregivers to know them better. Also, you can ask students to use cognates (words that share the same parent language and therefore look alike on paper because of the spelling or sound phonetically identical). This strategy is best applied to students who are new to the country and can read and write in their mother tongue.

Use the Total Physical Response (TPR) Tool to Create a Concept Baton

Another strategy, the Total Physical Response, has three parts and must meet the criteria before being used in a rigorous and inclusive context: manageable, meaningful, and joyful.

Begin with an activity, like picking a set of words or just a single word, think about the definition, choose a slight body movement, move no more than 3 seconds, and make sure it is taught in the most joyful way possible.

For example, "Show me the osmosis in one, two, three!" Osmosis means moving in the water..." while making the motion. When a student wishes to use a word, ask them to indicate it by moving. Next, their brain will activate the sense of the word while meeting them where they are linguistical.

Include Learners' Native Language

Multilingual children are experts in their linguistic practices at home and have a wealth of knowledge, which must be respected. Give them the space and time to use all their languages for reflection and expression. For example, in-group work encourages these students to use their native language to share their knowledge. Whether new or fluent in the second language, all multilingual learners should speak with a partner who speaks the same language at home. Thinking and sharing in both languages solidify their learning.

Furthermore, encouraging multilingual learners to link new second language terms to words or concepts they already know will support language acquisition.

Teach Most Useful words

Anxiety and self-doubt often hinder the process of learning a second language. This develops a negative feeling and becomes a barrier between the speaker and the listener, reducing the amount of language the listener can understand. This is also known as the "affective filter." It is essential to keep the affective filter low so that language learners can be successful.

Another way to reduce anxiety for multilingual learners is to preview some foundational concepts, at a minimum, so they have an idea of what is being discussed and, at best, they are confident about what is being taught. By anchor words, we mean vocabulary words that activate the basic knowledge of children from their native language and give them a context to learn a new language.

Offer Sentence Stems

You may converse with students using stem sentences or sentence starters such as: "I did..." and "I found..." that help expand new language learners' comprehension skills and oral language development. It provides a framework for children to respond orally when they listen to stories or discuss in groups. 

Sentence stems provide an effective language pattern and help children answer in the form of a complete sentence. It also provides a framework that allows children to focus on what they mean instead of thinking about how to formulate their responses. Teach some sticks and encourage using them regularly.

Introduce Visuals

New second language learners find themselves in a sea of languages, which may be challenging to navigate. In such circumstances, the use of visuals may effectively support learners' understanding. Use concrete objects in person or images if you teach remotely so that children can "see" the terms you use.

Alternatively, try to interpret new vocabulary words. For example, if you teach kids the difference between "draw" and "create", dramatizing it by modelling actions can help kids understand effortlessly.

The other best way is to incorporate visuals to point or gesture at what you are referring to: If you are reading a story and refer to an illustration of a boy, point to the boy and more.

Pose 'Layering Questions'

Layer questioning is the most effective strategy to ensure that learners understand everything and participate, irrespective of their stage of language development." Layered questioning" varies the type of questions you ask children depending on how fluent they are in the language.

You can also ask a question that requires children to gesture in response or a question that asks learners to respond with either a "yes" or a "no" or ask a question that gives children an either/or a choice. You can also ask open-ended questions to allow children to share their thoughts. When you modify your questions based on what you know about your children, it allows them to express their thoughts, broaden their knowledge of the content, and be active members of the community in the classroom.

Assess Learners with Lenience

When evaluating students who find it difficult to understand the common language in the classroom, English, be wise and lenient with them. Determine if the student's expression is truly incorrect or merely atypical. While some students may prioritize expressing themselves in standard North American English, others may prefer to retain more of their cultural voice in their use of written English.

In some cases, a student's written expression may be clear and understandable, with characteristics that differ from Canadian English.

The other way, separate the errors affecting the sense from the errors which do not, in the first place. The most severe errors affect the sense that the student is trying to communicate, while other errors, although they may distract, do not affect the conveyed sense.

Also, find out if a grammatical rule can explain the error or if it is idiomatic. Some aspects of English do not have regular rules, such as idioms and prepositions that follow verbs. While it may be helpful to report the correct form to a student, consider treating these types of mistakes less severely in the assessment.

Your student may likely have taken another student's work or copied it from online resources. However, most plagiarism is not as evident as this. Many multilingual students come from varied academic backgrounds and have not been taught how to use research sources according to a North American protocol. These students lack the concept of "property" that we associate with published sources and have often learned English by memorizing texts. Try to prevent plagiarism by letting the pupils know that a good reference is essential. Please direct them to the appropriate source advice files, workshops or writing centres for more information.

Consider Learning is Social

Students cannot learn a language if they are not allowed to use language in learning. Thinking and language use go hand in hand. Therefore, it is necessary to consider that learning is social in the first place. To make learning a social and relational process, teachers need to incorporate much more frequent small-group activities that increase opportunities for collaboration, extended language use, and meaningful use co-construction of learning. The most fundamental change required for improving academic and English development for multilingual learners is to change the organization of the classroom to incorporate small‐group configurations where students Produce group— rather than individual—representations of their learning. Tharp et al. (2000) describe these changes as reliance on joint productive activity (collaboration) and language and literacy development across the curriculum.

About the Author
Author: Saniya Khan
Saniya Khan I am Saniya Khan, Copy-Editor at EdTechReview - India’s leading edtech media. As a part of the group, my aim is to spread awareness on the growing edtech market by guiding all educational stakeholders on latest and quality news, information and resources. A voraciously curious writer with a dedication to excellence creates interesting yet informational pieces, playing with words since 2016.

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