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4 Critical Strategies for Teaching Multilingual Learners

Written by: Judie Haynes
Published on: Feb 14, 2022

young ethnic students
Photo credit: Leontura/iStockphoto

Recently, #MLLCHAT on Twitter had a dynamic discussion based on a new book by authors Andrea Honigsfeld, Maria Dove, Audrey Cohen, and Carrie McDermott Goldman entitled From Equity Insights to Action: Critical Strategies for Teaching Multilingual Learners. We were honored that one of the authors, Andrea Honigsfeld, was our special guest on the chat.

According to Honigsfeld, “Equity for multilingual learners (MLLs) means that students’ cultural and linguistic identities, backgrounds, and experiences are recognized as valued sources of knowledge.” Teachers of MLLs need to respect the background that that these students bring to the classroom. Here are critical teaching strategies for teaching multilingual learners, based on ideas from Honigsfeld’s book, or on discussion stemming from the book.

1) Create a Safe and Engaging Space for MLLs

MLLs need to feel that they belong and are valued, and that their ideas and perspectives are respected in the classroom. Teachers should nurture MLLs and give them voice and choice. Honigsfeld writes on Twitter, “When you speak to your students, lean into the conversations with your whole self. Make sure you are fully attentive and open to hearing what they have to say through whatever means they prefer to express themselves.”

2) Reexamine the Curriculum With MLLs in Mind

We, as teachers, must reject the notion of learning loss during the COVID-19 pandemic and look at what is being taught in the various content areas in our schools. We need to reject remediating our students after the pandemic and find ways to fast track learning for them so that their learning is equitable. In order to do this, we need to examine what we are teaching. Draw from the lessons from the pandemic. Stick to essential learning of key ideas and use this opportunity to make learning student centered.

3) Build MLLs’ Resilience

We know many of our students faced much adversity during the pandemic. Their family members were often out of work and they faced food insecurity. They may not have been able to go to school virtually because they lacked WIFI access or the necessary equipment to participate in school. Resilience, the ability to bounce back from adversity, is a crucial skill for MLLs. We not only want our students to rebound from adversity and but to also learn from that experience. Encourage students to set goals and to become part of the school community by participating in school activities.

Early childhood expert Karen Nemeth wrote during our Twitter chat that

Teachers of young children have to be willing to give up control of conversations. In a well-equipped classroom, young children can have rich, valuable conversations in their home languages even if the teacher doesn’t understand. This is good for learning, equity and agency.

4) Integrate Content, Language, and Social-Emotional Learning so That Your Educational Practice Is Equitable

Sherry Liptak, Director of MLLs at Chilliwack, British Columbia, writes that “integrating content, language, and social-emotional learning contributes to equitable instructional practices for MLLs by building empathy and diversity.” Teachers should introduce flexible tasks, such as journaling across content areas. MLLs’ entries can be written accounts, photos, or drawings, depending on their English language development level.

Teachers can also develop activities that help students detach themselves from their anxieties. Ask them what they would do to help someone who is really anxious about a natural disaster, such as a hurricane. This gives the students an opportunity to distance themselves from their own anxiety and talk about emotions. I’m a big believer in helping students learn positive self-talk. Model your own self-talk and show how you flip negative thoughts by looking at the positives. Use this across content areas. Let students know that it’s okay to make mistakes and that you’ll all learn how to do this together.

About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.

This post first appeared on the TESOL Blog. Reprinted with permission.