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Literacy and New MLLs in U.S. Elementary Schools

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

Photo credit: aaabbc/Adobe Stock

Teachers of multilingual learners (MLLs) in the United States will be meeting new students from many countries this fall. Recently arrived students from Ukraine, Haiti, Russia, Afghanistan, and Central and South America, to name a few, will be welcomed to our schools by educators of MLLs. Literacy is a key component of how MLLs adapt to schools in the United States, and it is important for teachers to realize that not all newcomers come to us with the same background, especially when it comes to literacy.

Newcomers differ in their level of literacy and their comfort with reading and writing in both their home language and in English. In the United States, about two-thirds of MLLs come from nonliteracy-oriented homes (See Zacarian and Haynes’s book about beginning English learners). In this blog, we’ll look at literacy skills, which include oral reading fluency, reading comprehension, writing, spelling, and speaking. It is important for teachers of MLLs to visit or interview families so that they can discover what role literacy plays in the homes of their newcomers. The programs designed for MLLs from nonliteracy-oriented homes will need to be quite different from those for students from literacy-oriented homes.

Let’s look at three examples of the literacy-oriented practices in the family of Angela Morales (pseudonym), a 9 -year-old girl from Costa Rica whom I taught when she was in the 3rd grade. Angela came to the United States with a high level of literacy in her native Spanish. She also comes from a country that is known for its education. The literacy rate in Costa Rica is 96%; it is rated first in South and Central America.

Note: Angela’s story is not representative of all of the literacy-oriented MLLs. Though I have taught mostly students from Japan, Korea, and China who came from highly literate backgrounds, many of my students did not have the financial resources that Angela’s family had. I chose to use Angela as the example for this blog because her story displays clear-cut practices engaged in by a literacy-oriented, multilingual family with a child studying in the United States.

1. Literacy-Oriented Families Prioritize Language and Independent Thinking

Both of Angela’s parents have a high level of formal education and speak both English and Spanish fluently. Angela’s father is a graduate student who is spending a year at a U.S. university to complete his PhD. Both of Angela’s parents attended a year of undergraduate education in the United States. They focus on Angela’s literacy development, providing her with a model of reading and writing in her home. She observes them reading and writing in English and Spanish on a daily basis. There are books and magazines in both languages in every room of the house.

Angela’s parents spend a lot of time with her and, when speaking to her, use complex sentences and an advanced vocabulary in both languages. Angela’s mother does not work while they are in the United States. She reads to Angela daily, discussing the books they read to promote independent thinking and using higher order thinking skills. Both parents ask Angela her opinion and give her choices. For example, I ran into Angela and her mother in the grocery store one day after school and, while we were talking, Angela’s mother turned to her daughter and asked her to go choose a snack that she would like.

2. Literacy-Oriented Families Often Value Time

In literacy-oriented homes in the United States, there is great veneration for efficiency and for the success of economic endeavors. There is a monochronic approach to time that focuses on the time of day, day of the week, week in the month, and month in the year.  A monochronic approach to time is often difficult for families from South and Central America, where the approach to time is polychronic.

However, literacy-oriented families such as Angela’s understand the value of a monochronic approach when living in the United States. This includes practices such as getting to school on time and regular school attendance. Angela’s family provides her with the time and space to do her homework and is familiar with the cultural meaning of “getting things done on time.” The family knows how important this approach is to success in the United States. Angela’s mother once told me that she and her husband had spent time in the United States at an American university during their undergraduate studies and that they’d become used to a monochronic approach to time.

3. Literacy-Oriented Families Provide Rich Experiences to Children

Literacy-oriented families value computer literacy. Angela’s family has a computer, and both parents have smart phones. They provide her with multiple background experiences that she can bring to her own reading and writing. During their time in the United States, the family makes frequent trips to zoos, museums, and parks. They also take a trip to Plymouth in Massachusetts after we study Thanksgiving in school. During the summer, they visit one of the many sculpture gardens in New York State and the Botanical Garden in Brooklyn. Angela’s parents attend all of the evening programs for parents given by their school, including an art show, science fair, and holiday concert. Angela’s family’s way of being and thinking about literacy and learning are a match to Angela’s school’s literacy-oriented practices.

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.

View all posts by Judie Haynes →

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