Literacy Partners

Ways to Support Multilingual Learners

When I began school at the age of five, Spanish was the only language I spoke. Being bilingual was a priority for my parents and they knew that I would eventually pick up English at school. As a child, all I saw were the struggles to communicate with others and keep up with learning within the general classroom. I was fortunate enough to have teachers who spoke Spanish. They supported my learning using my primary language, but that is not the case for all students. As an adult, I am grateful that my parents took the time to teach me their native language. As a classroom teacher and as a literacy coach visiting classrooms across districts, there are many students who continue to have a similar experience as I did. So what can we do to help make the experience less stressful for our Multilingual learners? Let’s begin by discussing translanguaging.

Translanguaging can be defined as the flexible use of linguistic resources to make meaning of lives and complex worlds (Garcia, 2012). Essentially, translanguaging says that students need to be allowed to use multi-languages to express themselves, especially when learning a new language. In the classroom, we can start by creating a space for students to respond by using their full language repertoire. Here are some tips for incorporating translanguaging in your classroom:

  1. Allow students to respond to their reading with conversations or note-taking in multiple languages.
  2. Lead interactive read alouds in which you read in one language while the conversations, prompts, notes, and responses are in more than one language.
  3. In your libraries, make texts available in both English and the language they are learning.
  4. You can put up vocabulary charts with visuals in multiple languages (i.e., Spanish and English). You can also choose bilingual texts for read-alouds.
  5. In writing, allow students’ writing to be representative of their varied language practices. You can create spaces in your writing workshop and writing celebrations for students to create bilingual and multilingual texts or you can encourage students to write in Spanish across their drafts.

We also need to acknowledge that bilingual students are coming from households where many language practices are in place that have helped build literacy. These language practices include watching movies in English with Spanish subtitles or translating song lyrics into Spanish and English. Students have been supporting one language with another even before coming to school. Always keep in mind that being bilingual allows students to see problems in a different way and understand the world from a unique perspective.

Ways to Support Multilingual Learners

As we think through what type of support our multilingual students need, we can find ways that will give them both the opportunity to be seen and to feel comfortable enough to participate in conversations with their peers.

Here are some ways to support our multilingual students:

  1. Mentor Texts

Mentor texts can serve as a powerful resource for our multilingual learners, but it’s incredibly important that your multilingual learners can see themselves inside these books. So let’s start with a moment of reflection. When was the first time you saw yourself reflected in a character or a book? For me, it wasn’t until I read House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros in the 6th grade. That means that it took thirteen years before I could connect with a book!

Students have been historically underrepresented in children’s literature. In a 2018 study, it was found that only five percent of books depicted Latinx characters compared to fifty percent of books depicting White characters.

So what does this mean for our multilingual learners? Books need to value their experiences, families, and traditions in order for our students to connect with them. Therefore, it is important that classroom teachers choose books that allow students to see themselves in the characters and experiences.

When deciding on mentor texts, consider the following:

  • Find mentor texts in the languages students know best
  • Choose mentor texts that serve as windows for children
  • That celebrate different cultures
  • That includes characters that serve as proud mirrors (kids that look just like them and have similar experiences to them)
  • Include books where the author chooses to translanguage.

TIP: Take some time to look through your classroom library. Check to see what percentage of your books serve as windows and mirrors for students. If your library lacks books that are representative of your students, it’s time to update your library.

  1. Using the Structure of Writing Workshop

It is important to multi-language learners that your workshop is as predictable and consistent as possible. This will reduce the fear and anxiety that students feel when learning a new language and therefore allow students to focus on the learning. Students can feel panicked when it isn’t clear what is expected of them or when or how to do one thing after another. Having predictability will help provide confidence and a sense of control to multilingual learners. It will enable them to anticipate what will happen next. Make sure you go over the structure of Writing Workshop with students to let them know and anticipate what is coming. Here are some ideas to bring this to life in your workshop:

  1. Start your reading and/or writing in the same way, with a set-up routine.
  2. Let students know that during the active engagement part of the mini-lesson, they will be turning to a partner and sharing some ideas
  3. During partner work, let students know that they will be working with a partner.
  4. Having clear, consistent, and repetitive structures will allow students to feel more confident in your classroom.
  1. Consistent Teaching Language

When your reading and writing workshops are characterized by consistent language, this consistent language scaffolds each child’s classroom experience.

Here are two ways you can do in your own classroom to help scaffold for your multilingual learners.

  1. Repeat important phrases. Use predictable sentences and gestures that relate to concrete classroom activities: “Turn and talk,” “Bring your folder,” “Let’s gather in the meeting area,” and “Off you go”
  2. Resist overexplaining. Limit your mini-lesson to 12 minutes. Keeping your mini-lesson clear and succinct will make it more comprehensible.


  1. Visuals and Gestures

Charts and gestures will allow students to work with more independence since they’ll have a visual reference of what they’re working on as writers. Here are two ways you can bring charts and gestures into your classroom.

  1. Use charts with both words and visuals. Create charts with students, post them in a central and consistent location in your classroom, and add your own illustrations and examples, drawing on your children’s work.
  • Provide students with individual copies of particular charts that will support instruction

2. Use predictable gestures. The use of consistent gestures and cues will make your teaching more comprehensible and memorable.

  1. Language Prompts

Something that was very helpful as I continued to learn English, was the use of language prompts. It gave me a way to communicate without feeling the stress of how to begin the conversation. I remember being in first grade and wanting to participate, but feeling too insecure. So, my teacher gave me the support I needed by providing me with a prompt. This started building my confidence and eventually, I didn’t need so much of her support to participate in conversations. You can bring language prompts into your lessons during turns and talks or when students are working in partnerships. You can offer different levels of sentence starters based on your student’s level of English proficiency whenever students are orally sharing. You can also prioritize prompts that the writer can use again and again such as “ I notice…” or “I wonder…”.

  1. Supportive Partnerships

Imagine walking into a classroom full of children and hearing a language that is completely new. The very first thing that might run through your mind is who you’ll be able to communicate with and how you will communicate with them. Be intentional when choosing partnerships. Children who speak the same languages will be able to provide additional support as they translanguage, work to comprehend both the instruction and the text, and rehearse what they’ll write.

Below are some suggestions for partnerships.

  1. Long-term partners. Allows students opportunities to talk with partners in a low-stress, highly supportive way.
  2. Strategic partner assignments. Pair a language learner with a child who is stronger in English and who is also skilled at being a supportive friend
  3. Triads. Allows for conversation to occur between two proficient English speakers while the multi-language learner listens (they can join in when they feel ready).

TIP: Teach proficient English speakers how to be strong partners (by using gestures, drama, and pointing.) Teach them how to encourage their partners to respond (by waiting, nodding, and gesturing). And teach them how to recast (saying back what they hear, correcting and adding to it a bit, and then helping their partner say more).

  1. Shared Writing

As students continue to learn a new language, we can find ways to help them express their ideas orally. Emergent multilingual students and writers who might find it challenging to write about their own topic can take on a shared writing topic first. A shared writing session will allow you to collaboratively plan a piece with your multilingual learners. You can work with students in small groups and allow them to think through ideas while you hold the pen and do the writing. Learn more about shared writing here.

  1. Vocabulary Building

Lastly, one way you can continue to support multilingual language development is through vocabulary building. Build a bank of vocabulary words collaboratively with students that they can use in their independent reading and writing. You can also act out the words and use images to make this new vocabulary clearer for them.

Below is a sample word bank a teacher created to support students during the read aloud, Jabari Jumps.

TIP: You can coach students to use word banks as they rehearse and draft in writing. For example, if students are working on writing about a particular nonfiction topic such as weather, you might introduce a bank of related vocabulary words (Some examples might be: clouds, cloudy, rainy, sunny, thermometer, storm).

Book Recommendations

If you’d like to continue learning more about how to center the voices and experiences of our multilingual students, read Carla Espana and Luz Yadira Herrera’s book En Comunidad.

If you’re using the new units of study, check the section on Multilingual Learners in A Guide to the Writing Workshop.

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