Embracing multilingual learners

Published 9:12 am Saturday, March 2, 2019

By Janna Akkerman, Marianne Davidson and Angela Thoen

IJ Holton EL Teachers

“Hola,” “Bonjour,” “Mirhaba,” and “Selam” are just a few examples of “hello” you might hear as students greet one another at IJ Holton Intermediate School, where 25 different languages are spoken.

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District-wide, that number grows to over 45. While these numbers are important, when you get to the heart of it all, what really matters is the individual. Each of our students is so much more than their identified LEP (Limited English Proficiency) status.

You might ask, well what do they bring to the table? They bring compassion and they bring perseverance. Many have been through unfathomable hardship, poverty, war, famine and grief, and yet they strive for a better life. These students understand the value of education and show respect for teachers, materials and peers. They bring a variety of cultures, world-outlooks, prior education experiences and learning styles, and yet they also yearn for connections and to belong.

At IJ we are committed to knowing each child for the unique individual that they are. We value difference, embrace uniqueness, and strive to help each child reach their greatest potential each day. We recognize challenges but realize and appreciate that it’s not what a student can’t do, it’s what a student can do, which creates a confident starting point for learning. We work to support colleagues in utilizing appropriate skill sets and cultural schema to help our students learn English through content courses.

We are all language teachers committed to the success of all students.

To support our multilingual learners, you do not have to know every students’ language to teach them English. It does help solidify connections and help scaffold learning if you do, but learning English is much like how students acquired their native languages.

Students are placed in English support classes based on the WIDA (World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment) Consortium based out of Madison, Wisconsin, covering over 39 states and territories and over 400 international schools across the globe. Students are assessed in the modalities of speaking, listening, reading and writing.

While there are many strategies to support the four language modalities, there is no one-size-fits-all for students. English learning support is designed around each student’s needs. For our beginning learners, students have smaller pullout classes with the EL teacher for most of the school day and receive support in the mainstream in co-taught classes with an EL teacher and content teacher.

Smaller group size is ideal at this level to allow students to feel safe in making errors and get the support needed to set them up for academic and social-emotional learning success during their first year of schooling in the USA. Some useful strategies include: using visuals in learning vocabulary, modeling school and classroom routines, building in group work, using first languages to scaffold, honoring silent periods, reading culturally relevant literature, providing social and emotional support, and having strong relationships with families and school Success Coaches.

To support our intermediate learners, we use a co-teaching and pullout class combination. In the co-teaching classroom, students are supported with both a content teacher and an EL teacher. Here they receive grade level learning standards, with supports, whilst always practicing listening, speaking, reading, and writing. In the pullout class, intermediate learners are met at their level of reading, writing, listening, and speaking.

This is where we work to build up area students may have missed along the way, due to acquiring dual language, in order to reach grade level. We remind our students dual language is not a hindrance, but a pathway for opportunity. Pull out groups are typically smaller, so individual needs can be better met. If you walk into a pullout classroom, you might see students recording themselves reading on an iPad, taking a video of themselves explaining a diagram on Seesaw (an app for posting videos, photos, recordings), or leveled small group reading lessons about science, social studies, math, cultures around the world, travel, weather, careers, and much more.

We support our higher-level learners in a co-taught classroom as we do our intermediate students, but do not place them in a pullout group. This pushes our students to reach high academic expectations, but also provides them the support they need to be successful. Our learners have the same bar set as the rest of the class but might take a different path to get to get there.

Having two teachers in one room is also incredibly powerful for both teachers and students. Different learners have different learning styles, and different teachers have different teaching styles. We hope by modeling how two different people can work together, build a solid relationship, and accomplish the same goals, our diverse learners will acquire the same vision for themselves someday.

Austin Public Schools has a wealth of diversity, and we are incredibly lucky to work with English Language learners every single day. Their backgrounds and stories might be different, but all our students have one thing in common: a desire to be successful and a yearning to belong.

We are looking forward to new and exciting ways to continue to support these amazing learners.