Multilingual students and ELLs face more than a few challenges in classrooms--here’s how to help them succeed

Three tips to conquer bilingual barriers in the classroom


Multilingual students and ELLs face more than a few challenges in classrooms--here’s how to help them succeed

More than 10 percent of students in the United States are English language learners (ELLs) – that’s more than 4.8 million children nationwide. While these children don’t learn any differently than their native-English-speaking classmates, they do have educational needs that should not be overlooked or go unmet.

From a teacher’s perspective, it’s difficult not to notice how challenging navigating educational environments is for a child for whom English is not their native language. They often walk into the classroom feeling intimidated and afraid, struggle to communicate even the most basic needs, and avoid interacting with peers and teachers due to the language discrepancy. As teachers, it’s our responsibility to help bridge that gap to not only support students as they learn English, but help them navigate their education in the meantime.

Thankfully, we’re not up to the task alone. There are many solutions to the most common teaching challenges, all of which serve to enrich the lives of students, streamline communication between parents and teachers, and help kids learn how to communicate and excel in everything they do.

Adapt what exists

There are many online tools with built-in features to support instruction for a variety of learners, including ELLs. If your school doesn’t have access to, or can’t afford, more specialized software designed specifically for ELLs, start thinking about how you can take the online tools you have and make them work for the ELLs in your classroom.

It’s true that ELL-focused tools are more likely to have specialized learning support, but sites like Khan Academy, which offers translations of its curriculum in 12 different languages, can support ELL learning in other subject areas. I’m also a big fan of ThinkCERCA, which offers leveled texts with scaffolding for students who read at different levels–and there are even audio versions available for students who struggle with reading. Keep in mind that these tools are designed for a more general student audience, so these might be better for the advanced ELLs in your classroom.

Get parents involved

Every student needs support at home in order to succeed, but for ELLs, that support can be hard to find if they feel they can’t bridge the language barrier between their home and their school. Using tools that keep parents in the loop in their language of choice not only helps them be actively involved and invested in their child’s education but provides a level of accessibility that is vital to fostering solid parent-teacher relationships.

My school district uses ClassTag Connect, a unified multi-channel messaging platform that allows teachers and administrators to reach families through emails, voice messages, text messages and more–whatever each parent prefers. The platform also automatically translates each message into the parent’s preferred language, ensuring that no matter what, my students’ parents will get the information they need to help their child be their best.

Emphasize productive language

This isn’t a tool you can download or implement, but it’s important nonetheless. At the end of the day, ELL students are just like any other student–they want to be involved in class, practice what they’re learning, and feel accomplished. One of the practices I’ve started implementing in my classrooms is centering the use of “productive language,” those hard-to-master elements of language fluency like speaking and writing.

Beginning ELLs often develop their receptive language skills like listening and reading first and may feel shy about speaking or writing in English. I’ve taken to giving my students simple sentence frames to practice with in class. For example, if you’re a science teacher, you might give ELLs the frame of, “If __ has been added, then ___ will happen because ___.” Filling in those blanks gives them the practice they need and builds confidence, which is so important for students at every age and skill level.

While teaching multilingual students comes with a multitude of challenges, there are even more solutions out there that empower teachers and parents to help their students be at their very best. Whether you’re accessing educational resources online, working with parents to craft the best path forward for your child, or practicing English with ELLs day in and day out, these tools will help you be the best teacher you can be, and give students support as they continue to learn and grow.

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