Multilingual Spaces for Multilingual Students

This month’s post has been written by Dr. Chris Leider. Chris Leider is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Language Education and Program Director of Bilingual Education and TESOL-Licensure in the Wheelock College of Education and Human Development at Boston University; she is a former ESL Teacher and earned her PhD in Curriculum and Instruction from Boston College. Her research examines bilingual language and literacy practices and re-conceptualizing the field’s understanding of how we assess measure, and understand bilingualism & biliteracy.

Multilingual Spaces for Multilingual Students

Jordan is in fifth grade. Jordan’s family migrated to the US from El Salvador when he was in second grade. After intake testing and an interview, Jay was classified as an English Learner and also recommend for a Students with Limited or Interrupted Education (SLIFE) program. Jordan is still a classified English Learner.

Cristian is a senior in high school. He migrated to the US from Brazil when he was in ninth grade. Upon intake testing, he was enrolled into a Newcomer program and classified as an English Learner when he initially arrived to the States. He was re-classified at the end of his junior year.

Carina is a second grader. Carina was born in the US and her family speaks Tagalog and English at home, although when Carina’s older brother started to go to school her family switched to using English more predominantly. Carina has never been classified as an English Learner.

Our schools are multilingual spaces. Even in an English-dominant society and under English-Only education policy, our schools are multilingual spaces. They are multilingual because many of our students come from multilingual homes and families. They are multilingual because many students themselves are multilingual. They are multilingual because many teachers themselves are also multilingual. They are multilingual because our world and society are multilingual. Yet, in the United States our schools primarily operate in a system that privileges English monolingualism.  Even in an English-dominant school system educators can – and should – work to promote multilingualism in the ways we approach literacy and language instruction for multilingual students. But first – who are multilingual students?
Multilingual students are students who know more than one language to varying degrees. This last component is important. In my work, I have encountered a misconception that one must be “proficient” and/or “equally balanced” in order to be deemed bilingual. This is a myth. As educators, we must push back against this misconception. First, we need to recognize that a multilingual individual is not the sum of two monolinguals (Grosjean, 2010). Further, if multilingualism were contingent on being “perfectly balanced”, there would be no bilingual or multilingual people (Meyers-Scotton, 2006). For example, multilingual students will know components of all their languages, and know them to varying degrees – that is, receptive and productive skills vary greatly within and across the languages. So, first and foremost, multilingual students know one more than one language to varying degrees.
Next, while all classified (and re-classified) English Learners1 are multilingual, not all multilingual students are necessarily classified as English Learners.  Let’s start with multilingual learners who have never been classified as English Learners. This could be a student who comes from a bilingual home and whose performance on the district/school’s intake assessment deemed them strong enough in English that specific and targeted English language development instruction was not necessary. In the example provided at the beginning, Carina would be an example of a multilingual student who has never been classified as an English Learner.
There are also multilingual learners who are currently classified as English Learners. This could be a student who was born in the US or a migrant.  And contrary to popular belief, the majority of classified English Learners are not immigrants, but were actually born in the US (Shin, 2017), and after the school’s intake process, were recommended to receive ESL services (i.e., specific English language development).
Assuming appropriate instruction and support, classified English Learners should transition out from receiving ESL services and eventually become reclassified English Learners.  Jordan would be an example of the former, and Cristian an example of the latter.
When working with these three profiles of multilingual learners there are a number of important considerations. First, having never been classified as an English Learner does not mean that a student does not need scaffolded support. Multilingual students, like all students, benefit from explicit language instruction (Harper & deJong, 2004). Further, multilingual students – classified, never classified, or re-classified – may have multiple ways to express what they know and draw from not one, but multiple linguistic and cultural resources. As educators, we should welcome these ideas, ways of knowing, and ways of sharing knowledge into our classroom. Translanguaging pedagogy (Garcia, Ibarra-Johnson, and Seltzer, 2017) can be a powerful tool to do this. For example, we can encourage students to do brainstorming or turn and talks in the language they are most comfortable with.  Given that this is already occurring in their minds (and likely with each other), encouraging students to use their language of choice increases the likelihood that they will engage, contribute, and take pride in themselves as learners.
Likewise, we need to keep in mind that because a student is no longer classified as an English Learner does not mean they no longer need linguistic support. English Learners do not magically stop becoming English Learners – language learning is an ongoing process and can take up to 5-7 years for academic language development (Cummins, 1980). Utilizing a can-do framework (WIDA) even with re-classified English Learners can be a good way to continue to think through how to differentiate our instruction with multilingual students, particularly in helping them develop and access English academic language. Language objectives are a useful tool to support both our instruction as teachers (by reminding us to explicitly address language) and also student learning (by explicitly calling attention to what language to use or how to use language). Language objectives provide students with a tool to demonstrate their learning.  For instance, if we draw from the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks, MA CF.ELA-Literacy.RL5.1 states students will “quote accurately from a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.”  We might develop a lesson with a content objective such as, “Students will use the text to demonstrate how the narrator feels about moving to the United States”. We could then draw from the appropriate WIDA Standards of Social and Instructional Language (English Learners communicate for social and instructional purposes within the school setting.) and the Language of Language Arts (English Learners communicate information, ideas, and concepts necessary for academic success in the content area of language arts) to ask ourselves:  What is the language students need to do this? How are they using language to do this? Taking the time to think about and answer these questions on language use can help us think more explicitly about the language we expect students to use and the instruction that will make it possible. For instance, you might have corresponding language objectives of Students will use adjectives to describe the narrator’s feelings and Students will write two sentences to describe the narrator’s feelings using the following frames: “The narrator feels _(adjective)  about moving to the United States.  I know this because on page ___ it says ________”.  Language objectives provide explicit linguistic support, which is especially useful for multilingual learners who may know the content, but need some targeted language support to demonstrate their understanding in English.
As we plan for instruction and put scaffolds into place, it’s important to remember that because a student is classified (or recently reclassified) as an English Learner does not mean they cannot learn. Teachers sometimes feel underprepared to teach English Learners, wondering how they can teach students who don’t know English, alongside their L1 peers. An absence of English is not an absence of language, thinking, knowledge, or understanding. All of the aforementioned tools are useful when working with classified English Learners, but it is especially important when working with classified English Learners to not equate English with knowledge. The WIDA Can-Do framework here is especially important in focusing on what it is students can-do and know in both English and their home language. When classified English Learners are learning content alongside the English language we can deepen their understanding by drawing from what they know and letting them express and share those understandings in whatever ways they are most comfortable. When we restrict students to expressing what they know in English, we prevent them from expressing or sharing their full range of knowledge – for multilingual students, when we limit assessments to the English language we literally limit them to only demonstrating part of what they know. How can multilingual students truly demonstrate what they know if we limit them to do so in just one language?

This question circles back to the fundamental understanding that schools are multilingual spaces and even in an English-dominant society and school system we can – and should –promote multilingualism in the ways that we approach literacy and language instruction for multilingual students. Pedagogical practices such as translanguaging, utilizing language objectives, and multilingual assessments (just to name a few) are not only useful for teaching content and language, but – more importantly – these approaches welcome multilingual students’ language, culture, and perspectives into the classroom as valid ways of knowing and strengths in students’ learning. When students’ knowledge and perspectives – in any language(s) – are welcomed into the classroom, students feel validated. When students’ lived lives (i.e., their knowledge, perspectives, and languages) are validated, then they are more likely to be engaged. When students are more likely to be engaged, not only do they learn, but we also benefit from and learn from their rich multilingual and multicultural perspectives.

1  I purposely modify “English Learners” with classified, reclassified, and never classified to emphasize that this label is the result of performance on a test. While I prefer to use the term “Emergent Bilingual” (see, Garcia 2009) or “Multilingual students” (see, Martinez, 2018) to refer classified and re-classified English Learners, I have intentionally decided to use the modified “English Learner” label in subsequent paragraphs as I hope it can call to attention the different profiles of multilingual students, especially for those who are newer to working with and/or thinking critically about supporting multilingual students.

Join the conversation! What challenges and successes have you experienced with your multi-lingual students?  How have you supported teachers’ instruction at your school?

References cited in this month’s blog:

Cummins, J. (1980). The construct of language proficiency in bilingual education. Current issues in bilingual education, 81-103.

García, O. (2009). Emergent Bilinguals and TESOL: What’s in a Name?. Tesol Quarterly, 43(2), 322-326.

García, O., Johnson, S. I., Seltzer, K., & Valdés, G. (2017). The translanguaging classroom: Leveraging student bilingualism for learning. Philadelphia, PA: Caslon.

Grosjean, F. (2010). Bilingual. Harvard University Press.

Harper, C., & De Jong, E. (2004). Misconceptions about teaching English‐language learners. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 48(2), 152-162.

MA DESE Massachusetts curriculum framework for English language arts and literacy: Grades PreK-12. (2017). Retrieved from:  

Martínez, R. A. (2018). Beyond the English Learner Label: Recognizing the Richness of Bi/Multilingual Students’ Linguistic Repertoires. The Reading Teacher, 71(5), 515-522.

Myers-Scotton, C. (2006). Multiple voices: An introduction to bilingualism.

Shin, S. J. (2017). Bilingualism in schools and society: Language, identity, and policy. Routledge.

WIDA Can-Do Philosophy. Retrieved from:

WIDA English Language Development Standards. Retrieved from:



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