In our increasingly diverse and global society, many students are in classrooms receiving instruction in a language that is not their primary language and engaging in new situations with unfamiliar language and practices. Students who are culturally and linguistically diverse are all over the world, and thus their literacy development is a global issue. These multilingual learners face real challenges as they strive to learn rigorous academic content and prepare for college and careers.
To support the literacy development and achievement of our multilingual learners, we must extend our focus on discrete language features of academic language (e.g., vocabulary, syntax) as the benchmark of language learning to include academic literacies. Generally speaking, academic literacies develop from making meaning in interactions and engagement in a given situation. They include “knowledge and skills needed to read and write, as well as competencies and understandings of language, its contexts, and its uses” (Molle, Sato, Boals, & Hedgspeth, 2015, p. 277). Such competencies are the ones we should work on developing, rather than simply addressing language in terms of its discrete features or in a manner disconnected from academic content. By doing so, we can help our multilingual learners develop literacy that will facilitate achievement across multiple disciplines and contexts.
Our multilingual learners are challenged with learning the language of instruction at the same time they are learning rigorous academic content. For example, they may be English language learners (ELLs) learning geometry in a class taught in English by an English-speaking teacher. The academic instruction in English includes language critical to learning geometry—for example, words like coordinate and trapezoid, and structures such as those in a geometric proof—as well as ways of communicating and engaging with the content (e.g., individualist vs. collectivist, inductive vs. deductive) that may be unfamiliar to the student. These all pose challenges to someone learning the English language while working to achieve academically.
All students bring to the learning situation competencies that can be leveraged (Hickey & Lewis, 2015; Molle et al., 2015). There are a number of ways educators can tap into existing competencies in order to support multilingual learners’ literacy development. Generally, literacy development involves all four modalities of listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Providing opportunities for students to draw on individual strengths (e.g., knowledge, skills, experiences) and use the four language modalities while learning academic content is critical. The nature of the task and conditions for such learning matter, and although the following considerations for facilitating literacy development, including considerations for supporting the development of academic literacies, reflect practices that benefit all learners, they can be particularly beneficial for multilingual learners in situations where their primary language is different from the language of instruction.
Interactions help students make meaning, so providing regular opportunities for students to interact in a purposeful manner is important. Interactions include those between the student and teacher as well as peer interactions, and these interactions can involve all four modalities (e.g., think-pair-share or write-pair-share, “jigsaw” activity, partner/group problem solving). When planned with a clear purpose related to specific learning goals and appropriately managed and supported, interactions provide opportunities to integrate language and literacy competencies with discipline-specific content, as well as allowing participants to draw on and apply individual strengths (Darling-Hammond, Austin, Orcutt, & Martin, 2003). Research shows that students who experience positive interactions—that is, when students are treated as interesting and valuable participants and their contributions are accepted and/or extended by the other(s) with whom they are interacting—are likely to have increased confidence in their ability to contribute to collaborative meaning-making and are likely to become more knowledgeable about the topics that are discussed (Wells, 2009).
Scaffolding is what teachers do for students to give them just enough support to advance their knowledge and skills while enabling them to reflect on and articulate their thoughts and learning (Darling-Hammond et al., 2003). Generally, scaffolding language and content for multilingual learners can take many forms, including paraphrasing (e.g., to define or describe information using alternate wording), highlighting (e.g., to help focus attention on or emphasize information), modeling (e.g., to show or demonstrate information), encouraging (e.g., to elicit or help refine thinking or behavior), praising (e.g., to support developing or desired thinking or behavior), and validating (e.g., to reinforce desired student performance) (The Petrie Partnership for Teacher Excellence Curriculum Development, 2009). Scaffolding also can provide task-specific support in the form of explanations, demonstrations, hands-on activities, and resources (e.g., visual, aural, tactile) that align with specific learning goals and address the developing needs of the student (Hammond & Gibbons, 2005; Hickey & Lewis, 2015). For multilingual learners, drawing attention to linguistic differences can facilitate their development of academic literacies as well as domain-specific understanding. Explicit discussions of how, for example, academic registers differ along different linguistic features and for different audiences and purposes support students’ understanding and use of language (Hickey & Lewis, 2015). Such analyses also can help students learn how to think about language and articulate thoughts about language (metacognition, metalanguage), which also aid their literacy development and learning (Hickey & Lewis, 2015; Young & Fry, 2008).
Decisions about how to structure interactions and which scaffolds to provide students can be informed by the students’ levels of language development. Preproduction, also known as the silent period, is the stage at which learners have some receptive vocabulary but do not yet speak the second language. Not all learners go through this stage, but if a learner speaks during this stage, the learner’s utterances typically are imitations of what is heard rather than creative language use. Early production is the stage at which learners are able to speak in short one- or two-word phrases. Learners at this stage also can memorize chunks of language; however, there may be mistakes in their utterances. Speech emergence is the stage at which learners can communicate using simple questions and phrases; however, there may be grammatical errors. Intermediate fluency is the stage at which learners can use more complicated sentence structures and share their thoughts and opinions. At this stage, learners still may make frequent errors when using more complicated sentence structures. The final stage, advanced fluency, is when learners can function at a level close to native speakers (Haynes, 2007; Robertson & Ford, 2015; Williams, 2015).
Across all stages, the following are critical to underscore in supporting the development of literacy and content understanding in our learners (Molle et al., 2015):
• There should be regular opportunities for students to practice and develop both their language and their understanding of academic content. Such practice should have clear goals and feedback that will help student learning and achievement. The practice opportunities could be an individual activity or an activity with peers, and these opportunities could involve all four language modalities.
• Examples that give students the opportunity to engage with and understand both content and language are important for the development of student literacy and content understanding. Using examples that relate to the students’ backgrounds and to settings that are familiar to the students presents opportunities for the students to make connections between their backgrounds and experiences and the new language and/or content to be learned. Discussions of examples provide opportunities, as appropriate for the students’ ages and levels of language development, to include the modeling of metacognitive and metalinguistic awareness.
As we implement more rigorous academic standards and our student population becomes increasingly diverse, we have an opportunity to rethink how we prepare our students for college and careers. A broader definition of literacy that extends beyond the instruction of discrete linguistic features to include academic literacies, along with strategies that are mindful of the particular challenges of multilingual learners and the knowledge and experiences they bring with them to the learning situation, can help us prepare our learners to succeed across a range of disciplines and contexts.
Notes 1 The focus here is on academic language and literacies and facilitating their development through interactions that are more structured than interactions that are typical of social, conversational language. Academic language and literacies and social, conversational language are not distinct, though there are differences. With respect to this discussion, the latter is important for the practice opportunities it provides language learners in terms of, for example, different registers, and it also presents opportunities for scaffolding and feedback in situations that are less formal than that in an academic lesson. However, specific discussion related to social, conversational language and its relationship to the development of academic language and literacies is beyond the scope of this article.
Darling-Hammond, L., Rosso, J., Austin, K., Orcutt, S., & Martin, D. (2003). The Learning Classroom: Theory into practice. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University.
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Hickey, P. J. & Lewis, T. (2015). “To win the game, know the rules and legitimize the players: Disciplinary literacy and multilingual learners.” The Language and Literacy Spectrum, 25.
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Wells, G. (2009). “The social context of language and literacy development.” In Barbarin, O. A., Frome, P., & Marie-Winn, D. (Eds.) The Handbook of Child Development and Early Education (pp. 271-302). London: Sage.
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This article originally appeared in Language Magazine in May, 2016. At the time, Edynn Sato was a principal research scientist in the Center for NextGen Learning & Assessment at Pearson’s Research & Innovation Network. Dr. Sato’s research focused on issues affecting the learning and achievement of English language learners and students with disabilities. Prior to joining Pearson, she worked in academic, nonprofit, small for-profit, Fortune 500, and internet-based organizations. Dr. Sato received her master’s degree and doctorate in education from the University of California, Los Angeles.