Literacy is essential for success in school and in life beyond school. The ability to read and write well provides individuals with untold opportunities as they move through school, pursue advanced education and careers, and achieve their goals. Strong literacy competencies contribute to social and economic equity for individuals in underrepresented communities.
Multilingual learners in the US, those students who are not yet proficient in English, must learn this new language to advance through school. While these students possess the gift of their home languages, these are not typically the language of instruction at school. Thus, multilingual students are learning new skills and knowledge in a new language. Practically speaking, proficiency in English will be valuable for many beyond school because English is the lingua franca used worldwide in international business, education, science, and technology. Given this, how can teachers most effectively foster language and literacy development in English for multilingual students? This article discusses three aspects of instruction that address this question: effective literacy instruction, English language development, and content learning.
Effective Literacy Instruction
Multilingual learners learn to read in many of the same ways that English speakers do. They need the same foundational skills that all readers need to become skilled and confident readers. Foundational skills provide the base on which literacy is built and include phonological awareness, oral language, academic vocabulary, phonics, and fluency. Much attention has focused recently on one aspect of foundational skill development: phonics. Some would argue that a seeming overemphasis on recommending explicit phonics teaching is due to it being underemphasized in classrooms. Teachers across the US report that they typically don’t explicitly teach phonics. Seventy-five percent of teachers surveyed said they use a technique called three-cuing, where children guess words they don’t know by using context and picture clues rather than decoding individual words. More than half of the teachers said they thought students could understand written passages that contained unfamiliar words, even without a good grasp of phonics (Education Week, 2020).
There is little disagreement among experts that explicit phonics teaching is essential (Shanahan, 2022). According to Jim Cummins, “There is a huge amount of agreement when we get away from the political dimensions of how to teach reading effectively. When you look at the researchers who are involved in this, we’re talking over small details. Everybody agrees that students need phonemic awareness, they need to have a strong foundational basis in understanding sound–symbol relationships, phonics” (2022).
We know that explicitly teaching sound–symbol correspondence is necessary for students to be able to decode words automatically and accurately; however, phonics instruction is a necessary but not sufficient piece of the complex process of literacy development. Teachers need to address the full complement of literacy skills, including vocabulary development, communication (oral and written), and literacy socialization.
Because multilingual learners are learning all these literacy skills in a new language, they require additional considerations and adjustments to instruction (Cardenes-Hagan, 2020; Echevarría et al., 2024; Goldenberg, 2020). It can’t be assumed, for example, that because multilingual students need foundational literacy skills, they will learn just like their English-speaking peers. While the skills are the same and transfer across languages, learning how to read in a language one is still acquiring is distinctly different from learning in the home language, a language whose syntax, everyday vocabulary, and usage is familiar.
The following are but a few examples of instructional adjustments that multilingual learners require. Some adjustments or supports differ in degree rather than in kind from how we instruct English speakers, while others are uniquely applicable to multilingual learners.
- Repetition: An effective way to remember information such as the definitions of words is through repetition and rehearsal, but multilingual learners require even more repetition and meaningful exposure to new words since the language is new to them. This does not mean drilling students on words using flashcards or through other decontextualized means. Rather, teachers should provide multiple exposures to new words and their meanings by explicitly teaching the words, talking about each word’s meaning, displaying words for visual reference, chorally reading the words, pointing out the words when found in a text and discussing their meaning in the sentence, and so forth. There are also numerous apps which provide engaging ways for multilingual learners to interact with new words and gain practice using them.
- Academic language: Many multilingual learners have sufficient social language to communicate with peers and teachers; however, academic English, the language found in texts, in academic tasks, and on tests, is more challenging for these students (Short and Echevarría, 2017). Teachers should focus on accelerating academic language development during content teaching as well as during English language development (ELD) by teaching specific language skills through explicit instruction and structured practice. That is, they should focus on an aspect of language such as a grammatical form (e.g., using conjunctions) or a vocabulary term used in the text, teach it explicitly, and plan plenty of time for students to practice using the new language in meaningful, engaging ways. Language objectives help teachers identify the language needed in lessons such as making comparisons or using descriptive language. Opportunities to practice using academic language orally and in writing need to be planned, intentional, and purposeful. For example, using “turn, talk, and write,” teachers ask students to briefly engage about a question or topic. To be most productive, these interactions have a specific academic purpose and language function, such as having students turn to a partner and summarize information, preview a chapter and make predictions, explain what they know about a topic, discuss experiences they have had related to the topic, and write down the main points of what they discussed. These peer interactions provide opportunities to practice using academic language, which, in turn, helps students understand the meaning of the words and texts they are learning to read.
- Clear explanations: All students benefit when the teacher presents information or instructions for completing an activity clearly, but multilingual learners typically require scaffolds to support the teacher’s spoken message. For example, if the class is expected to complete a graphic organizer about a story’s characters, setting, and problem, the teacher should use visuals while explaining the task in a step-by-step manner, modeling how to complete the graphic organizer by filling in one or more examples. Directions given orally need to be accompanied by a posted written version so multilingual learners can refer to the directions while they complete a task or activity. It is also helpful to have students explain the task to a partner so that any ambiguous parts of the task are revealed and can be made clear up front before students get to work. The rule of thumb is to set students up for success, thereby maximizing learning and building their confidence as learners.
Effective English Language Development
English language development (ELD) is a specific time in the school day designed to advance students’ knowledge and use of English. The primary objective is to learn about how English works and how to become a more proficient user of the language.
To underscore the importance of focused, effective ELD, research shows that the earlier multilingual learners become English proficient, the narrower the gap between them and their English-speaking peers in English language arts (ELA) and math achievement through eighth grade (Halle et al., 2012). Further, in a review of research on the science of reading, Goldenberg (2020) concluded that if multilingual learners become more proficient in English, they will become more efficient readers as well.
During ELD lessons, teachers should emphasize productive talk that moves students’ language learning forward. Well-planned ELD lessons provide opportunities to practice using words and other aspects of language to create meaningful sentences or phrases. Students do a lot of talking, experimenting with the language and becoming more comfortable using words and phrases in a small-group setting that is likely less intimidating for practicing newly acquired skills. Text may be used as a vehicle for developing language through, for example, reading aloud, pausing and discussing the meaning of the section of text, pointing out and discussing new words, connecting the text to their own experiences, and retelling information to a partner or the teacher. Honoring students’ home languages and focusing on advancing English proficiency are not mutually exclusive. An effective way to develop language is by making connections between the home language and English. For example, display and discuss a cognate chart showing the relationship between Latin-based words, such as representation and representación. Similarly, post and discuss a chart with affixes to demonstrate the exponential word-learning power found in understanding the meaning of common prefixes and suffixes, many of which are the same or similar across English and Spanish. The more students learn about language and develop word consciousness, the more their language proficiency will increase in both languages.
Effective Content Learning
Knowledge is necessary to comprehend what we read. Students’ knowledge of the world provides the basis for understanding, learning, and remembering facts and ideas found in texts. Some background knowledge comes through experience, but the broad base of knowledge required for understanding academic text, including knowledge of topics and associated academic vocabulary, is acquired through reading.
One way to build and broaden content knowledge is to integrate literacy with content, particularly science and social studies topics, which also may improve comprehension and vocabulary development (Hwang et al., 2021). The challenge for multilingual learners is that they may lack exposure to many topics associated with science and social studies. Further, the academic language found in texts—subject-specific vocabulary, complex syntax, rhetorical conventions—is particularly difficult since multilingual learners have yet to master oral language proficiency.
As multilingual learners are developing language and literacy skills, there are techniques and strategies teachers can use to make text accessible and increase comprehension of information in the text, thus building content knowledge.
The SIOP model (Echevarría et al., 2024), used widely in US schools and numerous countries, provides teachers with a framework for lesson planning and delivery so that instruction includes features known to help multilingual learners access text, understand the teacher’s instruction and the lesson’s content, and build content knowledge. Building background, one of the components of SIOP, asks teachers to tap into what students know about a topic and then use text to fill in gaps in their knowledge. A lesson might begin by showing the title of the text and asking students to predict what it will be about. Then the teacher asks what students know about the topic, writing their ideas on the board. As the text is read and discussed, explanations of content topics are supplemented with, for example, visuals, graphic organizers, translated words, and multimedia to enhance comprehension. Students also need opportunities to practice and apply with peers the language and literacy skills they are acquiring. In so doing, content concepts are reinforced, and multilingual learners get much-needed oral language practice.
In conclusion, all three aspects of instruction discussed here need to take place in a context where teachers have high expectations for multilingual learners, where language and culture are considered assets to be included in the classroom, and where lessons offer many rich language- and literacy-learning opportunities.
American Reading Company (2022). “Coffee and Conversation with Jim Cummins and Claude Goldenberg.” www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rfwl47KbAzw
Echevarría, J., Vogt, M. E., Short, D., and Toppel, K. (2024). Making Content Comprehensible for Multilingual Learners: The SIOP® Model, Sixth Edition. Boston: Pearson.
Education Week (2020). Early Reading Instruction: Results of a National Survey. www.edweek.org/research-center/research-center-reports/early-reading-instruction-results-of-a-national-survey
Goldenberg, C. (2020). “Reading Science, Reading Wars, and English Learners.” Reading Research Quarterly, Special Issue: The Science of Reading: Supports, Critiques, and Questions, 55(1), 131–144.
Halle, T., Hair, E., Wandner, L., McNamara, M., and Chien, N. (2012). “Predictors and Outcomes of Early Versus Later English
Language Proficiency among English Language Learners.” Early Child Research Quarterly, 27(1), 1–20.
Hwang, H., Cabell, S. Q., and Joyner, R. E. (2022). “Effects of Integrated Literacy and Content-Area Instruction on Vocabulary and Comprehension in the Elementary Years: A meta-analysis.” Scientific Studies of Reading, 26(3), 223–249. https://doi.org/10.1080/10888438.2021.1954005
Shanahan, T. (2022). “What Do You Think of ‘Phonics First’ or ‘Phonics Only’ in the Primary Grades?” http://shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/what-do-you-think-of-phonics-first-or-phonics-only-in-the-primary-grades#sthash.M2ZF7OGI.dpbs
Short, D., and Echevarría, J. (2016). Developing Academic Language Using the SIOP Model. Boston: Pearson.
Jana Echevarría, PhD, is professor emerita at California State University, Long Beach, where she received her university’s Outstanding Professor award. A creator of the SIOP model, she has published widely on effective instruction for multilingual learners and has presented her research throughout the US and internationally.