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Empowering emergent bilinguals in K-12

Teachers can bridge two worlds, one learner at a time, by helping emergent bilinguals with differentiation and belonging, Jose Viana writes.

5 min read

EducationEducational Leadership

Boy holds globe on an orange background for article on emergent bilinguals

(Oksana_nazarchuk/Getty Images)

The modern K-12 classroom is a very diverse and eclectic place where about 10% of all public-school students nationwide are English learners. As classrooms across the US become even more enriched with the vibrancy of diverse languages, bilingual and multilingual students are painting a new tapestry of cultural exchange.

Insights blurb for Education Originals

From California to New York and all points in between, emergent bilingual learners symbolize a transformative shift in the nation’s educational landscape. And while ELs enrich linguistic diversity that enlivens classrooms and society at large, they also face these and other roadblocks in the classroom:

  • Young students who don’t understand or who can’t express themselves in English may face learning difficulties in other subject areas. 
  • Textbooks and learning materials may not reflect these students’ typical life experiences and can also lead to potential learning gaps.
  • And any one-size-fits-all teaching method may overlook the diverse learning styles these emergent bilingual students need. 

For best results, educators need differentiated teaching and learning approaches that resonate with the burgeoning, multifaceted bilingual student population.

Helping them unpack the meaning

With the demographic changes taking place in US classrooms right now, the need for targeted English language and literacy instruction for emergent bilingual students is growing. Coupled with culturally responsive teaching, targeted instruction is pivotal to promoting positive academic outcomes for these students.

When instruction is adapted to suit the linguistic needs of emergent bilinguals — and simultaneously acknowledges their cultural heritage — individual academic engagement and performance both improve significantly. 

By using explicit vocabulary instruction, for instance, teachers can help students move beyond simply encountering words in texts and instead unpack the meaning of those words, build connections with the vocabulary and promote reading mastery. 

Thinking beyond academics

Going beyond academics, teachers have to address the complete development needs of emergent bilingual students, whose growth will be closely linked to their social and emotional development. One effective approach is to adopt holistic, student-centered teaching models that cater to cognitive, linguistic, social and emotional developmental needs. Group activities that require collaboration and negotiation in English, for example, will encourage linguistic development and social and emotional learning and help students be more successful in the classroom. 

5 good starting points 

Here are five steps teachers can use to create a more positive, nurturing learning environment for emergent bilingual students in their classrooms.

  1. Create a culture centered around appreciation.  A teacher might start each academic year with a language map project. Let students create a visual representation of the languages they speak, use or are connected to in some way, recognizing their language diversity as a strength and an asset. This encourages a culture of respect and appreciation for the diverse languages and cultures in the classroom. It also establishes a positive, affirming learning environment. Teachers should ensure all instructional materials are accessible to ELs and also provide the translations, visual aids or glossaries that support understanding.
  2. Avoid the one-size-fits-all teaching approach. We all know that the broad-brush approach to teaching a classroom of students is ineffective, and it definitely doesn’t work with emerging bilinguals who require a differentiated approach. Teachers can offer students different ways to demonstrate their understanding, which caters to the diverse linguistic abilities in the classroom. This is one of many differentiated strategies that support emergent bilinguals and multilingual learners in their language and literacy development journeys.
  3. Let students use their home language for specific activities. This can be seamlessly integrated into the science of reading-based instruction like Lexia offers to enhance comprehension and engagement. These strategies align with the asset-based approach by affirming and leveraging student linguistic resources and fostering an inclusive learning environment. Professional development programs that offer training in culturally responsive pedagogy and the science of reading go a long way in equipping teachers with the strategies and resources they need for effective instruction.
  4. Choose diverse materials for your students. Make sure the texts used in class reflect the diversity of the classroom population. Regularly review and select texts that represent diverse student backgrounds and use tools like teacher professional development to ensure the best possible texts — factoring in culture, language and representation — are available to help students see themselves and their experiences reflected in what they read. Incorporating these texts into the curriculum can make learning more relatable and engaging for students while also promoting literacy development and cultural understanding.  
  5. Implement a holistic approach for best success. The asset-based instructional approach, which emphasizes and builds upon students’ existing strengths, cultural backgrounds and experiences, bolsters educational equity for emergent bilinguals. It also serves as a catalyst in recognizing these students’ latent strengths and capacities by promoting a shift away from a narrow deficit perspective. Paired with the science of reading, the asset-based instructional approach creates a robust educational framework that factors in the distinctive learning needs of emergent bilinguals.  

A sense of belonging and inclusion

When teaching the burgeoning population of emergent bilinguals, teachers should also brace themselves for potential challenges, such as confusion or misunderstanding on the students’ part. Thoughtful pedagogical strategies will go a long way in helping teachers effectively navigate these issues. They should also provide constructive feedback and reinforcement to students who are navigating multiple languages, knowing that a classroom that respects and celebrates diversity ultimately promotes a sense of belonging and inclusion for all learners.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 



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