What Does a Functional Model for Supporting our Multilingual Learners Actually Look Like?

This piece provides an answer to one of the most popular questions educators ask when teaching Multilingual learners: How do we best support them? The model discussed is a multifaceted approach that benefits students and teachers in the long run. 

I’d like to ask you to recall the experience and feeling of listening to a foreign language, whether from traveling to another country, watching a foreign film, or ordering off an authentic menu. In an attempt to understand, we typically use context clues or rely on our hope that it is conveniently translated to English. For our nearly 5 million Multilingual Learners across the country, however, this is a very different experience. 1

Every Student’s Story Matters

When I advocate for our multilingual learners, I refer to not only the research and experience I’ve acquired through continuous professional development while teaching at East Kentwood High School in Michigan as well as my own studies, but I pull from personal memories. In 2004, I was a 9-year-old immigrant with no background in English at a school where the only translation services included hoping my classmate would translate important directions into Spanish for me (I speak Portuguese).

Despite the initial struggle, I was fluently reading, writing, and speaking in English within two years. Teachers and support staff who took the time to pull me out of classes and practice saying the words rural and world with me 50 times over until I got it were one of the reasons I learned English as a second language so efficiently and accurately. The other reason was because I was exposed to the general education setting where I was expected to learn the same material as my peers and was held to the same standards, but was appropriately accommodated as needed.

This model is similar to what we already have at East Kentwood and many school districts across the country, but we’re not reaching every student’s needs like I know we can be.

When we hear our neighboring schools look to us as the role models for our EL program, instead of pride, I feel concerned because we have such a long way to go in terms of appropriately placing our students and supporting them.

In America, ten percent of U.S. public school students struggle with the English language, while just one percent of its teachers are qualified to instruct them. That means there’s just one ESL instructor for every 150 ESL students. Picture yourself as an elementary teacher in a room responsible for 150 students, let alone a room full of students who can’t fully understand your instructions. At East Kentwood, we have over 600 Multilingual learners of all different levels. But although our general EL population numbers are high, we do have EL certified teachers to support our 52 incoming juniors and 37 incoming seniors from self-contained classrooms that will now be in general education classrooms but with no support.

Checking a Box, Not Supporting Our Students

The U.S. Department of Education and Civil Rights Division has explicitly stated that “EL students are entitled to EL programs with sufficient resources to ensure the programs are effectively implemented, including highly qualified teachers, support staff, and appropriate instructional materials.” What this actually looks like is complex and unique to each district and the needs of their multilingual learners. Just because it is also stated that “school districts must have qualified EL teachers, staff, and administrators to effectively implement their EL program, and must provide supplemental training when necessary,” does not mean these accommodations and support systems are appropriately implemented for every child to succeed.

In 2017, nationally, only five percent of our multilingual learners were proficient in reading in grade 8, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The highest state percentage was Michigan, but still with only eight percent of Multilingual learners proficient in reading. While a standardized test score doesn’t tell us everything about a child, this is an alarming statistic that tells us so much about our students who are entering high school in dire need of support in order to succeed at their grade level.

The Model that Works

This is where I ask you to look at the research and consider this Data-Informed Collaborative Planning model that does what our students like 9-year-old me need it to do. This model does two things: it allows for a certified ESL teacher to directly support students in a general education classroom and it leaves the general education teacher with accommodated materials as well as strategies to apply to their future teaching. The launch of this model is also easily implementable. We will place students appropriately in classes based on various factors such as their WIDA scores, MAP reading scores, and previous teacher input. We will place an EL certified teacher like myself in the room to directly assist not only the students but the general education teacher. This allows the teacher to end a semester with appropriately accommodated materials to use in the future when I am in a different classroom supporting another teacher and making a direct impact on our students’ learning.

While our future vision includes having every teacher be SIOP trained so we can assure that every educator has the tools and strategies to appropriately deliver content to our multilingual learners, this takes time. What we can start implementing as soon as this upcoming school year is the Data-Informed Collaborative Planning model, which does not require any additional hiring or added costs for support. Instead, it utilizes the professional skills of your teachers in an efficient manner that has a long-lasting impact on our students’ learning and our educators’ pedagogy.

Implementing this model is the key to ensure Multilingual Learners truly receive the equitable education that our country knows they deserve.

So, remember the feeling of trying to order in a different language or understand a foreign conversation, and consider how this is five million students’ reality for eight hours a day, every day. Each child has unique needs, but they all have the right to an equitable education. It’s time to provide our Multilingual Learners education that enrichens their learning and the support they need to succeed.

1 Our Nation’s English Learners

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Amy Asadoorian
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