Supporting Multilingual Learners

With the start of a new term, many of us will be either beginning or continuing to work with learners who are new arrivals and speakers or learners of English as an Additional Languages (EAL). In this month’s blog, I’ll share some simple classroom strategies to consider for supporting Multilingual Learners and some ideas on how we can engage with learners’ languages and cultures as part of our wider learning and ethos.

Multilingual Learners 

I’ve used the term Multilingual Learners as, for me, it leads with children and young people’s skillsets and capabilities. I also prefer multilingual to bilingual as it recognises that this is increasingly the norm and also includes the languages which we have some proficiency in and/or are learning.

In a world increasingly globalized, multilingualism is becoming the norm rather than the exception.

(Atchoarena, 2020)

As part of a project I took part in several years ago, I met with and interviewed a group of young people in a high school in Edinburgh. This particular school was in an area of high deprivation however, it was also hugely culturally and linguistically diverse. Interviewing these young people was a fascinating experience and a great reminder of the rich range of languages spoken by our learners. Several of them spoke 3 or 4 languages including Malay, Thai, Cantonese, Catalan and Farsi. These languages reflected their different cultural and linguistic experiences growing up, going to school and living in different countries around the world. Interestingly, in addition to their home or heritage languages, this group also automatically included the languages they were learning (such as French, Spanish and Mandarin) when talking about their language skills. Their shared perspective was that their school-based language learning was an enrichment of their other language skills, and they valued this additional learning. They talked about how they had applied their language learning strategies in the classroom and understood the resilience required to comfortably make mistakes as you learn. These young people saw their multilingualism as an asset and a set of life skills to be proud of. This was music to my ears and spoke to everything we were looking to promote with language learning generally. However, it also made me question whether in my own practice, I’d fully recognised and engaged with the languages, skillset, aspirations and cultures of my own learners.

Learning English is obviously a key and critical priority for learners who need the language to access the curriculum and integrate into life in a new country. However, it is also important to consider what our learners can teach us. What can we learn about what it means to be a new arrival to a country, to learn new languages and to operate multilingually in all aspects of life. How can this inform how we support children and young people as they navigate new languages and cultures, often in highly challenging circumstances? What does it teach us about our attitude to language learning generally? What can we do to encourage and promote multilingual mindsets for all learners? Perhaps by thinking of multilingualism as an aspiration for us all, we can help to shift and reshape what we think we are all capable of linguistically, socially and economically.

Simple classroom strategies

Apologies if some of the following advice seems obvious and I hope it isn’t patronizing to professionals who will have many of their own approaches and methodology based on years of experience! Hopefully though, it is a useful summary of things to consider when planning for supporting young multilingual learners.

  • Seat learners near the teacher and with others who are both supportive and good language role models. This could be another pupil who speaks the same language, other EAL learners (who can relate to the experience and know what might be helpful) or English L1 (language one) learners. Either way, it’s a great leadership opportunity for these learners as well and can also help shape how they think about their own language use.
  • Consider your body language. Does this help to promote engagement for leaners who might be looking for additional visual cues?
  • Use visual aids and gestures to support understanding. Gestures are particularly useful as they can be a more personal form of communication, are often funny and you can reuse them repeatedly and easily. They are also much easier for the teacher in terms of workload!
  • Check for understanding regularly. Simple gestures like thumbs up and smiling can go a long way to helping someone feel included and heard.
  • Use synonyms. Repeating words with synonyms is useful in forming links. You can maybe do this by including other learners (e.g. a synonym challenge) to see how many they can come up with as new words and phrases are introduced.
  • Word of the day or week. This can be something as simple as using please and thank you. Having a whole class focus helps to reinforce new langauge and creates a shared experience around its use. Give learners feelings cards with emoji pictures to help them express themselves. Always consider, however, about how you convey meaning in different cultures. Something which is obvious to us (e.g. question marks) are not universally used or understood across cultures and languages. If a learner points to a card, repeat the accompanying phrase back to them with a gesture e.g. You don’t understand?
  • It’s important to allow children to talk in their own time and not to force the process. The “silent phase” where you listen and absorb new language is a critical part of the learning process. I certainly experienced this when I was living in France and learning French. It can take a while to formulate a sentence in your head and is often too late before the conversation moves on! By listening though, you are absorbing all the language around you and will talk in your own time.
  • Use simple verb and noun constructions for instructions, accompanied by gestures. This simplifies language and creates space to focus on key verbs and nouns e.g. Open the window, sit on the floor etc.
  • Encourage talking by repeating incorrect language back to learners in the correct form. This is a technique used by parents with children, almost innately. For example, if a child asks for a pencil and just says, “pencil” then you would reply, “Ah ok, you would like a pencil? No problem!”. This is probably something you are doing already, and models the correct construction in a positive and encouraging way.
  • Use song and melody with key phrases. I love using rhythm, song and music to link to new language as it’s a really powerful way of supporting retention. This could include, for example, songs at the start and end of the day, songs linked to routines (e.g. tidying up) or melody/rhythm with key phrases e.g. 1, 2, 3, look at me.
  • Play-based approaches.  Play creates opportunities for  social interactions and communication which are spontaneous,  authentic and lower stakes than whole class, task-based activities.  During these activities, it’s worth monitoring interactions to see how learners are communicating and interacting.
  • Lastly, don’t skip on the wider language learning! This is really key as it’s a fantastic leveller and provides a context for everyone learning new language together. It can be a chance for EAL learners to shine as well so make sure they are fully included.

Engaging with multilingualism

Increasingly, research is highlighting the importance of own language use as part of learning. According to the National Framework for Languages:

In situations where children can use all the languages in their linguistic repertoire (translanguaging) links are created between the different social, cultural, community and linguistic domains of their lives. This creates a rich, inclusive learning environment with multiple perspectives that allow a child’s experiences to be meaningfully integrated into the classroom.

(National Framework for Languages, 2017)

Some approaches which might support own language use include:

  • Working with other speakers of the same language(s). This might include shared second or third languages so it’s important to have a good knowledge of the different languages spoken by your learners.
  • Using translation tools such as our Ukrainian and Russian language packs, Google translate or translation apps such as Microsoft Translator. These are particularly useful for children who are new arrivals however, be careful of creating dependency on their use!
  • Using support resources such as bilingual dictionaries. There are fantastic online example of these now such as

Lastly, here are some other examples of intercultural engagement activities. This is taken from the TILES toolkit which you can find out more about here.

  • Intercultural events e.g. bring a dish events for families, language sharing events
  • Cultural festivals and celebrations e.g. celebrating religious festivals
  • Linking creativity and multilingualism through multilingual storytelling, art activities, poetry, songs, and rhymes
  • Mapping your school or class languages e.g. Surveying class members and/or their family members to map out languages spoken
  • Celebrating national / international languages days and eventse.g. European Day of Languages, Languages week Scotland, International Mother Tongue Day and the World Day for Cultural Diversity

Additionally, practitioners can use a range of strategies to encourage the use of learners’ languages and cultures in schools and classrooms. For example:

  • Encouraging reading in learners’ home languages by making books available in these languages
  • Inviting families into the class to read stories aloud and share aspects of language and culture
  • Singing songs in the languages of our learners
  • Sharing in, and celebrating, cultural traditions
  • Teachers modelling language learning and engagement e.g. by teachers recognising learners’ home languages positively
  • Developing opportunities to reference and use learners’ languages throughout learning

(TILES, 2021)