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Building a Language, Literacy, and Learning Profile for your Multilingual Students

In this article:

Why build a Language, Literacy, and Learning Profile?

Area of Assessment #1: First Language Proficiency

Area of Assessment #2: English Language Proficiency

Area of Assessment #3: Literacy Experiences

Area of Assessment #4: Cultural Background

Area of Assessment #5: Educational History


As educators, we recognize the importance of getting to know our students on multiple levels. Without knowledge about what students can do and how their backgrounds inform their learning profiles, it may be challenging to move forward in our instructional planning and delivery.

An important first step in designing effective instruction is understanding who our students are–as English learners, as new readers, and as individuals with rich cultural backgrounds, experiences, and interests. At Away We Go, we recommend building a Language, Literacy, and Learning Profile for each of your students.

Why build a Language, Literacy, and Learning Profile?

When used strategically, assessments help us create a comprehensive picture of students' strengths and areas for improvement. When we take the time to get to know our students, we can tailor our teaching to build on their current knowledge, language, and understandings. No two learners are exactly alike–using assessment to guide our instructional choices ensures that we are responsive to the unique learners in our classrooms.

We know that English Learners typically fall into four distinct language profiles. But these profiles are only a starting point. Our students have each taken different paths to find themselves in our classrooms, and they have different strengths, experiences, and beliefs that affect their learning.

Understanding your multilingual students' English learner profiles is just the start . . . build a comprehensive Language, Literacy, and Learning Profile to get to gain a deeper understanding of your students' unique strengths and experiences!

Building a Language, Literacy, and Learning profile for your multilingual students provides us with a comprehensive portfolio of our students' individual strengths, knowledge, and experiences. Below, we offer five areas for assessment that will help you get to know your multilingual learners!

Area of Assessment #1: First Language Proficiency

Understanding the way our students use their first language is a crucial starting point for getting to know our English learners. A student’s first language is an incredible asset when acquiring additional languages. It provides a foundation of phonological awareness, syntax, and conceptual knowledge that can be transferred to new languages. As educators, we can leverage a student’s first language to facilitate English learning. It starts with getting an accurate picture of our students’ first language proficiency.

What’s more, showing a genuine interest in a student’s first language signals our appreciation of a student’s linguistic and cultural identity, laying the groundwork for a supportive and inclusive learning environment.

But often, teachers aren’t proficient in a student’s first language. This can make it challenging to assess their skills in that language! Luckily, there are several ways that educators can gain more information about how a student uses their first language, even if they don’t speak the language themselves.

Here are some ideas for gathering information about your students’ experiences with their first language:

Bilingual Staff or Community Members

If possible, involve an adult who is fluent in the student’s first language. They can assist in assessing the student’s language skills more accurately. They may also be able to help gather information from the family in the language they’re most comfortable using.

Family Input

Invite families to share their thoughts about their child’s first language use. Arrange for a translator or bilingual community member when needed–you want families to be able to share their observations without difficulty if their English is not fully proficient.

Here are some questions to ask:

  • What language does your child use to speak with you? With other family members? With friends?

  • Do you have books, magazines, or other reading material in your child’s first language at home? How often does your child read or listen to them?

  • Does your child draw, write, or tell stories in their first language at home? Can you share some examples?

  • Does your child read books with you, talk about stories, or read them on their own?

  • When your child has difficulty, how do they react? Do they ask for help or try to solve it on their own?

Language Portfolios

Encourage students to create language portfolios showcasing their work in their first language. Their portfolios can include writing samples, drawings, or recordings. Seeing what a student can do in their first language will give you a good sense of their strengths, allowing you to build on them in your English instruction. Multilingual learners can sometimes feel that their intelligence isn’t recognized because their English language skills are still developing. Expressing genuine interest in the work that they’ve done in their first language sends a clear message that we acknowledge and appreciate their unique thoughts and accomplishments.

Observations with Family and Peers

Observe the student’s interactions with their families, and any peers who share a first language. Although you may not understand the language, you can still note their engagement, communication style, and nonverbal cues.

Area of Assessment #2: English Language Proficiency

We also want to gather information about a student’s English language abilities. Language acquisition is a dynamic process–accurate assessment of a student’s ability to comprehend and express themselves in English is essential for crafting instruction that aligns with their current language skills.

Here are some tools for gathering information about your students’ English language abilities:

Informal Conversations

Engage students in conversation about everyday topics. Keep it relaxed and casual, but note the student’s vocabulary, sentence structure, and overall fluency. Talking with students can give us insight into their confidence in using spoken English and their ability to understand and express themselves in real time.

English Language Observations

Observe students’ language use during social interactions, academic discussions, group activities, and in other contexts across the day. Note the context, how much they say, how comfortable they look, the vocabulary and syntax they use, and how much they seem to understand.

English Language Proficiency Tests

To qualify for English Language Development support services, students must test into the program. Review the results from these tests to gain an objective measure of the student’s listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills in English.

Area of Assessment #3: Literacy Experiences

With K-2 English Learners, gaining insight into their exposure to reading and writing in their first language is invaluable. Understanding our students’ experiences with reading and writing in their first language gives us a starting point for building English literacy. To uncover your students’ literacy experiences, both in their first language and English, consider these tools:

Family Questionnaires

Ask families about their child’s experiences with reading, writing, and books.

Questions to ask include:

  • Which languages do the family mainly speak, read and write in at home?

  • Do they have reading routines at home?

  • Is there a home library or a tradition of visiting the public library?

  • Does their child enjoy listening to stories in their first language? In English?

Reading Samples

Conduct an oral reading assessment. Provide the student with a grade-level passage of text and ask them to read it aloud. Observe any behaviors the child demonstrates while reading. How does it impact their reading?

Questions to ask yourself include:

  • Does the student read accurately and with fluency?

  • How does the student approach the book? Do they move left-to-right and top-to-bottom?

  • Does the student pay attention to the text on the page, or do they invent the story based on the pictures?

  • Do they notice when they make mistakes?

  • How do they attempt to solve difficult words? Do they ask for help?

  • After reading, can they engage in a discussion that shows an understanding of what they read?

Writing Samples

Provide the student with time to write. Have some prompts prepared in case the student needs more structure.

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Does the student write fluently and confidently?

  • How does the student approach the page? Do they move left-to-right and top-to-bottom?

  • Does the student reread their writing as they compose?

  • Do they notice when they make mistakes?

  • How do they attempt to spell difficult words?

  • Are their thoughts organized and easy to follow?

  • If the student is not yet able to write, do they communicate meaning through drawings? Ask the student to tell you about what they drew, and capture the language they share with you.

  • Does the student write in their home language? Ask the student to tell you about what they wrote, and capture the English they use.

Kindergarten Narrative Unit Pre-Assesment

Phonics Assessments

Until recently, many schools waited to give reading assessments and instruction until ELs reached a certain level of oral English proficiency. We now know that while oral language acquisition is a natural process, learning to read is not. Becoming literate frequently requires explicit, systematic instruction in learning to decode written language.

While phonics assessments are an important piece in understanding a student’s decoding skills and word knowledge, it can be challenging to interpret the results with English Learners. Phonics is all about understanding the relationship between letters and sounds. For ELs, who know other languages as well, this relationship can be tricky.

Look for how students transfer their home language system to the English language, and keep in mind that phonics is only one piece of the puzzle.

Things to consider as you interpret your students' phonics assessments:

  • Which English sounds exist in the student’s first language? Which English sounds are new to the student?

  • Is the student already literate in another language? Which skills and knowledge are they able to apply to reading across languages? Which ones are not able to be transferred to English, and are causing confusion?

  • Are there consistent or repeated errors with specific phonemes or spelling patterns?

  • How does the student approach decoding? Do they attempt every word? Do they ask for help when they come to a difficult part?

  • Does the assessment use nonsense words or words the English Learner may not yet know? Could this contribute to decoding errors as the student tries to attach the word with its meaning?

Area of Assessment #4: Cultural Background

A student’s cultural background and experience has a profound impact on how they learn. The diversity in student’s cultures is a gift to us as educators and other students in our classrooms. It’s important to navigate learning about students’ cultures with respect and sensitivity, allowing families and students to share in the ways that are most comfortable for them.


Take some time to become familiar with where your students are from and components of their families' cultures. Keep in mind that culture is a lived experience and that not all students identify with every component of a particular culture. Connect with your ENL teacher, community members, and reliable sources of information to help you build an understanding of the diversity in your room.

Diverse Texts

Inviting students to think, talk, and interact with a text through reading aloud is a powerful way to build language and comprehension. But interactive read alouds offer more than educational benefits–they are a prime opportunity for assessment!

As students interact with the text and communicate their understanding, we gain insight into their reading habits, language comprehension, and thinking. And when we’re intentional about choosing texts that resonate with our students’ cultural identities, we are able to learn more about their stories.

Below are some of our favorite resources for finding diverse texts to with multilingual students . . . and English-only students, too!

Families and Community Members

If possible, open your doors to parents, family members and community members who represent your students’ cultures. Perhaps your students’ parents would like to read aloud to your class, lead your class in a shared experience, or teach on a certain topic. By learning alongside your students, you are demonstrating a respect, curiosity and appreciation for the diversity around you.

Area of Assessment #5: Educational History

Information regarding your students’ past schooling experiences is invaluable. Ask parents/guardians to share these experiences with you, if possible. Students who have had inconsistent schooling will differ from their peers, and it is important to note these interruptions, so as to frame the learning needs of each child through an assets-based lens. If you have access to your students’ prior schooling records, review them carefully to verify their language proficiency level, observations from their previous teachers, and any assessment information that is included. Keep in mind that students are growing from year to year–maintaining an assets-based lens is important.

Interests and Attitudes Survey

Create opportunities for students to communicate their interests and attitudes toward language and literacy based experiences. This could take on the form of hosting brief individual conferences or interviews with students, playing a game that provides you with this information, or even having students take a developmentally appropriate survey.

Questions to ask your student:

  • I like to read books about…

  • I like to write about….

  • Do you see yourself as a reader? Why?

  • Do you see yourself as a writer? Why?

  • When it’s time for reading, I am…

  • When it’s time for writing, I am…


We hope these suggestions are a helpful starting point for you as you build a comprehensive Language, Literacy, and Learning Profile for each of your ELs. Gathering information about our students’ first language skills, oral English abilities, literacy development, cultural backgrounds, and educational histories help us create a more complete picture of the strengths and opportunities for growth each student possesses. This is truly time well spent at the beginning of the year or whenever a new student joins your community of learners. With a clearer view of our students, we can become more effective guides on their educational journey and better advocates for the instruction they deserve in our classrooms and schools.

We’d love to hear: Which assessments do you use to get to know your multilingual students? Leave a comment below!

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