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Classroom, Reading, or English Language Teacher: Who Should Teach Multilingual Learners to Read?

Updated: Apr 28, 2022

While the number of English language learners enrolled in US schools are increasing rapidly, many educators feel unprepared to teach them.

This is especially true at the elementary level, where we spend a ton of instructional time on teaching students to read and write. For multilingual learners (MLs), this learning is an essential piece of achieving English proficiency.

But who is ultimately responsible for ensuring MLs become skilled readers and writers? Is it the classroom teacher who works to address the diverse needs in one classroom? Is it the reading specialist with expertise in literacy? Or is it the English language teacher with their knowledge of second language development?

Who should teach literacy to multilingual learners?

The truth is, any teacher with a ML on their roster is responsible for building both language and literacy. It's a huge job! We must help our students learn grade-level content and become readers and writers. What's more, we must accomplish these goals in a language that students are still developing.

Under the Response to Intervention (RtI) framework, English as an Additional Language (EAL) services are considered part of the core curriculum. That means that MLs are entitled to language support in their regular classroom and in any small-group or individual interventions.

At the Tier 1 level, classroom teachers provide the majority of a student's literacy instruction. But classroom teachers who have limited experience working with MLs may be unsure how to modify their instruction to meet the diverse language needs of their students. How do you help a newcomer understand a read-aloud? How can you assess their comprehension? How can you encourage participation? How much of your instruction are your MLs truly understanding?

In Tiers 2 and 3, reading specialists provide additional support for students as they learn to read and write. They may wonder how their instruction should change when working with a student who is still developing English. Are any of the errors a ML makes a result of language development, and not a problem with literacy development? How can we evaluate reading comprehension if a student is not yet speaking or writing very much? How can we prepare them to read grade-level texts while they are still learning English? Is it even appropriate to provide literacy intervention for language learners, or should we wait until their oral English skills have time to develop?

English as an Additional Language (EAL) teachers can (and should!) provide support for MLs throughout the RtI tiers. But the truth is, graduate programs for Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) do not focus on early literacy. While we often know how to scaffold comprehension, boost oral language development, and build vocabulary when discussing books, most of us have not received enough training about how children learn to unlock the written code. How do we help MLs develop concepts about print, especially when these concepts may be different in English than in the students' first languages? How do we teach letter sounds and sight words and help MLs understand why they need to know them? How much of our instructional time should be devoted to literacy? How can we use reading and writing instruction to help develop English language proficiency? And what about students who have strong oral English, but aren't able to exit the ENL program because of low literacy skills?

How can all educators support multilingual learners in literacy?

Our students deserve high-quality instruction that integrates best practices from the fields of literacy and English language development. As teachers, we can only provide this instruction when we develop expertise in both fields.

Here at Away We Go, we believe that teachers who are empowered go on to empower their students. And as the saying goes: knowledge is power! Our hope with this blog is to share the knowledge you need to make a difference for your students as they learn to speak, read, and write in English.

Early literacy for multilingual learners is a true passion for us. While we began our teaching careers as EAL teachers, we have since completed specialized training and earned additional degrees in leadership and in literacy. Whether the students in front of us are newcomers, long-term MLs, or on the cusp of exiting the EAL program, we believe they are best served by teachers who are informed about literacy development and language acquisition.

Through this blog, we offer a framework for approaching early literacy instruction for MLs. With training in both fields, we share what you need to know about second language acquisition to support your MLs on their journey toward English proficiency. On the flip side, we suggest best practices in literacy to support your MLs who are beginning to read and write in English.

Bringing together best practices across disciplines allows us to navigate the complexity of the job we have as teachers of elementary MLs. We're excited to make those connections with you for the benefit of our students!

We'd love to know: What questions do you have about teaching literacy to MLs? What has been most challenging for you? What have been your greatest wins? Leave us a comment below!

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