Cultivating Multilingual Reading Landscapes

by Valentina Gonzalez

For many years I taught on a campus with an ESL program. We served students from around the globe, and our program was well known for the success we had with multilingual children. Families literally sought out our school before signing a lease or purchasing a home, because they wanted to be sure their kids would be zoned to our campus. 

On our campus, we worked hard to be student-centered. Even though the majority of the teachers were monolingual, we nurtured a mindset that embraced students’ assets—all of them, not just their English assets. 

All literacy was valued. Since our students came to us from around the world, we were fortunate to learn from their lived experiences, backgrounds, and families. Each of them was unique. Building relationships with and among students allowed us to uncover their many gifts. Some of our students could speak, read, and write in multiple languages! Others heard another language at home. We used the languages and literacies our students brought to school as springboards toward new learning in our classrooms.  

The more we capitalized on students’ language and background knowledge, the more we realized the value of books. It was important that the books students had access to paralleled the “customers” who needed them. Our customers were our students, so we looked at our students and began to work toward aligning the literature we offered. This task was not always easy, and finding quality books in languages other than English was challenging. For this, we partnered with the school media specialist (a librarian). 

We wanted to provide access to books written in their native languages so students could connect with the characters and experiences within those books. This meant we needed books that students from around the world could see themselves in, or as Rudine Sims-Bishop calls them, books that are “mirrors.” This was equally challenging because many of the books that we already had seemed to represent our students. However, after careful analysis, we realized these books misrepresented cultures, were stereotypical, or lived at the surface level. We needed quality. 

Yet, books were not the only resource that had an effect on multilinguals’ success in our school. The multilingual reading landscape included the classroom walls, too. We took an audit of our classrooms and thought about what these spaces communicated, what they valued, and what was missing. Then, we created spaces that were uplifting, embraced and valued all learners, and cultivated a love for languages and literacies in several ways:

  • Displaying student work
  • Co-creating anchor charts
  • Including students’ spoken languages
  • Using images that included students’ cultures and lived experiences

Multilingual readers don’t leave their identities, their languages, or their cultures at home. These are powerful tools that we use to help students grow beautiful, healthy reading lives. Even in ESL programs, we can honor, affirm, and value students’ language and literacy. It may look and sound a bit different from bilingual programs, but we can do it! Kids should not have to shed their primary language when they walk into the classroom. All languages are assets! 

For more on reading and writing with multilingual learners, visit readingwritngels.com to check out Valentina Gonzalez & Melinda Miller’s bestselling book and additional resources.

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