Do Multilingual Learners Really Struggle with HOTS?

by Natalia Heckman

Multilingual Learners and HOTS

For quite a while, I’ve been wondering how to understand the statement I’ve often heard that “English learners struggle with critical thinking, analysis, and inferences.” Is it really true? Or is it possible that this idea might actually reflect deficit thinking? Could it be that it’s actually insulting to assume we have to teach multilingual students to think critically when, in fact, they already do? 

Multilingual learners juggle two language systems (quite a high-order thinking task!) and navigate multicultural spaces on a daily basis. Translanguaging requires not only building a mental map of complex linguistic systems but maneuvering between nuanced similarities and differences of both. So, why would MLs (as a group) struggle with HOTS more than any other students? 

MLs need opportunities to engage in higher-order thinking—not to be taught how to think.

Equating language proficiency with levels of cognitive processing results in deficiency models in education. A conversation about equity in schools cannot happen without addressing this deficit thinking about MLs. Boosting Achievement author Dr. Carol Salva often says, “Our English Learners are not deficient in cognition. Given the access to language, they can do anything.”  

Our job is not to teach MLs to think but to provide access to the content and language they need to succeed in tasks requiring high-order thinking.  

This quote (attributed to Sandra Gilbert) sums it up perfectly: “We may have an accent when we speak, but we don’t have an accent when we think.” 

Over two decades ago, as an undergraduate student and a newcomer in the United States, I didn’t need my professor to give me an assignment at the lower level of Bloom’s or teach me to make inferences. I needed basic scaffolds during lectures, such as slower pacing and less text on each slide. I couldn’t follow lectures or take notes fast enough in English, so I translated in my head what I could understand and then recorded the gist of it in my first language. At the same time, I would have felt discouraged if, upon hearing my accent or seeing me miss a question or two on a reading test, the professor immediately assumed that I struggled with higher-order thinking tasks.

When MLs are Struggling, HOTS Aren’t (Usually) the Problem.

Year after year, in my ELA classroom, I noticed that students who had a solid understanding of a concept or comprehension of a text in any language rarely struggled with HOTS. Most often, it was the lack of basic building blocks of knowledge, comprehension, or background that manifested itself as a “struggle with higher-order thinking questions.”  

My doubts regarding the effectiveness of focusing on teaching HOTS were validated by Dr. Rosenshine, renowned professor in the department of educational psychology at the University of Illinois, who stated that “higher-order thinking skills don’t help if you don’t have content knowledge. They simply don’t exist out of the content knowledge.” (You can watch the full-length recording here.) Several other scholars, including Natalie Wexler, have also written extensively on this topic. 

In addition, an assumption that multilingual learners need extra help with HOTS due to the linguistic challenges contradicts the skills transfer concept developed by Dr. Jim Cummin. According to Dr. Cummin’s research, academic skills and concept knowledge transcend languages (Morales, 2021).

What does that mean? Here’s an example. I’m a newcomer to your fifth-grade class. I understand how the water cycle works because I’ve learned about it in my home country, so I don’t need to relearn the concept in English. Furthermore, if you ask me a HOTS question, my ability to answer depends on two things: 

  • Having a solid understanding of a water cycle 
  • Having enough vocabulary/language structures to talk/write about the water cycle in English

The same applies to the students’ ability to find the main idea or make inferences in reading. 

A Race to the Top

Our passionate pursuit of HOTS (or our impression that we have to teach those as a set of separate skills) may sometimes prevent us from spending ample time doing things that matter, such as ensuring basic comprehension and building vocabulary. This trend affects all students, but English learners suffer the most. We’re conditioned to think that we have to race to the top of Bloom’s pyramid as fast as possible! However, I’ve observed that the faster you climb, the sooner you’ll fall.

I remember asking analysis and inference questions to a class of students, some of whom were ELs. They all had a very shaky understanding of the plot, but I wasn’t aware of that because I didn’t check first. Their response to my questions? Crickets. Students cannot analyze what they don’t understand. Basic comprehension is a must. 

Effective Critical Thinking Questions

Does this mean that I won’t ask critical thinking questions? Quite the opposite! “The key to intellectual development is the synergistic interplay between factual and conceptual level of thinking” (Pews, 2012). 

Multilingual learners can fully participate in the content-rich higher-order thinking tasks if provided with comprehensible input and opportunities for scaffolded output.

According to Seidlitz & Perryman, “To limit [ELs’] high potential for processing at this level—by avoiding questions that provide opportunities for clinical thinking—would merely serve to hold them back solely because of a perceived language barrier” (2021).  Here’s an excellent example of scaffolding the output during critical thinking tasks. 

In his book, Teaching Science to English Learners (2019), Dr. Stephen Fleenor also gives us a great example of checking for comprehension while encouraging students to think critically.  Dr. Fleener suggests turning closed-ended questions into open-ended questions. 

To sum up, very often, the inability to answer inference/analysis/critical thinking questions is caused not by a deficiency in HOTS but by the lack of comprehension (listening/reading) or by the lack of scaffolds during output (speaking/writing). Instead of planning a mini-lesson for MLs over HOTS, it might be advantageous to make sure that all students have solid background knowledge and access to the language of the content. 

And never should we ever make a blanket statement that “English learners struggle with HOTS.” They struggle with HOTS no more than any other students. 


Fleenor, S (2019) Teaching Science to English learners. Seidlitz Education 

Lovell, O  ERRR #034. Natalie Wexler on the knowledge gap 

Morales, P ( 2021) TExES ESL 154 Study Guide, Seidlitz Education. 

Plews, S.(2012) Content-Based Learning

Rosenshine B Youtube 

Seidlitz J., & Perryman, B. (2021) Seven steps to building an interactive classroom: Engaging all students in academic conversation. Seidlitz Education 

Six Stages of Blooms Revised Taxonomy,some%20verbs%20are%20appropriate%20at%20a%20particular%20level

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