I Have a New Multilingual Learner. What Do I Do? A Step-By-Step Guide

by Valentina Gonzalez 

The quality and quantity of preservice instruction in teaching multilingual learners vary, leaving many teachers feeling inadequately prepared. And even those who did receive some training may have never had practical experience applying what they learned. 

Well-intentioned teachers with their hearts in the right place are often left feeling overwhelmed as they think about how to best give newly arrived multilingual learners all they need to succeed. 

This step-by-step guide offers tips for teachers preparing to welcome newly arrived multilingual learners in all grade levels. 

The Days Before a New Multilingual Learner Arrives

  1. Learn as much as possible about the new student, including everything from academic information to language and family background. This investment is useful in creating culturally inclusive instruction. 
  2. Prepare a space for the new student. Knowing ahead of time that a new student is joining the class provides time for thoughtful consideration about where the child should sit and who might be a good buddy to sit near. If the rest of the class has nameplates on their desks, prepare one for your new student (but don’t write the name on it just yet…save this for the first day, when you ask the student what they prefer to be called). This step also includes letting the class know about the upcoming arrival of the new classmate. 
  3. Gather resources that the new student will need. Aside from common textbooks for core classes, ensure that the child also has access to a bilingual dictionary and other linguistic supports they may need. Some teachers also provide newly arrived students with a few school T-shirts and other essential supplies. 

The Newly Arrived Multilingual Learner’s First Day

  1. The first day can be intimidating for a new student, especially one who may not speak the language of instruction. Smile. Just smile. Body language speaks volumes even when we can’t communicate using the same spoken language. 
  2. Ask the student (or caregivers) what they prefer to be called. Learn how to pronounce the student’s name. Names are special to us, yet some students may go for hours or days without hearing their names. We can demonstrate honor and respect by using a student’s name and by making an effort to pronounce their name correctly.    
  3. Cultivate a welcoming classroom environment. Reflect on environments that make you feel welcome (especially in circumstances that are new to you). What elements can be applied in the classroom? Keep in mind that each newly arrived multilingual learner joins your classroom, school, community, etc., for a different reason. Some may go through stages of culture shock. 

The Newly Arrived ML’s First Week & Beyond

  1. Sit next to the student and learn. Sitting next to a child as they talk, read, or write allows us to gather information. This information is useful to form next steps for instruction. If the student reads in their native language, listen to them. We can learn a lot about a child’s literacy by hearing them read in their L1 (first language). 
  2. Learn a few words in the student’s native language. The simple gesture of learning a few words, such as hello, thank you, good-bye, etc., can send positive and affirming messages to the new student. This act also communicates to every student that all languages are valued and welcome. 
  3. Label the classroom. Adding word labels to the classroom helps newly arrived students begin to attach vocabulary to the things in their surroundings. Labeling the classroom is not limited to English words—we can also invite students create labels using their native languages. We can chorally read and play games with the words as we label. For example, you might say, “I’m thinking of a word with the letter ‘A’ in it,” or point to a word that has the sound “ch.” 
  4. Encourage choral reading as often as possible. We can promote the rapid acquisition of language and literacy by providing multiple opportunities for students to participate in choral reading or echo reading even in secondary classrooms. Newly arrived multilingual learners will join classrooms with various levels of English proficiency and varied levels of native language proficiency. Choral or echo reading provides multilingual learners chances to listen and participate in grade-level reading with peers. 
  5. Include all stakeholders. Our students are our students, and the more we collaborate to support one another in their success, the more successful they will be. Introduce the new student to key staff members (librarians, cafeteria staff, nurses, specialty teachers, etc.) and work together to create a place and space for the child to feel welcomed and included. 

Additional Advice for Mainstream Teachers Supporting MLs

  1. Keep an assets-based mindset. Remember that neither limited English proficiency nor limited educational opportunity equate to limited intelligence. Holding an assets-based mindset means we see students from the perspective of what they can do and what they bring to the table rather than what they lack. Knowledge and intelligence are two different things, and providing opportunities for students to learn and explore allows multilingual learners to show us what assets they bring and where their strengths lie.
  2. It’s common to hear that there is too much content and curriculum to cover and not enough time. Educators frequently express concerns about feeling overwhelmed and under supported. Many describe themselves as left with the urgency of just delivering instruction and needing more time to provide extra support for multilingual learners. Yet Dr. Carol Salva reminds us, “Language acquisition strategies are not one more thing. They are the thing.” This helps us understand that slowing down and providing access to multilingual learners will benefit all learners.  
  3. Language acquisition is complex and takes time. It is not linear. They will all make progress, but with the right conditions, students can make excellent progress. We can make content comprehensible and develop language simultaneously by delivering grade-level content to multilingual learners in accessible ways that amplify language. 
  4. “Keep content and amplify language.” I heard Dr. Okhee Lee say this once during a virtual conference for NY State TESOL. Rather than the old way of thinking about serving multilingual learners, which included watering down and simplifying the curriculum, Lee emphasizes the advancement of the curriculum. Acquiring a new language is not a deficit; it is an acceleration. We can scaffold up by increasing listening, speaking, reading, and writing in all content areas every day. 

In the end, we should remember the importance of high-quality first instruction and the power we have to make students feel valued and successful—and never forget that every day students are making gains.

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