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From SLIFE to ALL: Meeting a Wide Range of Multilingual Learner Needs in the EL and DL Classroom

The role and positive impact that teachers can have when working with multilingual learners is immense!


I vividly recall my own experience of moving permanently to the US from Caracas, Venezuela in elementary school. I arrived mid-day, at the lunch hour, and was sent to the cafeteria. The clang of the lunchroom sounds, the line that snaked around the gym as students waited for food . . . all I saw and heard felt unfamiliar. I got my tray and sat at a table. I tried to move the stool, but found it bolted down. I felt hot tears starting to form, but looked up and saw a reassuring smile from one of the teachers. It made a difference in my day, and I went on to try to offer that reassurance to students throughout my career as an educator and author.


Whatever their backgrounds, all students have their own stories, diverse situations and, most importantly, many assets and abilities to be capitalized upon as they transition or re-orient to a new setting. Those who have experienced trauma—particularly if they have had exposure to war, conflict, or severe distress—may feel overwhelmed by a new environment and new language. School can be frustrating because students are accustomed to different ways of learning. Expectations and academic behaviors may be different. Consequently, they may experience cultural dissonance, with feelings of alienation and confusion.


In a dual-language classroom, there is also a range of linguistic needs as we work to meet students where they are. We must make real-time decisions about adjustments to provide inclusive access. Managing this range can be hard. That is why a strong curriculum that assists with differentiation, along with the willingness to try various strategies, is key.


Tips and Strategies

  • At the beginning of any unit activity, take time to build background knowledge before delving into the content. Capitalize on opportunities to address the knowledge that students with limited or interrupted formal education (SLIFE) and all MLs possess, so they can be seen by peers as equally resourceful and resilient members of the classroom community.
  • Consider the affective realm. Offer reassurance and create steady routines. Watch for emotional triggers and have an alternate or modified assignment or space available. Gather or make additional resources such as visuals or manipulatives to create concrete, visible, and accessible paths to activities and assignments.
  • Multilingual learners in a dual-language classroom may need an added reteach or clarification, or more information after whole group instruction. Have students work in cross-proficiency groups or pairs (where one student has a higher level of language proficiency). There may be a need for multiple groups doing work that is adjusted, but is parallel and simultaneous.
  • Remember that, as MLs progress through the stages of language acquisition, the process is not typically linear, not only in terms of language domains, but also in terms of the time spent moving through the levels. Allow room for flexibility, both for your students and for yourself, as you work together to discover the tools and strategies that work best to meet those diverse learning needs.


Most importantly, remember that as educators, we can provide that steady space through the rituals and routines of our curriculum and classrooms. We can foster a sense of belonging, as well as a strong academic identity!


If you’re looking for a curriculum for newcomers in your EL or DL classroom, look into Get Ready!, which includes differentiated supports within and across the units. One of the best things about the curriculum is that it goes both low enough (for survival language) and high enough (moving into academic content straight away). Teachers using effective curriculum like Get Ready! for elementary and Get Ready! for middle and high school will find a wide range of valuable strategies to both scaffold and amplify instruction to meet diverse student needs.


By Jenni Trujillo


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