There are countless reasons I love my job. I get to work with teachers across our board, to collaborate and co-plan for multilingual language learners. I get to exchange ideas with them, diverse teachers in diverse classrooms, adding new knowledge and strategies to my pedagogical arsenal every day. But there is one thing I cherish more than anything else in my role …
The sight of it makes me gleefully giddy.
The mere thought of it makes my spirits soar.
And the memory of it puts a little spring in my step as I jaunt down the hall to the next classroom …
(It happens quite a lot in our schools, I’m happy to say.)
Are you ready? Set? Here it is: I absolutely, positively, and unreservedly love it when I walk into a classroom and can’t find any multilingual language learners.
Let me explain.
It is not that I do not wish to see or welcome or teach MLLs — on the contrary! It is a joy and privilege unlike many others. What I mean is this: when I walk into a learning space where everyone has a way to access the lesson, where everyone is included in the learning, where there is a way for everyone to communicate and share their knowledge … well that’s just it, isn’t it? No one sticks out. Yes, I adore that moment when I knock on the door and enter, when I scan the room and see groups of busy students, or bustling conversations, or engaged expressions, or hands raised mid-lesson to offer ideas … and I see no one off to side or separate. No one relegated to an ESL workbook or learn-a-language app. No one staring uncomprehendingly. Instead, everyone is learning. Everyone is contributing. Everyone is a part of the classroom community.
Happily and joyfully, from my vantage spot at the door, I just cannot seem to find any MLLs.
Of course I am being a little tongue-in-cheek here but the issue is a critical one. Multilingual language learners spend most (if not all) of their time in the mainstream classroom. This is where the bulk of English acquisition takes place. This is where curriculum is learned. This is where community is. So how do we create lessons and learning environments that are accessible and inclusive to all students? How do classroom teachers ensure that MLLs are valued, contributing members of the class?
I have seen countless examples of this kind of inclusion over the years. Students writing proud autobiographies or sweeping tales, some in first language (L1), some in English, some in both; some with sentence starters and frames, some with assistive tech, some with pencil and paper. But everyone is writing their autobiography. Everyone is writing their fable. I have seen skilled teachers’ whole-class lessons on everything from fractions to water conservation to community helpers … with every student in the class attending to and accessing the main points of the lesson. Some by listening to the teacher speak, some by attending to the visuals the teacher points to, some by using strategic translation, some by using a combination of many different strategies. But everyone is learning. Everyone is included in the lesson.
When I was just starting out as a classroom teacher, I remember being overwhelmed at the prospect of creating this type of environment for multilingual language learners in my class. Where do I start? How can I possibly make my lessons accessible and understood by all, especially the students who are just beginning to acquire English? One resource I wish I’d had back then is Carol Salva’s strategies for classroom teachers with MLLs in their class. It is a short list of key ways facilitate the teaching of English and curriculum simultaneously. I have adapted this list a little bit to include first language and building schema, as well as a adding a few examples, but this is Salva’s list nearly verbatim:
- Activate / build prior knowledge before lessons (brainstorm with an L1 buddy, create a dual language dictionary of key terms, preview curriculum content in L1 before the lesson, participate in a real-life experience on the lesson topic, build schema from videos, etc).
- Chorally read something as a class every day (such as lesson goals, key vocabulary, sentence frames, etc).
- Have visuals you strategically point to throughout the lesson. The walls should be your co-teacher. Multilingual language learners will have a chance to learn that vocabulary at the same time as you are teaching your lesson.
- Have kids verbalize to internalize content every day. Sentence starters and a chance to practice privately go a long way. This way, MLLs can participate and contribute ideas in group work with their peers and practice English.
- Have students write at least one academic sentence in English per day. Writing in first language is beneficial as well — it helps maintain first language and clarify thoughts and plans before writing them in English.
As I read through the above, I am reminded that the strategies are good for everyone in the class, not just MLLs. Who does not benefit from choral reading and clarifying goals? From using sentence stems and starters to speak succinctly and clearly? From pointing to visuals during lessons for emphasis, interest, and attention?
For multilingual language learners, and others, creating inclusive lessons is a matter of social justice. MLLs need to learn curriculum as soon as they enter school, and build English through their curriculum explorations and tasks. While Salva’s list is by no means exhaustive, it is useful as a starting point in creating the kind of learning environment that everyone can access, regardless of their level of English proficiency.
And while the search to create inclusive classrooms is a never-ending journey of reflection and action, it is the best kind of quest: to ensure that we teach in a way that all students learn, and that all students have a place in the learning community.
Boosting Achievement by Carol Salva, 2017.