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From Can’t to Can: Supporting Multilingual Learners

Author: Neely Potts


Think back to a time when someone told you that you couldn’t do something. Maybe it was a time in school where you were told you couldn’t take a higher level class, you would make the sports team you wanted, or you wouldn’t be able to complete a challenging assignment. You might have felt discouraged, upset, or defeated. Now, let’s think about a time in school when a teacher or coach encouraged you to have the confidence to complete a challenging or difficult task or assignment. We can all think back to a time when someone either discouraged us by telling us what we can’t do or motivated us to do something they believe we can do.

I still cherish the memory of helping my senior year English teacher, Mr. Walker, complete a writing assignment as part of his National Board certification process. He invested time into my writing and challenged me to continue writing despite my insecurities. I felt seen, important, and that I would write at a level which would help me succeed in college. We can use this same kind of strategy in working with our MLs by focusing on what they can do: complete a writing assignment, participate in discussion, etc.

Teachers need to give encouragement & praise for what ELLs can do instead of dwelling on what they can’t yet do… (Judie Haynes, Education Week).

Multilingual learners bring a variety of experiences to our schools and classrooms, including diverse cultural backgrounds, global perspectives, interests and passions, and abilities to make connections with language and culture. So what would it look like if we shifted from a mindset of can’t to can in order to allow our MLs and their experiences to create a rich school and classroom environment?

Below are 5 ways school administrators and teachers are able to support what MLs can do in their schools and classrooms in order to create a school culture that embraces what ML students can do:

1. Build relationships and create connections with multilingual learner students and families

While this may sound simple, building relationships with multilingual learners is essential to helping them feel comfortable in our schools and in the classroom. When students feel valued and supported and that school is a place that is safe and inviting, they are able to then learn. Coming to a new school or even a new country can be overwhelming, especially for students navigating the task of learning a new language. By building relationships, we help ML students see they are valuable members of the school and classroom community and that their language and culture contribute to the classroom learning environment. Creating connections with families can help bridge the gap between home and school. By doing so, we can help navigate what may be an unfamiliar school culture and environment. Building relationships creates space for trust, and this trust will help build confidence in our students to help them see and know what they can do. One way to build relationships with MLs and their families is by communication with families about important school events and the progress of their students. Programs such as Remind and Language Language allow you to message parents in and have it translated into their native language. They can reply to the message and it will be translated back into English.

Building relationships with your students is the foundational component of successful teaching (Sean McWherter, Education Week).

2. Create a welcoming school and classroom environment

A welcoming classroom environment can help ML students feel they are a part of the community at any time throughout the year. MLs may join your classroom at the beginning, middle, or end of the school year.. Check out these tips to help Multilingual Learner students feel they are a part of the classroom.

3. Familiarize yourself with the WIDA levels of language proficiency

By familiarizing yourself with the different stages of language proficiency, you can begin to understand what students can do at each level. You can find each ML student’s WIDA Access composite score on the Individualized Language Acquisition Plan (ILAP). MLs are screened upon entering a WIDA state and take the WIDA Access test each year to assess their level of language acquisition. Use the WIDA performance definitions for listening and reading as well as speaking and writing. Each student gets a composite score that averages each individual score. By understanding this, you can pinpoint strengths and areas of growth for our ML students.

4. Use the WIDA Can do Descriptors to discover what your ML students can do at each level of language proficiency

The WIDA Can Do descriptors provide a framework for what ML students can do in the classroom. By using this name chart, you can write the name of each ML student in your class on the chart next to corresponding language proficiency level.

5. Implement consistent classroom routines

Implementing classroom routines builds confidence in students, and can aid in lowering the affective filter for MLs. Routines establish daily classroom expectations and allow students to feel comfortable knowing what they should expect each day when they walk into the classroom. This is especially important for MLs as it lowers stress and encourages them to take risks in learning a new language. When students know what and how they are expected to carry out classroom routines, we can then focus on what students can do in regards to learning in the classroom.

Once again, think back to the moment when someone encouraged you to complete that challenging task, assignment, or skill. How did you feel? By being told what you could do, did you gain the confidence to complete that task, assignment, or skill? Now, you get to be the one to focus on what someone else CAN do. You get to be the one to shift from can’t to can for ML student success in your schools and in the classroom.

By shifting from can’t to can, you have the opportunity to be a Mr. Walker for your students. May you embrace the can-do mindset to best support the MLs in your schools and classrooms.

Additional Resources for supporting multilingual learners

About the Author:

Neely Potts is a high school ESOL teacher at Nation Ford High School in Fort Mill, SC. At Nation Ford she supports administrators, teachers, and students on strategies to best support Multilingual Learners. Connect with Neely on twitter @neely_potts or through email




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